An Increase in Number of Appalachian Trail Hikers Leads Baxter State Park To Implement Registration Cards. Plus, Other Things NOBO Hikers Should Know.
A fitting end to one of the world’s most famous trails, Katahdin (5,267 feet) is Maine’s highest mountain and the centerpiece of Baxter State Park (BSP). Steep, tall and surrounded by forests, it’s also an icon for tens of thousands of aspiring Appalachian Trail (A.T.) thru hikers. It’s the northern-most 14 miles of the A.T. When NOBO or section hikers enter the Park at Abol Bridge, they’ve got just nine miles to the Katahdin Stream Campground, where a special campsite—the Birches—is set aside for up to 12 long-distance hikers (which happens to be the same number of hikers allowed to summit Katahdin at one time, as a group).
However, because of movies like “A Walk in the Woods” and “Wild” as well as increasing numbers of well-known athletes hiking the A.T., the number of thru and section hikers is growing fast, and the impact on Katahdin, the Park and its other users is being impacted, sometimes negatively. According to Tenny Webster,a trail information specialist at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, 2016 could be a banner year in terms of numbers of people summiting Katahdin.
“We’re waiting to see what happens this year,” Webster says. “We typically see about 10% growth in the number of thru and section hikers who summit Katahdin each year. But this year may be an anomaly. We’re potentially looking at even greater numbers.”
So what’s a State Park, that’s already very carefully managed for use, to do? For starters, they’ll begin implementing a registration system for thru hikers this year.
According to Park Director Jensen Bissell, the Park limits the number of daily visitors to Katahdin by the size of the three parking lots that service the trailheads to the mountain at Roaring Brook, Katahdin Stream and near Abol Bridge. On busy weekends, without a permit, you’ll have to hike elsewhere in the park. Appalachian Trail thru hikers, on the other hand, have so far only been limited by availability of campsites.
“There are times when the long distance hiker facility—The Birches—is full and hikers have to find space in the campground,” he says. But that happens infrequently. The bigger issue, he explains, is that the Park never planned for A.T. thru hikers, let alone the exponential growth in people finishing their NOBO or section hikes during the peak tourist season, from July through October 15.
“When I started working with the park 18 years ago, there were a few hundred thru hikers who came over the course of the summer,” Bissell says. “Now those numbers are surpassing 2000! We now have to begin to consider what we think would be consistent, equitable and fair management for thru hikers and other user groups.” The Park plans on implementing a registration system for thru hikers this year (2016), whereby they’ll be required to get a card before they enter the Park. Details are still being worked on in regards to where and when A.T. long-distance hikers can get a permit, but according to Bissell, hikers should be able to register at Park headquarters, at Togue Pond or with the BSP A.T. Trail Steward at Abol Bridge (please visit BSP’s Facebook page or website for updates on the registration process). And eventually, depending on growth and whether or not thru hikers adhere to the Park’s rules, Baxter State Park may have to cap the number of thru hikers who enter the Park on a given day.
Baxter State Park currently classifies thru hikers in four categories: southbound (SOBO) hikers, northbound (NOBO) hikers, section hikers and flip floppers. They have some concerns with SOBO hikers in regards to whether or not they are safely equipped to hike Katahdin or the 100-mile wilderness. “But SOBO hikers know the date they’re going to arrive at the park, so they just camp like any other user,” Bissell says. “It’s the first three categories we are concerned about.”
And says Tenny Webster, the way these groups of hikers use the Park is key to future access for Appalachian Trail hikers. The situation is unique in that when former Maine Governor Percival Baxter gifted the Park to Maine, he established several deeds of trust that determined how it would be managed.
“Baxter has a fixed capacity,” Webster says. “They are, in some ways, unprepared to deal with a rising group of users they didn’t account for when the Park was established. They’ve got rules, and if we want to keep using the Appalachian Trail in that Park, all hikers will have to abide by those rules, even if they don’t like them. We hope people think about the consequences of their actions and the people who want to hike it five years down the line.”
Bissell adds that the usage models of entities such as America’s National Parks and the ATC are for continued higher use levels. “But Baxter State Park, which is the terminus where much of the A.T. traffic is concentrated over a couple months, has always had a policy of limiting use in order to protect the sensitive vegetation and the visitor experience on Katahdin. It’s such a draw for so many people. We’re asking people to recognize they need to help us try to protect this mountain now so that thru hikers can have the same experience in 50 years that they have now. I’m pretty sure if we start doubling the use of Katahdin, it won’t be the same.”
Here are a few things long-distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail can do to ensure future access to Baxter State Park:
2) Call Baxter State Park in advance, as soon as you know the approximate date you will arrive and reserve a campground. You don’t need reservations for The Birches site at Katahdin Stream Campground, but it is first come, first served, and only 12 are allowed.
3) Do not enter the Park in groups larger than 12 people, period.
4) If campsites are unavailable, please find an alternative place to camp for the night outside of the Park.
5) Consider alternative itineraries other than starting at Springer Mountain and hiking north.
6) Respect the Park’s rules (i.e. do not bring alcohol or large film crews to the summit of Katahdin).
7) Adhere to Leave No Trace (LNT) guidelines and pack out all the stuff you’re packing in.
Visit the ATC’s website to find out more about how they’re preparing for an increasing number of thru hikers on the Appalachian Trail.
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