Fed up with packed trails and parking lots, small groups of people have begun to summit in the dark.
Fed up with packed trails and parking lots, small groups of people have begun to summit in the dark. (Photo: bjdlzx/iStock)

Want to Beat the Crowds? Hike at Night.

Fed up with packed trails and parking lots, small groups of people have begun to summit in the dark

Fed up with packed trails and parking lots, small groups of people have begun to summit in the dark.

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At the height of summer, the trailhead at the Adirondack Loj in Lake Placid, New York, sees an average of 2,000 hiking groups registered each week. At midnight, it’s deserted. The booth at the entrance is unmanned, relying on an honor-system envelope drop to collect the $12 parking fee. One summer night in the lodge and surrounding campsites, hikers were tucked into sleeping bags, resting up before or after a big trek. The previous day’s stragglers had long since made it to their cars, and the morning’s early birds wouldn’t be starting for a few more hours. But Sheena Tuthill and her obstacle-course-racing training partners Anne Farnan Herrick and Amanda Labbé were just setting off on a hike, keeping their voices low as they passed the sleeping campers.

The women met at a CrossFit gym and began night hiking as a way to change up their typical workouts and prepare for grueling 24-hour races in 2019. Others from their gym frequently join them for trail runs and hikes in the dark, but it was just the three of them that night. By the time they finished at noon, they had covered more than 15 miles and summited three mountains. As day hikers swarmed the trails, Tuthill and her friends were making the 100-mile journey home to the Albany area. Due to the travel time to and from Lake Placid, they’d been awake for 30-plus hours. If it sounds torturous, well, it is. “Coffee’s a must,” says Tuthill with a laugh. But she’s discovered she actually prefers hiking at night. “You don’t have the crazy-hectic trails full of a bunch of people. It’s just quiet and peaceful, and you get to experience the mountain itself,” she says.

Like many, Tuthill has her sights set on climbing all 46 of the Adirondack High Peaks. So far she’s hiked five at night and two during the day. If she finishes the remaining 39, she’ll qualify for membership to the storied 46ers club and receive the prized member’s patch. The feat, which was once relatively obscure, has gained popularity in recent years. Like many picturesque national and state parks, the High Peaks region is experiencing an influx of visitors. It took 77 years for the 46ers to admit the first 5,000 members. For the second 5,000, it took just 14. The #aspiring46er tag on Instagram shows 7,500 posts, and a Facebook group dedicated to hiking in the area has 24,000 members.

As interest in the 46er club grows, solitude is something that’s increasingly hard to find in the High Peaks. “Right now we have a fad of the 46 High Peaks, and those mountains get more traffic because of the challenge,” says Bethany Garretson, a professor of environmental studies at Paul Smith’s College, the only four-year institution inside Adirondack Park.

The pandemic has added another layer of complication to these concerns. Since the international border is closed, Canadian hikers cannot currently hike in the region, reducing the number of visitors, but restrictions imposed in light of the virus have kept parking tight. Many of the High Peaks are located near tiny Keene, New York, which has suspended shuttle service from its Garden parking lot and banned overflow parking in town. The Adirondack Mountain Reserve Trailhead, which in the summer of 2018 saw an average of 127 hikers registered each day, has reduced the capacity of its parking lot to just 28 cars. There are no official numbers yet, but anecdotal evidence says the pandemic hasn’t significantly deterred crowds from the Adirondacks.

Many of the proposals for mitigating increased visitors to the area—permits, shuttles, more parking—require organized action by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) or local governments. While they grapple with finding the best long-term solution, individuals who still want to hit the most popular trails are left to their own devices. To secure a coveted parking spot and avoid bottlenecks on the paths, conventional wisdom says to arrive at the trailhead early, say 5 or 6 A.M. But some, like Tuthill, have taken it a step further and begun hiking at night.

One major advantage of beginning at night is being able to cruise up to a usually jam-packed trailhead parking lot and pick any space. In fact, parking is a major reason Eric Avery goes at night. Avery has been a 46er since 2010 and still frequently explores in the region. He took up night hiking several years ago, around the same time he became interested in photography, and found that catching a sunrise or sunset gives him the opportunity to capture the landscapes in a different light. “You see everyone posting the same boring photos. You know, blue at the top, brown in the middle, green at the bottom. Nobody wants to see that,” he says.

Photography is also a draw for Daniel Stein. Prior to the pandemic, he drove up from New Jersey to take long-exposure photos of the night sky from summits in the Adirondacks. Last fall, Stein hiked Giant Mountain to catch the sunset and photograph the Milky Way. On the ascent, he says, “it was beyond crowded.” After lingering on the summit well past dusk, however, he encountered virtually no one on the return trip down. On a fair-weather weekend in the fall, that’s nearly unheard of. To be clear, there are certain increased risks associated with night hiking: the chance of encountering nocturnal animals, like coyotes, is one, but making noise to keep them away is just a reason to keep the conversation going.

Navigation can be more difficult by the narrow beam of a headlamp, but that can also necessitate being more present in the moment. Without a wide periphery or long-distance views, the attention is on the immediate trail, which forces hikers to rely on other senses to assess what’s nearby. “It gets you into that mode where you’re really focused on what’s directly in front of you,” Stein says. Staying on the trail requires more attention at night, when trail markers may be more difficult to spot. The required vigilance can lead to mindfulness that verges on meditation. As Tuthill says, “Most of the time, you’re not in the moment in life, and it just kind of reminds you to just think of what’s right in front of you.”

In the darkness, the lost solitude of the High Peaks is reborn. “And the stars. Oh my God, the stars,” says Avery. It’s again possible to stand atop a summit and feel the wild, lonely thrill that’s usually hindered by crowds. Stay long enough, and you may occasionally spot the glint of a headlamp on a neighboring peak. A reminder that, even at night, there’s someone else out there.