Psychologists tell us a first impression creates powerful and lasting impact that shape the perception a person retains of someone they meet, a business they deal with, or a place they visit. In the case of Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK), it is often all three. Although there is no official entry gate to the Adirondack Park, ADK’s Heart Lake Program Center, located adjacent to the Eastern High Peaks Wilderness Area, serves as the main portal to the Park’s most popular public lands. Heart Lake is the gateway for approximately 75,000 visitors annually and includes the busiest hiking trailhead in New York State.

As the latest phase of implementation of the Heart Lake Master Plan, ADK is leveraging a $221,000 grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation (OPHRP) to upgrade the facilities at the High Peaks Information Center (HPIC), expand the ADK Wilderness Campground, and add needed infrastructure such as an additional well and washhouse. This is a 75 percent reimbursement grant so ADK’s initial investment will be approximately $74,000 on a $295,000 total project. Volunteer efforts, ADK staff labor, and in kind donations will be credited towards the ADK portion. The updates planned under this project will create an expanded opportunity for education of the public on responsible recreation, wilderness regulations, and Leave No Trace ethics. The visitor experience to ADK’s greatest physical asset, Heart Lake, will be enhanced considerably.

The High Peaks Information Center was constructed in 1973 in response to the great increase in participation in outdoor pursuits and specifically hiking in the Adirondacks. The facility, originally called the Camper’s and Hiker’s Building, supplies information, trip planning, sanitary facilities, and a small retail store to insure travelers to the backcountry have the necessary equipment to comply with land use regulations and undertake their journey safely and comfortably. ADK built the High Peaks Information Center with its own funds, maintains, insures, and operates the 200 car parking lot that helps control access to the High Peaks, and primarily carries the costs associated with administering to and educating thousands of visitors annually. The building needs an updating to create more efficient use of the existing footprint and have a better layout for both the information and retail functions.

ADK’s Board of Directors approved a revised master plan for the Heart Lake property in June of 2011. This was an update of a plan that was approved by the ADK Board and the Adirondack Park Agency in 1993. While significant progress has been made on that original plan, much through the hard work of ADK volunteers, the continual growth in popularity of outdoor endeavors in the High Peaks created a gap between the levels of facilities offered and the needs of the public. This project will upgrade aging facilities and create enhanced opportunities for the visitors who access this incredible natural area by expanding front country camping capacity. Improved interpretive signage is being designed for the updated HPIC and enhanced education and awareness about responsible recreation will result.

The overall visitor experience will be enhanced and the original footprint of the building will be utilized. Any additional campsites and lean-tos created by the new campground loop will be placed along the existing Mr. Van ski trail corridor. This trail has been heavily traveled for years and a wide, well-trodden pathway is in place. Using this existing corridor will minimize impact to undisturbed grounds. All activities related to this project are within the active use zone designated in the Heart Lake Master Plan. Under this plan the remaining eighty percent of the 640 acre property will stay primarily in its natural state.

Renovating the interior of the High Peaks Information CenterAlthough the HPIC project is just a portion of the ongoing Heart Lake Master Plan, this segment is the only one that grant funding has been secured for. This project specifically addresses ADK’s program services for the general public accessing the New York State owned lands of the adjacent High Peaks Wilderness Area. Additional aspects of the Heart Lake Master Plan involve construction of a dedicated facility for the ADK Education Program, improved residential staff housing and upgraded office and storage space, and increased overnight lodging capacity.

As society in general has become more removed from everyday wilderness experiences and fewer novice hikers and paddlers have had any type of exposure to the outdoors through scouting or family trips, the role of ADK in providing information and backcountry education has expanded exponentially. With forty percent of the visitors passing through the Heart Lake trailheads annually being on their first visit to the Adirondacks, ADK staff time spent instructing guests on state land regulations, assisting with trip planning, and even assisting visitors self-assess their skill levels to best match possible appropriate hikes, is a critical component to create a successful and enjoyable visitor experience. As a conservation non-profit organization, ADK’s mission of protection of natural resources and promotion of responsible recreation fits well into its inherited role of gatekeeper. Indeed, who better than ADK to help guide these novice recreationists through their initial Adirondack adventures?

With recent rapid gains in technology, there now are available resources for weather prediction, trip planning, and communication that would greatly enhance the visitor experience. A great increase in information technology and trip planning resources could be made available if ADK could better equip the facility and secure increased broadband internet capability. If we are to engage and activate a new generation of environmental advocates among the younger populace, having the technological innovations in place to meet them how and where they are already communicating is of the utmost importance.

The adjacent Eastern High Peaks Wilderness Area is a New York State and national treasure. If people visiting the High Peaks do not have an enjoyable experience that leads them to connect on a personal level with the natural resource, advocacy for the acquisition and stewardship of public lands will wane in the future. Of the thousands of day use visitors that pour through ADK’s HPIC and parking facilities, over ninety percent are not yet ADK members. By enhancing the facilities dedicated to welcoming these guests to ADK property, we will make a better first impression and hopefully engage and interest them in what our incredible organization is all about.

ADK is the right group at the right location to properly educate and inform the visitors to the High Peaks about responsible recreation. Meeting people as they arrive for their Adirondack experience, and insuring that their recreational choices lead to a meaningful connection with the natural world, is the highest and best use for this property and is at the core of the mission of the Adirondack Mountain Club. Making much needed upgrades to our facilities will allow us to do a great job even better. A top notch visitor’s center would be a given if this were a National Park. The Adirondacks and ADK deserve no less.