Justin Ewer, wilderness manager for the Mount Adams Ranger District, said the numbers do not capture most of the long-distance-hiker use of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, which has gone up significantly in recent years.
Recreation use in 2015 was 42 percent greater than in 2012, the second highest year in data going back to 2001.
However, 2015 was an unusual year due to a very light snowpack in the winter of 2014-15. By early May, most of the Indian Heaven was free of snow, two months earlier than a normal year.
Thomas Lake trailhead No. 111 off of Pinchot road No. 65 is, by far, the most popular entry point into Indian Heaven. Thirty-one percent of the visitors entered through Thomas Lake trailhead. Thirty-three percent of the visitor recreation days originated via Thomas Lake trail.
East Crater trail No. 48 off Pinchot road No. 6035 is the second most popular entry point with 15 percent of the visitors followed by Indian Heaven trail No. 33 at Cultus Creek campground with 12.3 percent.
Ewer said trail encounters, which includes all people seen or heard when within wilderness, are going up.
“Trail encounters are an indicator for solitude, one of the major elements of wilderness character that we are trying to manage for,’’ Ewer said.
Data from 1992 to 1997 shows that on 14 percent of the days monitored hikers and others in the Thomas Lake-Blue Lake area had more encounters than the standard.
However in 2013-2015, the standard was exceeded 46 percent of the time.
In that same three-year period, the standard was exceeded 53 percent of the time in the East Crater-Pacific Crest trail area.
“We have some issues with increasing use in Indian Heaven, particularly out of the popular locations like Thomas Lake, Indian Heaven and East Crater trailhead,’’ he said. “This correlates with what wilderness rangers have been experiencing on their patrols in recent years as well.’’
Ewer said most visitors in Indian Heaven practice leave-no-trace ethics, but still have an affect.
“Increases in use do correlate with increases in other management issues like campsite proliferation, vegetation impacts, abandoned campfires, human waste and trash issues,’’ he said.
To address overuse in the most-popular portions of Indian Heaven, the Forest Service is attempting to rehabilitate some well-worn lake shorelines.
Overnight camping is limited to seven designated sites in the Thomas-Heather-Dee-Eunice lakes area and eight designated sites in the Blue-Sahalee-Tyee-Tombstone lakes area.
Both groups of lakes are in the Thomas Lake trail No. 111 corridor.
Ewer said the designated campsites in Indian Heaven often fill on weekends, but there are nearby alternatives.
“One of the beautiful things about Indian Heaven is that there are over 150 lakes and small ponds as well as numerous pocket meadows,’’ he said. “The majority of visitors go to the same handful of lakes. A willingness to get off the beaten path will often result in you discovering your own little slice of heaven.’’
Indian Heaven’s closeness to the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area makes it a convenient destination for a good backcountry trip, he said.
“It isn’t surprising that so many people are looking to visit places like Indian Heaven,’’ Ewer said. “The trend of increasing use in many wilderness areas which are in close proximity to growing urban areas is something that wilderness managers are seeing across the country. How to accommodate the increasing number of people without exceeding the ecological or social capacity of the landscape is a major challenge for wilderness managers.’’