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How Many Hikers on Colorado’s 14ers is Too Many?

The summer of 2020 was remarkable in so many ways — not the least of which, how the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have turned out record numbers of people attempting to summit Colorado’s tallest peaks. Last year with offices, restaurants, and venues closed, it seems that many of us wanted a piece of the outdoors. But crowds at higher elevations are prompting some to ask — how much is too much?

According to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), a record estimated 415,000 people hiked the 14ers last year — up some 44 percent over 2019, according to a report released Thursday. That surge of people hiking Colorado’s 54 big peaks was consistent with experiences at trail systems and parks throughout Colorado and has led to conversations about whether foot traffic on Colorado’s highest elevations needs some control.

The CFI has been studying hiking use on Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks – the 14ers – using infrared trail counters since 2014. That surge of people focused on hiking Colorado’s highest peaks was consistent with experiences at trail systems and parks throughout Colorado, which saw an 18 percent increase over trail traffic in 2018.

The comparison to 2018 has been used because summer 2019 saw a dip in trail and summit travel due to record-breaking late spring snow. In fact, the number of people climbing a 14,000-foot peak in Colorado was down 18.4 percent that year due to lingering snowpack and avalanche debris-choked roads. The obstacles resulted in 65,000 fewer hiker days on Colorado’s 14ers in 2019 as compared to the 2018 season (288,000 vs. 353,000).

The 18 percent trail increase more than doubles the normal pace of year-to-year growth tracked by the CFI. The group makes estimates based on data from in-ground foot counters around the state as well as from numbers checking into the popular web source

But the 2020 spike in trail usage, and in outdoor recreation resulted in recreation and U.S. and State Forest Service managers throughout Colorado sounding the alarm. Among their concerns: use and misuse of trails, alarming lines of cars parked alongside adjacent highways, trash buildup, dogs running off-leash and their feces along with the human kind being left unattended on trails, and both wilderness and established campsites and grounds.

The state hasn’t been tracking foot traffic on the peaks for very long. It released its first-ever report on Fourteener hiking use and economic impact in 2016.

A ray of good news; rather than clustering into overcrowded weekends, perhaps due to the pandemic’s impacts on work schedules, those climbs were more spread out throughout the week than in prior years, although Saturday continued as the most popular day to summit a 14er: representing an estimated 28 percent of total use. But the  Monday through Friday timeframe accounted for a slight majority — 52- percent of total trail use.

Another 2020 oddity that CFI noted: a decrease in trail foot traffic on the 11 peaks closest to the Denver metro; down; from 57 percent to 51 percent of climbs across the 54 mountains. At the same time, CFI reported an increase of people summiting the more far-flung ranges such as the San Juan and Mosquito ranges.

Again according to the CFI, those trail miles result in a financial impact on Colorado’s mountain communities. In 2019, this level of recreational use suggests a statewide economic impact of more than $78 million. That figure was based on past 14er-related expenditure studies performed by Colorado State University economists John Loomis and Catherine Keske. Their 2009 study found that climbers of Quandary Peak near Breckenridge spent an average of $271.17 per day for gasoline, food, lodging, equipment, and other retail purchases.

Featured image: October 2020 snow on Mt. Antero and Mt. Princeton, on either side of Chalk Creek Canyon.  Over this past weekend, many of Colorado’s 14ers saw six inches of snow or more.