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Hikers and members from non-profit groups cross paths on the DeCaliBron loop accessed from Kite Lake Trailhead in July 2022, near Alma. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Foot traffic on Colorado’s highest peaks tumbled 33% in 2022 from the record 415,000 hiker days logged in 2020.

The annual Hiking Use Estimates report by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative released Friday recorded an estimated 279,000 hiker use days during the 2022 season. That’s about 24,000 fewer hikers than in 2021, which saw 303,000 hiker days, and a dramatic drop from 2020’s record of 415,000 hiker days. 

Though some ebbs and flows are expected in hiker data due to drought or snowpack, Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, worries that the last year’s decrease is in part an overreaction to the high-traffic pandemic year. 

For instance, in 2021, Clear Creek County posted “No Parking” signs along the road that people traditionally parked along to access Grays and Torreys peaks. And in 2022 a reservation system was in effect for the full season on Quandary, the fourteener that has consistently topped the hiker use charts since recording began.

“It’s sort of curious to me. Just as we’re getting close to having almost every fourteener with some kind of intentional route on it — something we’ve been working on for decades, and that the state has spent millions of dollars on — now the communities are saying, ‘we don’t want people here,’” Athearn said. “It’s like we built an interstate highway and all of a sudden the towns start saying they’d rather people run out the county roads.”

The skew

Though almost all of the fourteeners experienced a decline in traffic, the numbers and impact are not evenly dispersed. Overall, the state experienced an 8% decrease in traffic. This, in itself, is not particularly alarming. The pandemic year, when people got bored of fearing for their lives inside, created a high watermark of traffic. Even the double-digit decrease from 2020 to 2021 was something to be expected.  

The Mosquito Range and the Elk Mountains are the only groups that did not see decreases. The Elks near Aspen — which consist of Castle Peak, Maroon Peak, North Maroon, Capitol Peak, Snowmass Mountain, Conundrum Peak, and Pyramid Peak — showed roughly the same number of hikers as last year, at 7,000. The Mosquito Range, just east of Leadville, actually increased its hiker count to almost double — to 32,000 in 2022 from 17,000 in 2021  — because of a two-month closure of Mount Lincoln, Mount Democrat and Mount Bross in 2021. 

The most drastic decrease was on Quandary Peak, just south of Breckenridge, which saw roughly 13,000 fewer hiker days in 2022 than in 2021. Athearn speculated that a season-long reservation system and the introduction of a shuttle fee in 2022 drove down that number. The next steepest losses came from the Sawatch Range, west of Buena Vista, which hosted 11,500 fewer hiker days, followed by the San Juans at 10,000 fewer hiker days. The Front Range peaks, including some of the most accessible fourteeners like Grays and Torreys, Mount Evans, and Mount Bierstadt, lost about 3,000 hiker days, while the Sangre de Cristos rounded out the losses with 1,500 fewer hiker days. 

The panic

Athearn isn’t unsympathetic to the concerns of local communities. 

In rural mountain towns, residents face the consequences of high visitor numbers— acutely felt in labor and housing prices — and a loss of the serenity that many moved there for in the first place. Last month, a report by Montana’s Headwaters Economics outlined the paradoxical challenges of living in a mountain town so plentiful with natural features that its allure brings in crushing numbers of visitors and second-home owners, thereby degrading the quality of life for locals. The report called this type of town an “amenity trap.”

Those fears carry over to natural spaces. The dialogue about “over-loved” natural resources is well-founded in Colorado, and many heavily trafficked areas have implemented strict permit systems to try to do some damage control. 

What Athearn is wary of is the knee-jerk reaction by local communities who see more people and immediately want to regulate rather than invest in better infrastructure. 

“Some people think we need to permit everything, but you have to think, who are the people that really benefit? People who have flexible schedules, who can book a trip six months in advance,” Athearn said. “What about someone who works a retail shift and might not know they can get out until the day before? Who are the people that will get access to public lands, versus those who will feel locked out or that the system is too Byzantine to navigate?”

With so much focus on diversifying public lands, and on reducing barriers to entry like cost, Athearn finds it strange that communities also want to start charging people for something that was traditionally free. 

“We’re at this crosscurrent,” he said about the future of the fourteeners. “What do people actually want?”

This year, the heavy and late-staying snowpack is going to have an impact on the hiking season. That much CFI is expecting. Overlaid on those natural conditions are an increase in parking and reservation fees, and an increase of private land closures — more than 10% of the fourteener’s summits are on private land — due to liability issues. The way that those three forces will impact hiker numbers this year concerns Athearn.

“I worry that we’re going in this negative direction where people are just saying ‘there’s too much. Too many people, too many dogs, too much whatever, and so let’s just stop,’” Athearn said during a recent fourteener safety panel. “Is this a canary in the coalmine for our recreation-based economy?”

More people doesn’t mean more impact

A mountain goat descends Quandary Peak trail ahead of hikers on July 9, 2022, near Breckenridge. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Another driver of what Athearn called the knee-jerk, “shut off the tap” reaction, is the fallacy that more people means more damage. 

In 2015, CFI’s trail condition report card, an assessment that they conduct every four years, gave the Quandary Peak trail a C+. That year the trail hosted 18,000 people, according to the hiker use report. CFI used that information to prioritize the Quandary trail’s improvements. In 2018, the next iteration of the report card, the trail received an A-. It hosted 38,000 people that year. 

“There were more than twice the amount of people on it, but the trail was better,” Athearn said. He emphasized that high numbers don’t necessarily mean high impact. “If you have a good trail, people are going to follow it like cattle. Nose to tail,” he said. “And that’s a good thing, right? That means they’re not going to be going off trail, picking flowers, damaging the ecosystem.” 

Higher concentrations of visitors on popular peaks is also a boon for local search and rescue crews. “From a rescue standpoint, to go back up the same trail again to rescue someone with a broken ankle, it gets a little monotonous,” Jeff Sparhawk, executive director of Colorado Search and Rescue, said. “But, if we had to go search for people all over the place, searches take a long time. And that’s volunteer time. That’s time away from work or time away from family.”

Sparhawk added that locals go wherever they want to go. They understand traffic patterns, and know where they can find solitude. The majority of rescues that COSAR conducts are for out-of-state visitors. Sparhawk hesitated to say it aloud, but added that keeping those travelers on a few consolidated peaks makes COSAR’s job easier. 

Athearn recently had the opportunity to talk with climbers on Grays while a helicopter flew logs to the summit. While he was holding the foot traffic back, he asked where all of the climbers were from. “I recall only about five people from Colorado,” he said. “There was an extended family from St. Louis, a woman from Maryland, a man from Wisconsin, some people from Los Angeles, Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee.”

Ultimately, Athearn encouraged Coloradans to think more broadly. “The thing that’s always hard for communities to understand is that these are our national forests and our national parks,” he said. “They may be located largely in the West, they may be in our backyards, but they’re really owned by all the people in the USA.”

Parker Yamasaki covers arts and culture at The Colorado Sun as a Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow and former Dow Jones News Fund intern. She has freelanced for the Chicago Reader, Newcity Chicago, and DARIA, among other publications,...