If you’ve ever decided to hike one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains during a weekend in July – especially if you set out for a peak located within or close to the Front Range – then you know it can seem like half of Colorado's residents are out on the trail with you.
On peaks like Bierstadt, Grays, Torreys, Quandary and Elbert, the experience can be overwhelming. Summer weekends draw hundreds of cars that jam in close to the trailheads, out of which stream a colorful ant trail of hikers and dogs extending all the way to the summit.
But how much do these experiences reflect the year-round popularity of fourteeners?
Last week, a nonprofit called the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative released a study that tackles this exact question, estimating in detail the recreational use of Colorado’s 54 fourteeners during 2015.
By using “person days” as its unit of measurement — each tally represents one person hiking one peak on one day — the study estimates that there were 260,000 person days of hiking use on Colorado fourteeners last year. (Note: This does not mean that there were 260,000 individual hikers, as some hikers climb multiple fourteeners a year).
The report is also the first ever to offer a comprehensive breakdown of hiking use on each of Colorado's fourteeners.
Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), explains that on seven of the most popular peaks, his organization deployed infrared technology to count the number of hikers.
The infrared devices, which register passing humans by their elevated body temperatures, are hidden in trees and in cairns – manmade rock piles that are often used to guide hikers above treeline.
Athearn says that some of the devices were actually installed during 2014, but “in our first year, we learned some lessons. If [the devices] weren’t obscured properly, people dug into the cairns and thought that they were geocaches."
He adds with a chuckle that "sometimes kids would put rocks in the gaps of cairns where the sensors were."
An example of a cairn on Mt. Bierstadt, like the ones in which CFI has hidden a number of infrared trackers
By the beginning of 2015, however, the organization had learned how to better conceal the devices, as well as avoid false-data readings produced when direct sunlight heated up the sensors or surrounding vegetation.
For the remaining trails that didn't have infrared trackers in 2015, Athearn says the usage estimates come from linear projections based off of crowdsourced data from the popular website 14ers.com. (Click for a detailed methodology of these projections.)
This report also comes on the heels of a “report card” that CFI released last year, in which the organization assigned letter grades to 42 of the 54 summit trails based upon factors such as the trails' sustainability and extent of damage. That report estimated that it would cost $24 million to restore and build out all of the trails to meet a goal of long-term sustainability.
Asked if the recently released usage stats relate to the grades assigned on last year's report card, Athearn says that having more people hike a particular trail doesn't necessarily mean that there will be more damage done to it.
“People often make that jump, saying that damage on the ground is tied to the amount of use a trail is getting,” Athearn says. “While there’s an element of truth in that, the biggest single factor in resource damage is: Do we have a planned, durably constructed, sustainably located trail? Or are we still Band-Aiding together a user-created trail that’s oftentimes very steep and prone to erosion?”
As case studies, Athearn cites some of the more remote and hard-to-access fourteeners, like San Luis Peak near Gunnison, that don't see many climbers during a season, but nonetheless have user-created trails that cause damage to the surrounding ecosystem.
Nevertheless, there is hope that such trails will receive proper maintenance and construction in the future; Athearn and the CFI have already seen increased interest from government offices and private donors (hailing from 44 states and four foreign countries) willing to fund their restoration and construction projects. Athearn also points to a finding in last week's report that estimates that Colorado's fourteeners bring in as much as $70.5 million a year between what hikers spend on gas, food, equipment and lodging. That number, which Athearn admits is a “very rough estimate,” was extrapolated from a 2009 survey of hikers on Mt. Quandary, which found that the average hiker there spent $271.17 around activities and logistics related to the hike.
“So, sure, it’s going to be expensive to maintain these trails and build them if they don’t exist," Athearn says. "But here’s a lot of money flowing into Colorado both from residents and out-of-state tourists because of this activity."
He also hopes that outdoors enthusiasts can use some of the findings in CFI's latest report to help plan more enjoyable hikes. This includes statistics showing that last year, hiking use was highest on weekends — with Saturdays accounting for 30.6 percent of all use and Sundays and Fridays accounting for 19.8 percent and 13.7 percent, respectively.
CFI suggests that those who want to avoid crowds should hike fourteeners during the week and travel to less popular locations. Athearn also recommends visiting the peaks after the summer crush dies down.
“If people don’t want to fight the 750 people on Bierdstadt, Grays, Torreys or Elbert on a Saturday in July, try going in the fall," he suggests. “I’ve personally found that the late-August-into-late-September period can have phenomenal weather, often without thunderstorms, and it’s amazing how abandoned many of the peaks can be!"
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Asked whether extending such advice ever causes him to be chided by friends because he's sharing "secrets," Athearn says that he doesn't think of it that way.
“Even though there are times when it seems that there are tons of people, usually when I stop to talk to them, it’s kindred spirits who are out there,” he says. “I’ve always found that there’s a camaraderie of people who enjoy the mountains. And sure, every once in a while there are some people who aren’t very considerate, but I think that we can all enjoy these peaks. The biggest issue, from my perspective, is making sure people understand how fragile they are, and how important it is to stay on the trail and follow ‘leave no trace’ practices.”
Next year, CFI plans to release another usage report. And for the next set of measurements, CFI has upped its game. It now has twenty infrared sensors installed on fourteener trails around Colorado.