GOLDEN, Colo. (KDVR) — After a surge in 2020, the group that monitors traffic on Colorado’s highest peaks noticed fewer people hit those trails in 2021.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative is a nonprofit that works to preserve mountain trails that lead to Colorado’s highest peaks, specifically those above 14,000 feet. It also tracks the use and popularity of trails while educating the public on why it’s important to maintain the ecosystems and environments of these mountains.
Its latest report estimates that 303,000 people hiked Colorado’s 14ers in 2021, representing a 27% decrease from the year before.
Parking restrictions and other access issues played a big role, with the Mosquito Range seeing a 65% decline in use. The range includes what is known as the Decalibron Loop, a combination of four 14ers, which was closed by a private landowner from May through the beginning of August last year.
“About half of the peaks that are closer to the major population centers in the Front Range, Tenmile and Mosquito Range had some sort of parking or access restriction,” said Colorado Fourteeners Initiative Executive Director Lloyd Athearn.
But people found a way beyond the restrictions in some cases.
Quandry Peak saw parking restrictions and a reservation system that started on July 30, but it still attracted the most hikers and climbers in the state in 2021. Still, its use fell about 29% compared to the pandemic high in 2020.
Athearn cites trail closures and wildfire smoke as other deterrents that made up the decline in 14er hiking for 2021.
Wildfire smoke blowing in from the west caused troubling air quality issues and coincides with Colorado Fourteeners Initiative noticing a plunge in hiking levels during the first weekend in August. This was a time when Denver’s air quality was considered among the worst in the world.
Athearn said each year is unique, depending on weather and snowpack, which dictates how early the window opens to start climbing 14ers.
“One of the challenges that we face in the 14ers is they’re super high, they’re subject to either drought or huge snowpack so 2019 was actually lower,” Athearn said, citing high snowpack levels and avalanches that year.
Traffic levels in 2021 were closer to those seen around 2017.
Mount Bierstadt, Grays and Torreys peaks and Mount Elbert trailed Quandry for most popular trails in 2021.
“In addition to tracking how many people are on the 14ers, we also have a program called sustainable trails where we have people doing foot-by-foot GPS-based inventories of every single trail feature that we’ve built,” Athearn said. “Use doesn’t necessarily translate into impact. Quandry, which for several years has been our most-climbed 14er. We actually between about 2011 and 2019, despite use more than doubling, we were able to improve the trail grade from a C-plus to an A-minus.”
Colorado Fourteeners Initiative estimates the economic impact of hikers scrambling to the top of Colorado’s highest peaks was roughly $82.2 million in 2021, from expenses including lodging, gas, food, gear and more.