Hikers on Colorado’s big peaks surged 5.7% in 2018; Aspen area’s Elk Mountains among least visited

Hannah Condon and Zach Nichols hunker down in heavy wind Sept. 29 on a subpeak of Mount Elbert, Colorado's highest peak. La Plata Peak, another of the peaks above 14,000 feet, can be seen across the valley in the left center.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times


Colorado Fourteener Initiative undertakes an annual estimate of hikers on the state’s peaks above 14,000 feet using counters and modeling. Below are the top five visited peaks and the Elk Mountains, which are among the least visited.

Quandary Peak 35,000 to 40,000

Mt. Bierstadt 35,000 to 40,000

Torreys/Grays Peak 25,000 to 30,000

Mt Elbert 20,000 to 25,000

Mt Lincoln, et al 20,000 to 25,000

Castle Peak 1,000 to 3,000

Maroon Peak 1,000 to 3,000

Capitol Peak 1,000 to 3,000

Snosmass Mtn 1,000 to 3,000

Pyramid Peak 1,000 to 3,000

An estimated 353,000 people hiked Colorado’s peaks above 14,000 feet in 2018 — an increase of about 5.7% over the prior year, according to Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

CFI has gauged use of the big peaks for five years using counters where allowed and modeling on mountains in wilderness. The trend shows annual growth.

“We have to contend with the fact that the fourteeners get more and more popular each year,” said Lloyd Athearn, executive director of CFI.

The nonprofit organization monitors use and works to protect the environment on the high peaks through education and by building sustainable trails. User numbers lag by a year because the information from counters must be collected, added and analyzed.

CFI’s analysis shows that more than half of all 14er-hiking statewide occurs on the 11 peaks closest to the Front Range, where the population is booming.

For the first time in five years of monitoring, Mount Bierstadt near Georgetown was “dethroned” as the most popular peak. Quandary Peak near Breckenridge had an observed count of 38,259 hiker days between May 29 and Oct. 7, 2018, according to CFI. Data from a U.S. Forest Service counter and modeling by CFI indicate Mount Bierstadt experienced about 36,800 hiker days.

The busiest single day recorded last year for hiking on any fourteener was July 20, when 1,023 people climbed Bierstadt. The biggest day for hiking Quandary was July 14, when 945 people climbed the peak.

The other peaks in the top five for use were Grays and Torreys peaks, which are often climbed together; Mount Elbert, across Independence Pass from Aspen; and the “Decalibron loop” that includes the three adjacent peaks of Mount Lincoln, Mount Democrat and Mount Bross.

Hiking the biggest peaks in the Elk Mountains around Aspen remains stable at a comparatively lower level, Athearn noted. A counter on Castle Peak southwest of Aspen has indicated between 1,000 and 3,000 hikers make their way to the summit per year. The modeling shows a similar range for Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak, Capitol Peak, Snowmass Mountain and Pyramid Peak.

All told, the best estimate is about 9,000 hikers climb the Elk Mountains per year, Athearn said. That places them in the least visited category among the 54 peaks above 14,000 feet, along with those in the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Athearn said it is possible that education efforts have paid off to convince hikers and climbers that the Elk Mountains “are not the average walk in the fourteener park.”

The steepness, exposure and crumbly rock make the Elk Mountains some of the most treacherous in the state for hikers who aren’t prepared. After nine people died in the Elk Mountains in 2017, CFI and Mountain Rescue Aspen stepped up education efforts to try to get people better prepared for the Elk Mountains. There has been one fatality this year, involving an experienced climber.

Athearn said CFI videos of the dangers of climbing the big peaks and the safeguards that should be taken were viewed 28,000 times this year as of about one month ago. The Elk Mountains were prominently displayed in the videos.

Weather can play a role in user numbers. A low snowpack allowed the hiking season to begin early in 2018. In 2019, the hiking season didn’t start in earnest in the high country until late July.

CFI has 22 counters on peaks while the Forest Service has one that captures traffic exclusively on a fourteener and three others that capture traffic using multiple trails, including fourteeners. It is doubtful that other counters will be utilized because the Forest Service has declined permission to place them on peaks in wilderness. Modeling, which includes reported use on various fourteener “checklists,” is used to estimate the number of hikers on peaks where counters aren’t allowed.

Multiple years of tracking use is building an accurate collection of data, Athearn said.

CFI’s user data show what any frequent hiker intuitively knows — use is heaviest on weekends.

“Roughly half of hiking occurs on weekends, with Saturday use (30.5%) higher than Sunday (20%) at virtually all locations monitored,” CFI’s report said.

Athearn said it is “complicated” to assess how the increased use is affecting the environment of the big peaks. High use doesn’t necessarily mean high degradation of the trails, he said.

CFI has constructed 31 sustainably designed and durably built trails to the summits of 28 of the peaks. One of the trails is on Quandary Peak, one of the highest used. A CFI report card showed the condition of the trail was an “A-” in 2018. It had been graded at “C+” in 2011 before the trail work.

However, that grade doesn’t assess what’s happening off trail with parking vehicles, camping and how well hikers are taking care of waste while on the trail, Athearn noted.

“Are they using the Leave No Trace practices?” he asked.

The numbers also raise questions about the quality of experience on some of the fourteeners.

“You can find solitude — if you go on a Tuesday,” Athearn said. “It’s going to be real hard to find solitude if you go on a Saturday.”