‘Pandemic surge’ hits Colorado’s big peaks
State’s 14ers saw a 44% increase in hikers in 2020
Colorado’s tallest peaks proved more popular than ever when people flocked to the great outdoors during the pandemic summer of 2020.
An estimated 415,000 people hiked the 14ers last year — a whopping 44 percent increase over 2019, according to a report released Thursday by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.
The surge in hiking the 54 big peaks was consistent with experiences at trail systems and parks throughout Colorado.
“Pretty much every public land manager said they’re being overrun by people wanting to get out of doors,” said Lloyd Athearn, executive director of CFI, a Golden-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting the fragile high-alpine ecosystems and educating users.
Athearn said two new trends unfolded on the big peaks during 2020. First, people had more flexibility than in past years. Hiking increased on weekdays to 52.1% of weekly use and decreased on weekends to 47.9% of use. Many people had more flexibility during the pandemic, either from working at home or not working at all.
“We’re sort of working and playing when it’s convenient,” Athearn said.
Second, hikers branched out more and hit less-frequently visited peaks.
“Hiking use increased substantially in the San Juan Mountains, Sawatch Range and Mosquito Range as people appeared to disperse their activity to less-frequently climbed peaks,” CFI’s report said.
The Elk Mountains surrounding Aspen remained among the least climbed in the state, along with peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Range. Maroon Peak, Capitol Peak, Snowmass Mountain and Pyramid Peak were all estimated at 1,000 to 3,000 hiker use days, consistent with numbers in recent years. Castle Peak, the easiest of the Elk Mountain 14ers, had between 3,000 and 5,000 visits last year. The difficulty of the other peaks limits use.
CFI uses counters, 14ers.com peak use statistics and other sources for its estimates. There is a counter on Castle Peak.
The 11 peaks exceeding 14,000 feet closest to Denver remained the most popular 14ers. However, they accounted for 51% of statewide visits in 2020, down from 57% the year before.
Colorado Fourteeners Initiative’s estimates show the most popular 14ers for hikers in 2020 were:
1. Quandary Peak, 45,000 to 50,000 hikers
2. Mount Bierstadt, 35,000 to 40,000
3. Torreys Peak/Grays Peak, 30,000 to 35,000
4. Lincoln/Bross/Democrat 25,000 to 30,000
5. Mount Elbert, 20,000 to 25,000
Quandary Peak “blew past” Mount Bierstadt to “claim the undisputed title as the most-climbed Colorado 14er by almost 11,000 hiker days,” the report said.
There were more than 49,000 hiker days on Quandary. That’s one person hiking one peak on one day. Between June 20 and Sept. 7, there were only five days when fewer than 200 people climbed Quandary Peak.
The other highest-use peaks were Mount Bierstadt; Torreys and Grays Peaks; Lincoln/Bross/Democrat; and Mount Elbert.
The dramatic increase in people on the big peaks in 2020 comes with a footnote. Athearn noted that hiker use was stunted in 2019 by a long-lingering snowpack and avalanche debris that blocked many access roads well into July. As a result, there was only an estimated 288,000 hiker days in 2019.
A more relevant comparison would be with 2018 when there were 353,000 hiker days, the former record. The 2020 season total was 18 percent higher.
Athearn doesn’t think 2020 was an anomaly because of the pandemic. He thinks it’s a good bet that numbers will climb even higher this year. Colorado’s population increased 14.5% between 2010 and 2019. Many of the newcomers are young, active people who enjoy the outdoors, he said. Tourism adds to the mix.
“The 14ers year after year see more people,” Athearn said. The average annual increase is between 5% and 7%.
Athearn makes the case that the best response to growing peak-bagging isn’t to limit the numbers or institute a reservation system, but continue to build sustainably designed and durably constructed summit hiking trails. The organization has constructed 39 trails on 35 of the big peaks since its founding in 1994.
Despite the large numbers of hikers hitting some of the peaks, it doesn’t necessarily mean conditions are crowded.
“It’s not like all those people are in one big clump going at the same time at the same pace,” he said.
CFI will continue to ramp up its educational efforts — from videos on its YouTube channel that promote preparation and safety to volunteer and staff peak stewards, who mingle with hikers to discuss Leave No Trace principles and discuss the fragile nature of the high-altitude ecosystems.
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UPDATE 5:27 p.m. — Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon has reopened in both directions Saturday evening after a safety closure due to a flash flood warning. There were no reported mud/debris slides.