New Norm: Seeking Pitkin County’s post-pandemic trail use tipping point
Trail use numbers in Pitkin County were mostly down this summer from the pandemic peak in summer 2020, though the full COVID-19 influx affect on local outdoor recreational resources in future years remains unclear.
That’s according to the county’s Open Space and Trails Program Director Gary Tennenbaum, who said last week that he’d encourage a community conversation on trail capacity and how to cope with the growth in demand for outdoor resources that may not dwindle back to pre-pandemic use levels.
“The (user) numbers in 2020 were phenomenal,” Tennenbaum said. “It was an enormous increase in use (and) fully 100% due to the pandemic. I had a feeling it would go down a little bit (in 2021), but it’s still way above 2019.
“Is 2020 the new normal? We just don’t know.”
The user numbers for some of Aspen and Pitkin County’s most popular trails during the summer of 2020 and summer of 2021 show a general decline, though not a major drop-off this summer. Users, by the way, include pedestrians and bikers, who look the same to trail counters.
For example, the Upper Rio Grande Trail — easily the area’s most popular — showed the smallest decline in users. A little more than 64,000 people hiked or biked the trail from June to September 2020, while about 63,400 hikers and bikers used the trail during the same period this year, according to statistics from the open space program.
Smuggler Mountain Road, another popular route close to Aspen, hosted more than 53,600 people from June to September in 2020, compared with around 45,700 this summer, according to the statistics.
Other area trails included in recently released open space statistics include the Brush Creek Trail, which saw a drop of about 1,700 users summer over summer, while Prince Creek Trail saw a decrease of about 4,000 hikers and bikers. Use of the Glassier Trail dropped by about 1,800 hikers and bikers as well.
Oddly, the only trail with numbers exceeding 2020 was the Rio Grande Trail at Stein Park, which clocked nearly 9,000 more users this summer than last, according to open space statistics.
“We gotta figure that one out,” he said. “Is it the rental E-bike explosion?”
User numbers for those trails in 2019 were not available for comparison last week from the open space program.
However, a quick look at Sky Mountain Park provides a possible indication of the huge jump in use Pitkin County’s outdoor resources endured that first summer and the continued sustained use this summer.
The number of trail users at Sky Mountain Park, which opened in 2011, remained relatively through 2019, according to statistics presented earlier this summer by open space officials at a planning meeting for the park’s new master plan. The Sky Mountain crowd of mainly mountain bikers averaged between about 8,500 and 9,200 users per year, according to a trail counter on Viewline Trail, located more or less in the middle of the trail system.
In the summer of 2020, 17,805 people hiked or biked the park located between Aspen and Snowmass Village, according to the proposed management plan. Depending on the number you use, that’s roughly a 100% increase in use. Overnight.
“To have that much of a jump in one year – if it had continued we would have to seriously rethink our management plans,” Tennenbaum said. “I just didn’t think it was sustainable to have that much of an increase in use. In 30 years, maybe.”
The open space program did, however, provide 2021 use numbers for two main feeder trails into Sky Mountain Park.
Airline Trail on the Aspen side logged nearly 9,000 hikers, bikers and trail runners in 2020 compared with about 6,500 this summer, a 28% drop in use. Cozyline Trail on the Snowmass Village side had about 6,400 users in 2020 and just over 4,900 this summer, a decrease of about 24%,
Based on those numbers, assuming an approximate 25% drop in total use this summer at Sky Mountain Park still means more than 13,000 people traversed the area’s trails in summer 2021. That’s a roughly 30% increase over pre-pandemic 2019 numbers.
“That people love what we provide is awesome,” Tennenbaum said. “I was concerned about a huge increase in use going forward.”
If use levels jumped again in 2021, he said he thinks it would have necessitated a community discussion over just how much impact the entire Pitkin County Open Space system can handle. Tennenbaum said he thinks the conversation still ought to happen.
“I think we need community discussion around capacity and how are we going to manage all this recreation in the future,” Tennenbaum said. “It’s similar in most mountain communities.”
Kevin Warner, district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest, said Friday that the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t yet have use numbers for trails and campgrounds in Pitkin County and the surrounding area.
“We have no hard data,” he said. “But anecdotally it did appear in some locations there was a decrease in use in summer 2021 versus summer 2020.”
Still, popular trails remain so for a reason, and the numbers in spots like the Maroon Bells and the Four Pass Loop backpacking route numbers do not appear to be decreasing.
A Forest Service counter who watched the Four Pass Loop entry from 6 to 9 a.m. one morning in late August or early September counted 100 backpackers heading out on the trail, Warner said. And the Maroon Bells definitely logged more visitors this summer than last because COVID-19-related capacity on Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses was greater, he said.
“We’re almost back up to pre-pandemic levels at the Maroon Bells Scenic Area,” Warner said. “Others like the Four Pass Loop or the hike from Aspen to Crested Butte either direction — those seem to hold steady at pandemic levels.”