Study estimates hiker use of Aspen’s Elk Mountains and other Colorado 14ers |

Study estimates hiker use of Aspen’s Elk Mountains and other Colorado 14ers

Basalt hikers make their way to the summit of La Plata Peak in August 2017. A new study by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative estimates hiker use of the state's big peaks.
Margot Moselle/courtesy photo |


A new study by Colorado Fourteener Initiative uses trail counters and crowdsourcing to estimate annual hiking use days on the state’s highest peaks. Here are estimates for some peaks in the Aspen area.

Castle Peak: 1,000 to 3,000 hikes per year

Maroon Peak: 1,000 to 3,000

Capitol Peak: 1,000 to 3,000

Mount Elbert: 25,000 to 30,000

La Plata Peak: 5,000 to 7,000

Hikers taking to Colorado’s highest peaks, including the Elk Mountains surrounding Aspen, is higher than previously thought after assessing new, more complete information, a study released Aug. 18 said.

The nonprofit Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) estimated there were 311,000 “hiking use days” in 2016 on the 54 peaks examined in the study.

That is about 50,000 more hikes than estimated for 2015.

“The increase is likely due to more accurate projections rather than a dramatic, one-year surge in climbers on Colorado’s highest peaks,” Colorado Fourteeners Initiative said in a statement.

A hiking-use day represents one person hiking one peak on one day. It doesn’t correlate with the total number of hikers because some people bag more than one fourteener per season.

CFI had compact infrared trail counters installed on 20 peaks in 2016. That’s twice as many as it had in 2015, so the new data is more thorough, said Lloyd Athearn, CFI’s executive director.

The study indicated most of the Elk Mountains received more use than estimated for 2015, he said. However, the Elks remain among the least hiked ranges in Colorado.

“The reason they’re light is they are very dangerous peaks and very challenging peaks,” Athearn said.

A counter was placed on Castle Peak southwest of Aspen in 2016. It showed there were slightly more than 2,000 hiking-use days for the year, Athearn said. That was actually less than the 3,000 to 5,000 hikes per year estimated for 2015.

However, projections are higher for use of Maroon Peak, Capitol Peak, Snowmass Mountain and Pyramid Peak. CFI had estimated the number of climbers and hikers for each of those was less than 1,000 per year. New data suggests it is between 1,000 and 3,000 per year, Athearn said. He said he believes a realistic figure is about 1,500 annually per peak. (North Maroon Peak isn’t counted separately from Maroon Peak in the study).

He admitted trying to determine use of peaks without a counter is an inexact science.

“The numbers may bounce around from year to year,” he said.

The U.S. Forest Service prohibits counters in designated wilderness. CFI was able to place one high on Castle Peak because there is a “cherry stem” of land outside of wilderness that extends high up on the mountain, Athearn said.

Wilderness engulfs all the other fourteeners in the Aspen area far down the slopes, so getting a precise count is impossible.

The estimate for hiker use of the Elks was made from assessing the data collected at Castle Peak, the easiest of the Aspen-area fourteeners, and data collected on Wilson Peak, a mountain the in San Juan Range that is similar in difficulty to most of the Elk Mountains fourteeners. CFI also used crowdsourcing. More than 14,000 individual hikers submitted information to on the peaks they hiked.

Based on that information, the Elk Mountains get as many as 9,000 hiking use days annually, according to the study. The use of the Elk Mountains is similar to the use of the peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Range and some mountains in the San Juan Range, but significantly lower than use at most other fourteeners in the state, the study showed.

Mount Elbert, the highest point in Colorado and an easy hike, had the highest use at 29,000 annually.

Front Range peaks are among the most heavily hiked. Mount Bierstadt, Torreys Peak and Grays Peak received between 20,000 and 25,000 hiking-use days annually. Mount Evans saw between 10,000 and 15,000 hikes.

“Are we beating them into the ground? It’s still an open question,” Athearn said of the most heavily used peaks.

In some cases, there is good material to create trails with a hard, compact surface that is sustainable even with heavy use, he said. Other peaks are more vulnerable to the high use.

“On some of these peaks we might be reaching the upper bound of being able to handle the impacts,” Athearn added.

When CFI was formed in 1994, there were only two peaks with planned routes to the summit. Now there are more than 30 with designated trails to the summit or through the fragile terrain to the rock scree.

CFI wants to monitor peak use, understand what peaks are getting the highest use and integrate the information with its inventory of trails conditions. That will help determine where work is needed the most.