Huge Jump in 14er Peak Visits
How Did The Sangres and San Juans Fair?
It’s an all-time high, a summit of its own sort so to speak. The latest numbers released by the Colorado Fourteener Initiative (CFI) concerning users numbers when it comes to the number of people climbing a 14,000-foot peak in Colorado last year surged by 44 percent to an all-time high of 415,000 hiker use days.
The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in record use levels on many public lands as people sought the relative safety of recreating outside and distanced from other people. The comparison with 2019 (288,000 hiker days) was made starker by lingering snowpack and avalanche debris-choked roads in the first half of that season. When compared to the 2018 prior high of 353,000 hiker days, the 2020 season total was up 18 percent. The statewide economic impact of hiking Colorado 14ers in 2020 was $112.5 million based on past 14er hiking use expenditure studies.
“The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in record hiking use of Colorado’s 14ers, as well as significant changes in when and where people climbed peaks,” said Lloyd F. Athearn, executive director of CFI. “Whether due to more flexible work schedules or trying to avoid crowded trails, hiking use increased on weekdays (52.1% of weekly use), but declined on weekends (47.9%). Hiking use also increased substantially in the San Juan Mountains, Sawatch Range and Mosquito Range as people appeared to disperse their activity to less-frequently climbed peaks.”
Hiking use continues to be concentrated on the 11 peaks closest to the Denver metro area, though the share of use on these peaks dropped 6 percent compared to 2019. Fifty-one percent of statewide use occurred on the 11 peaks closest to the Front Range in 2020, down from 57 percent the prior year. The closure of the Mount Evans road was a significant factor in this reduction, as was growth in hiking use in the Sawatch and San Juan Ranges.
After two seasons with very close use levels, Quandary Peak blew past Mount Bierstadt in 2020 to claim the undisputed title as the most-climbed Colorado 14er by almost 11,000 hiker days (49,179 vs 38,204). CFI’s trail counter on Quandary’s east ridge route captured 100 percent of the estimated hiking season.
SLV Hiking Numbers
So what about those closer to home? How did the Sangre de Cristos fair? While no surprise to local mountaineers, the Sangre de Cristos 14ers tend to be on the more lightly used end of the spectrum with the most reasonable numbers reported between 1,000- 3,000 users. On the other side of the San Luis Valley, the San Juan Mountains see much more use with Handies Peak leading the way between 10,000 and 15,000 visitor tallies.
“While growth in 14er hiking on some peaks has been dramatic during the past few years CFI has been tracking use, that does not necessarily translate into increased on-the-ground resource impacts,” said Athearn. “In many places, our investments in trail construction and maintenance mean the summit trail is in better condition despite significantly increased hiking use.”
Peaking With More Details
A CFI trail counter was installed on Mount Bierstadt in mid-July, which captured data for 63 percent of the season. Early season data on Bierstadt was modeled. Between June 20 and September 7 (Labor Day), Quandary Peak saw only five days in which fewer than 200 people climbed the peak.
The route up Grays and Torreys Peaks saw almost 31,000 hiker days, while the route encompassing Mounts Democrat, Lincoln and Bross had total use of more than 29,000 days. (Note: The actual summit of Bross is closed due to private land issues, but hikers were permitted on a bypass loop route near the summit).
Hiking use continued a three-year trend of shifting away from weekends and towards weekdays— particularly Wednesday through Friday. Almost 48 percent (47.9%) of use occurred on weekends, while 52.1% of use occurred on week days. Nevertheless, Saturday continues to be the highest-use day (28.3%), followed by Sunday (19.6%), Friday (14.1%), Thursday, (10.2%), Monday (9.9%) and Wednesday (9.8%). Tuesday has the lowest share of weekly hiking use (8.1%). Last year CFI expanded its counter network to 23 locations with the addition of Bierstadt. Counters that had observed data for more than 90 percent of the season included Pikes (100%–Devil’s Playground), Quandary (100%), La Plata (99%), Grays/Torreys (94%) and Democrat (92%). Counters that collected between 60 and 90 percent of the season included: Huron (89%), Challenger/Kit Carson (83%), Princeton (73%), Blanca/Ellingwood (70%), Lindsey (68%), Handies (66%–Grizzly Gulch and American Basin), Redcloud/Sunshine (65%), Bierstadt (62%), Sneffels (61%) and Wilson Peak (61%).
Counter malfunctions or blockages limited data collection from the counters on Castle and Elbert (Northeast and East Ridge counters).
Popularity of Hiking Among Young Newcomers
Colorado was the fourth-fastest-growing state between 2010 and 2019, growing its population by 14.5 percent. The Denver metro area has grown nearly 15 percent during the same period. In-migration was highest for those aged 24-32, the prime age for fit, outdoor-oriented people to be exploring Colorado’s high peaks.
CFI’s estimate of hiking use suggests a statewide economic impact of more than $112.5 million directly attributable to hiking 14ers based on economic expenditure studies performed by Colorado State University economists John Loomis and Catherine Keske. Their 2009 study found that climbers of Quandary Peak near Breckenridge spent an average of $271.17 per day for gasoline, food, lodging, equipment, and other retail purchases. This expenditure estimate has not been updated in almost a decade, so it is likely understated.
“The challenge is building out and maintaining the network of sustainably designed, durably constructed summit hiking trails—CFI’s top priority—before hiking use impacts make this harder and more expensive to do,” said Athearn. “If we can provide a robust network of 14er hiking trails that protects the fragile alpine tundra ecosystems through which these trails pass we can protect these signature Colorado peaks while helping foster recreational enjoyment and economic development for years to come.”