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Hiker traffic on Colorado 14ers fell in 2021 after setting a record in 2020

Hikers descend on Quandary Peak trail on July 9 near Breckenridge. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)
Hindered access to most popular 14ers decreases traffic

After a record-setting year for Colorado’s highest peaks at the height of the pandemic, traffic on the state’s 14ers dropped in 2021, falling by more than 110,000 user days.

The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, using remote-sensor counters on 23 trails around the state, counted about 303,000 hikers scaling the state’s 54 14,000-foot peaks in 2021, down 27% from an estimated 415,000 in 2020. The summer of 2020 was an outlier though, with 14ers remaining one of the few activities available during the early months of the pandemic lockdown.

Still, the 2021 traffic is an increase from the pre-pandemic numbers logged in 2019, when the initiative’s infrared trail counters and surveys showed about 288,000 hikers on the peaks. In 2017 traffic counts reached 334,000.

Lloyd Athearn, the director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative called 2021 “a significant bust” as communities and landowners limited access to 14ers and other recreational options opened coming out of the pandemic.

A large part of the decrease in 2021 came from the Mosquito Range. Traffic to the Mosquito Range’s four 14ers – Mounts Lincoln, Bross, Democrat and Sherman – collapsed in 2021, falling by more than 30,000 hiker days. That was largely caused by a two-month summer closure of the privately owned Lincoln and Democrat by landowners concerned by liability issues involving hikers and old mining structures on the peaks.

Combined with paid parking at Quandary Peak, no-parking signs on the roadway leading to the trailhead that accesses Grays and Torreys peaks, a construction closure on Halfmoon Road to the Mount Elbert trailhead and wildfire smoke in August last year, Athearn said, “the most popular signature mountains closest to the Front Range were sort of knee-capped in terms of access.”

“Still we had 303,000 people hiking across the state,” he said. “That’s good.”

Hikers descend the Decalibron Loop trail on Mount Bross on July 12 outside Alma. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun)

Traffic on Quandary Peak fell to about 35,000 hikers in 2021, down about 29% from the previous summer. Mount Bierstadt traffic remained strong with about 32,000 hikers, slightly down from 2020. Grays Peak and Torreys Peak traffic in 2021 was about 22,000 hikers, down from closer to 35,000 in 2020.

The Elk Mountains – with challenging climbs to reach Capitol Peak, Maroon Peak and Snowmass Mountain – and the 10 14ers in the Sangre de Cristo range reported the only increases among the Colorado mountain ranges with 14,000-foot peaks.

The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative estimates 14er hiking in Colorado generated more than $82 million in economic impact in 2021. That’s based on a 2009 study by Colorado State University researchers who found hikers who scaled Quandary Peak near Breckenridge spent about $271 a day.

The Town of Alma sells day passes and camping passes at Kite Lake as a concessionaire for the U.S. Forest Service. The Kite Lake trailhead accesses the Decalibron Loop, which traverses four 14ers: Mount Democrat, Mount Lincoln, Cameron Peak and Mount Bross.

In 2020, the town sold 14,817 day passes and 1,291 camping tickets, almost triple the number of passes the town sold in 2019. In 2021, when landowner John Reiber closed access to the peaks of Mount Democrat and Lincoln over concerns that hikers venturing into century-old mining structures could be injured and sue him, Alma sold only 3,664 day passes and 363 camping spots. The town’s concessionaire contract with the Forest Service, which helps the town protect its watershed around Kite Lake, directs 10% of the revenue to the federal government. The rest is used to take care of the road leading to the trailhead, the parking lot and campground facilities.

“Less visitors means less revenue, but also less traffic and less wear on the road and facilities, so less expenditures,” said Alma Town Manager Nancy Comer. “The temporary shutdown balanced out for us.”

Read more at The Colorado Sun

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.