After pandemic highs, Colorado 14ers saw fewer hikers in 2022. Did parking restrictions help fuel the decline?
Over the past two years, hiker visits at Quandary Peak have dropped almost 55% while other peaks near the Front Range have also contributed to the statewide trend
The number of people climbing Colorado’s 14ers fell by 8% last year to about 279,000 hiker days, according to a report released last week by the Colorado Fourteener Initiative. That is the second lowest level logged since the initiative began keeping statistics in 2014.
After all-time highs during the pandemic, the nonprofit that helps maintain the state’s famous peaks above 14,000 feet elevation has attributed the steep decline in hiker visits largely to a crackdown on parking near trailheads within driving distance of Denver.
“The theme we’ve seen over the past five years is that some of the major swings in the overall statewide visits that we’re getting are coming from a handful of peaks,” Fourteener Initiative communications manager Brian Sargeant said. “It’s all really tied to the Front Range, easy-access peaks.”
Quandary Peak, less than two hours from Denver, fueled the statewide decline in hiker visits. An estimated 13,000 fewer hikers traversed the peak just south of Breckenridge last year, the Colorado Fourteener Initiative’s 2022 hiker use report found.
The 22,000 hiker days logged at Quandary in 2022 is fewer than half of the estimated 49,000 hiker days logged during the pandemic in 2020 and down 37% from 2021, according to the report. Indisputably the most hiked 14er every year since 2020, Quandary lost that status to Mount Bierstadt, which saw an estimated 32,000 hiker days in 2022.
“You flipped the pandemic switch and everyone sort of flooded the trails,” Sargeant said. “We’re starting to see that pandemic rush maybe start to slow down with less people on the peaks.”
When a nationwide lockdown and the realities of social distancing enticed people outside, there was a huge boost in outdoor recreation, including at Colorado’s 14ers. That influx in visitors, though, created parking issues at many trailheads, including Quandary, that local governments have tried to correct with parking regulations, Sargeant said.
For the first full season, hikers at Quandary last year had to either pay for a reserved trailhead parking spot, ride a paid town shuttle or find another way to be dropped off at the trailhead, Sargeant noted, which contributed to the decline in hiker visits.
“Local governments who are coming in putting the clamp down with parking — at Quandary with the reservation, fees and shuttle — have gone through and really chopped the use down,” Sargeant said.
Last year, parking at Quandary cost $25 on weekdays and $50 on weekends, while it cost $15 to park at the shuttle lot and an additional $15 for visitors and $5 for locals for the ride to the trailhead.
The Summit County government implemented the paid parking and shuttle system at Quandary to curb illegal parking at the trailhead that clogged important access roads for emergency responders and search and rescue personnel.
Sargeant said he understood this reasoning. But he raised concern that the restrictions on parking at Quandary may result in the 14,000-foot peak becoming accessible only to those who have the privilege of money and flexible schedules to reserve ahead.
“We’d love to see these peaks accessible to everyone,” Sargeant said. “If you’re putting up parking fees, it’s going to limit the amount of people able to go there and probably make it so that its wealthier individuals with more resources — white people. It’s certainly not helping us increase access to people historically less able to go to these places.”
Grays and Torreys Peaks on the Front Range had the second steepest decline in hiking in 2022, with an estimated 19,000 hiker days, down 14% from the previous year and 39% from 2020, the report found.
Like Quandary, parking restrictions stymied hiker visits to the two 14,000-plus-foot peaks located about an hour drive from Denver, according to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.
For the past two years, hikers at Grays and Torreys have not been allowed to park on Stevens Gulch Road. That means if the trailhead parking fills up, hikers must park near Interstate 70 and hike an additional 3.5 miles each way along the road, Sargeant noted. Like Quandary, safety concerns about emergency access to trailheads led to the crackdown on parking.
Colorado Search and Rescue Association spokesperson Anna DeBattiste said that while the influx of hikers during the pandemic kept rescue groups busy, the fact that most hikers were contained to a few popular trails helped keep that in check.
“The fact that there are a lot of people on one route, while it might make it boring for us going up there all the time, it means we’re not going all over the place,” DeBattiste said. “We sometimes get asked, ‘Why not recommend somewhere off the beaten track?’ That is going to take more rescuer time to spread people out.”
Another thing that has happened as more people have congregated on popular trails, DeBattiste added, is that incidents that would have normally been handled by a search and rescue team end up being handled by hikers already in the field who help each other.
“When the mountain is really crowded, people kind of crowd rescue,” said DeBattiste, who is also a volunteer member and spokesperson for Summit County Rescue Group. “Oftentimes we hear about something that resolved itself and didn’t require us to go out.”
Despite the overall drop in hiker visits to Colorado 14ers in 2022, fewer hikers did not necessarily mean there were fewer backcountry rescues at those peaks, according to DeBattiste.
At Quandary, the only 14er in Summit County, the call volume increased significantly with the pandemic, DeBattiste said. From six Quandary calls in the 2018 summer season and two in 2019, summer rescues jumped to seven calls in 2020 and 14 calls in 2021, according to Summit County Rescue Group statistics.
But as hiker visitation dropped 37% at Quandary in 2022, rescues did not dip as dramatically. The all-volunteer rescue group still responded there 10 times last summer.
Still, DeBattiste said the parking system in place at the Quandary has helped reduce the vehicle congestion that in years past had made it difficult for the rescue group as well as police and fire to access the trailhead.
Visitation at Quandary had been rising steadily prior to the pandemic, when it exploded to almost 50,000 hiker days in 2020. Sometimes, vehicles would line both sides of the road up to the trailhead, DeBattiste said, preventing emergency vehicles from passing.
“We were having a tough time in those years prior to the shuttle system, that is one thing I will say about the shuttle system,” DeBattiste said. “We’d been having problems with trailhead access for a few years. It was getting increasingly difficult every year.”
While hiker days at Colorado 14ers decreased overall in 2022, hiker visits to 14ers in the Elk Mountains, San Juan Mountains and Sangre de Cristo Range have remained relatively steady over the past five years.
The only Colorado 14ers to see increased hiking traffic last year were peaks in the Mosquito Range, where the reopening of the Decalibron Loop — which includes Mount Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross — returned hiking use to more traditional levels, according to the report.
The Colorado Fourteener Initiative’s hiker use estimates are based on statistics from infrared trail counters, crowdsourced mobile app data and linear modeling projections. Hiking use is estimated for the period between May 24 and October 10.
Sargeant noted that while trails like Quandary had a lot of visitors during 2020 and 2021, the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has focused on constructing sustainable trails out of rock and lumber. On well-constructed trails like this, hikers are less likely to wander so higher usage doesn’t necessarily equate to higher impacts, he said.
“Our ultimate goal is to protect the Alpine resource,” Sargeant said. “We build the trails. Obviously a byproduct of that is it might make the trails easier to hike, easier to follow, easier for people who might not have hiked a 14er before.”
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