Despite crowds Summit County trails provide opportunity for enhanced outdoor experiences
Summit County community encourages carpooling and proper trail etiquette to preserve life of trails
Back in 2020, Summit County’s trails exploded in popularity as hikers and bikers were eager to escape the confines of their home and explore the great outdoors during the pandemic.
Breckenridge Open Space and Trails Department specialist Tony Overlock said the trend of bustling trailhead parking lots and crowded trails continued during the 2021 summer season as people continued to flock to Summit County for outdoor recreation at higher rates.
Overlock predicts that the 2022 summer season will see the same issues because people are still interested in getting outdoors and into the cooler mountain climate.
“We are seeing users out there, and it’s a variety from walkers, hikers, bird watchers to mountain bikers,” Overlock said. “In general, we are just seeing more and more users out there because people are looking for that outdoor escape, and Breckenridge provides a great place to do that.”
Those not local to Summit County may not realize that summer is just as busy as the winter season, if not busier. Individuals come to the area for a wide range of reasons whether they are camping, hiking, biking or going to local festivals.
Data from the Colorado Department of Transportation supports this. Westbound traffic counts through the Eisenhower Tunnel peaked in the month of July with 655,939 vehicles. That data point is well above the busiest winter month of December, which saw 548,672 vehicles pass through Eisenhower tunnel in 2021.
“It’s so hot everywhere else, and people come here to escape the heat from the Front Range and other places like Texas and Florida where you can’t do much in the summer because it’s just too hot,“ Summit County Open Space and Trails director Katherine King said.
King also said people are attracted to the area’s trails because there are a lot of beginner to expert trails for mountain biking, cycling, hiking, or trail running.
All of the traffic to the Western Slope often leads to a challenging predicament and a paradox for town officials and recreation departments.
Towns love to see trails busy, since it helps to drive revenue brought in by tourism, but it is challenging, at times, to figure out how to accommodate large masses of people every weekend while still keeping trails in good condition.
Hordes of trail users who follow trail etiquette can easily erode trails quickly, but when you add the fact that some individuals do not follow the rules, the trail — along with the surrounding ecosystem — can quickly become destroyed.
Last year, the Town of Breckenridge introduced new trail signage, designed by Nikki LaRochelle, which encouraged trail users to follow trail etiquette.
Overlock says the town will continue to use these signs as a fixture on Breckenridge’s trails this upcoming season in order to help mitigate some of the wear and tear that has occurred over the last few seasons.
“It is hard to quantify how effective the signs were, but I think everything we can do to educate people the better,” Overlock said. “By moving those signs around — something catchy, something funny — I think that does catch someone’s attention. We have received numerous comments from visitors and residents of how much they like the signs.”
Overlock says this season, the town will team up with the Breckenridge Tourism office in order to cut down on the deterioration of trails by directing people to trails that are seeing less foot traffic.
Breckenridge’s Open Space and Trails Department is also trying to partner with popular smartphone applications — such as the Colorado Trail Explorer, AllTrails and MTB Project — to suggest trail guidelines such as, Leave No Trace or Know Before You Go.
King said smartphone trail applications are one reason why she thinks trails in the area and across the state have become so popular.
“Popularity of trails is not just because of increased visitation but also because we have the internet, and we have apps,” King said. “Nothing is a secret anymore. You can go on any app that tells you what route to hike and how long it is going to take.”
The result is that nobody — not even longtime local Karn Steigelmeier, a former Summit County Commissioner and avid white-water enthusiast — has a trail that is their own secret anymore. Instead, trails that used to be hidden treasures are seeing more foot traffic.
Steigelmeier said she would not be surprised if other popular trailheads in Summit had to turn to reservation-only access or shuttle systems, like Quandary Peak, in order to cut down on the amount of people that are present on the trail at one time.
“We encourage people to use public transportation to get to trailheads or ride your bike to a trailhead instead of drive and parking because we realize trailheads are oftentimes a pinch point,” King said.
Despite crowded trail conditions, King said a good portion of the Summit County Open Space and Trails’ survey results showed once people are out on the trail, away from the crowds, they are enjoying the surrounding beauty around them.
County officials encourage all trail users interested in having an optimal experience out on the trail to not only plan their trip in advance but leave no trace while on the trails.
“This is something our community values and is important to us. Our expectation is when you come here to be a guest in our community, you are going to recreate responsibly and treat others and our trails with respect,” King said.
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