Officials mull Quandary Peak shuttle service as possible solution to trailhead parking problem
December 8, 2017
Quandary Peak wasn't named for the parking headaches at its trailhead, but during the high season that's an apt description for many who arrive to find the small parking lot swollen with cars.
Summit County's only 14er is now the fifth most popular in the state, according to survey data from the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, and the number of people trekking up its ridge each summer is unlikely to taper off any time soon.
The parking problem is more than just an annoyance to hikers and nearby residents; it's a safety hazard when the lot fills up and as many as 100 cars park along the side of Highway 9 and its hairpin turns near Hoosier Pass. That's illegal, but the Summit County Sheriff's Office simply doesn't have the manpower to ticket so many cars day in and day out.
It's a vexing if not entirely unique problem that land managers across the state face when trying to balance access to public spaces with the crushes of visitors and the toll they take on infrastructure — most notably in places like Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs.
To search for possible answers, the U.S. Forest Service recently invited a group of graduate students at the University of Colorado Boulder's Masters of Environment program to come up with some ideas to ease Quandary's parking problem.
"The Forest Service can't solve this problem alone, so we need all of the help we can get with ideas and possible new approaches — and funding," said Bill Jackson, district ranger for the White River National Forest's Dillon Ranger District, during the students' presentation in Frisco Friday morning.
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To come up with their suggestions, the students conducted hours of interviews with local stakeholders, from the patchwork of agencies that manage Quandary and the surrounding area to local residents and users.
"Interest levels were extremely high with this project," said student Rachel Meier during the presentation. "Very few people we talked to or who responded to our surveys were apathetic about the situation at Quandary."
Drawing on those interviews and case studies of how other high-use areas like Hanging Lake manage crowds, the students determined that one of the most promising options would be to run shuttles from Breckenridge to Quandary and use no-fee permits to help control crowds and educate hikers about the delicate high-alpine ecosystem.
"We feel that Summit County is well positioned for a shuttle system because of the existing infrastructure it has with the Summit Stage bus service," one of the students explained. "We saw this not only as a way to remove cars, but also as an intervention to be able to talk to hikers before they go about preparedness and trail stewardship."
Unlike Quandary, Breckenridge has ample parking during the summer when ski area lots sit mostly empty. The town's amenities would also give hikers a chance to pick up items they might have forgotten at home or grab a beer and a burger after the long hike.
The students envisioned a shuttle system as the final component of a three-phase process for managing the crowded trailhead.
The first would entail a redesign of the parking area, although that approach was only expected to reap limited benefits. The parking lot is county-owned, but the surrounding area is Forest Service land, and encroaching there would trigger burdensome environmental reviews mandated by federal law.
"It was clear from our interviews that expanding the parking lot alone will not solve this problem," said Whitney Dodd, one of the students.
The second phase would entail increasing the signage in the area, reminding people that parking on the side of the road is illegal. That could be dovetailed with other notices educating hikers about the extremely delicate high-alpine ecosystem and reminding them to stay on the trail at all times.
That relates to another issue with easing parking problems at Quandary: If the three-phase plan were implemented, the added capacity would likely lead to a surge in users, and thus more wear and tear on the trail.
Randy Wheelock, a Creek County Commissioner who was in the audience Friday morning, pointed out that trailhead expansions at the popular Mount Bierstadt led to a spike in users. The original trail on that peak was cut at a width of 24 inches, but steady streams of hikers over the years have widened it to 50 feet in some places.
The students acknowledged that could be an issue, however given the limited, three-month scope of their project, they didn't have the time or resources to delve into that aspect of Quandary's future. What's clear, however, is that a plan to manage trail impacts will need to accompany any parking fix at the popular peak.
"We are looking at incredible population gains in this state, so we are probably going to meet a threshold where that (Quandary) trail is going to be very difficult to manage," one Forest Service official pointed out. "We can harden the trail to a point with our current funding level … but I'm not sure, if we have a bus drop off hundreds of people in addition to the cars already there, that we're going to be able maintain that trail."
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