Study: Aspen area’s 14,000-foot peaks are least climbed in the state
The Aspen Times
The highest peaks in the Elk Mountains surrounding Aspen are the least visited among the Colorado 14ers, according to a study of hiking use by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.
The peaks in the Elk Mountains receive an estimated 7,000 visits per year, the study said. The study estimated that fewer than 1,000 trips are made per year to Pyramid Peak, Maroon Peak, Capitol Peak and Snowmass Mountain. South Maroon Peak wasn’t considered separate from Maroon Peak in the study. Castle Peak received the most visits in the Elks, with use estimated between 3,000 and 5,000 visits annually.
In contrast, the 14ers in the Sawatch Range attract an estimated 95,000 peak baggers per year. Even when accounting for the greater number of big peaks in the Sawatch, its individual mountains see more activity than those in the Elk Mountain Range, the study showed.
“It’s apparent a lot of people undertake this activity, both visitors and those who live here,” said Lloyd Athern, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.
The data was for 2015. Hiking use was measured in “person days” representing one person hiking one peak on one day. It doesn’t necessarily represent the number of people hiking in a year because many people bag many peaks each year.
Colorado Fourteeners Initiative collected the information from using infrared trail counters at nine locations adjacent to summit hiking trails in seven of the 14ers, include Castle Peak southwest of Aspen. Estimates for other peaks were based on “crowdsourced 14er checklists” on the 14ers.com website submitted by 14,000 individual hikers.
Hard peaks to climb
Athern said it came as no surprise that the Elk Mountain 14ers were the least visited. Several of them are difficult peaks to climb, he said. Castle Peak is the least technical among them. It is “fairly easy to approach,” Athern said, and the “rock is relatively OK, for the Elks.”
Snowmass Mountain also is relatively easy to hike, but it’s difficult to get to, so that reduces the numbers.
The study indicated that distance from Denver and the rest of the Front Range, accessibility and difficulty of hike all factored into visitation.
Mount Elbert, the highest point in Colorado, received the most visitors, estimated to be between 20,000 and 25,000. It’s a long but relatively easy slog to reach the summit.
Among the least visited, in addition to those in the Elks, were Mount Wilson, El Diente Peak, Mount Eolus and Wilson Peak, all in the San Juan Mountains and with less than 1,000 visits annually. Culebra Peak and Little Bear Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range also had fewer than 1,000 visits per year, the study indicated.
Saturdays are the day to avoid
Total hiking day use was estimated at 260,000. Athern said when he joined Colorado Fourteeners Initiative seven years ago, some people were guessing that the big peaks were hosting half a million hiking and climbing use days per year. He thought the estimate was high.
“It was coming in where my gut was telling me was the number,” he said.
But it’s easy to see why some people feel like the number is higher, he acknowledged. Weekends in July are prime time on the 14ers.
“More than half of all fourteener hiking use occurred on weekends, with Saturday being the most popular individual day of the week,” said a summary of the report. Mid-June to mid-August is the busiest time. Saturdays accounted for 30.6 percent of visits, Sundays were 19.8 percent and Fridays 13.7 percent.
“Hikers wanting to find more solitude can find it on most peaks between Monday and Thursday, on the more remote mountain ranges of southern and western Colorado and after mid-August when hiking use levels drop significantly,” the study summary said.
Athern said he has learned anecdotally that the number of people they encounter while hiking the big peaks doesn’t alarm many hikers, particularly visitors. They aren’t necessarily seeking solitude. “The recreation experience to them might be the most important,” he said.
Monitor trail wear
The nonprofit organization’s mission is to protect and preserve the natural integrity of Colorado’s peaks over 14,000 feet through stewardship and education. Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has teamed with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to build sustainable trails on many of the big peaks. It released a report card last year to give a grade to the condition of the trails.
Athern said the baseline study on use will be updated periodically and CFI will gauge how use translates into wear and tear.
He noted that high use doesn’t necessarily mean a trail will erode or wear down quicker. The trail on San Luis Peak, for example, is braided and eroded even though use is relatively low.
More on the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative and its programs can be found at www.14ers.org.
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