Summit County trail traffic trending similarly to busy 2020

Local experts predict trail usage will be up compared to last year

Erik Stolz prepares to hike a section of the Colorado Trail at the Rainbow Lake Trailhead in Frisco on Saturday, July 17, 2021. Local experts believe this year's trail traffic will be much like it was in 2020.
Photo by Ashley Low / Ashley Low Photography

Last summer proved to be a record-breaking year in terms of how much trail traffic there was in Summit County. This year is trending to be the same, according to local experts.

As attractions like movie theaters and concert venues closed their doors, Coloradans and visitors across the U.S. flocked to Summit County to take advantage of its outdoor recreation opportunities. Brian Lorch, Summit County Open Space & Trails director, said he expects these visitation rates to continue based on the initial trends in trail traffic this year.

“Last year, what we saw was in the range of a 50% increase in our use on the (Summit County recreation) path, and some trailheads we saw as much as 80% increase in what we saw in our traffic counters,” Lorch said. “That was unique. In the past, we’ve seen 10% to 20% rise, but never anything like what we saw last year. This year, we don’t have our trail counter data yet, but anecdotally I would say we are headed for similar numbers to last year in 2020.”

Data for all of the recreation areas is in the process of getting collected and likely won’t be available until the fall, but that doesn’t mean local experts weren’t ready for this wave of visitors. Lorch said there was an ongoing effort to examine some of the most popular trailheads to ensure public safety and environmental concerns don’t arise.

“The county (has been) working with the Forest Service and our sheriff’s office and all of the towns since the beginning of this year, (and we) have been meeting on a regular basis with a parking group to look at the issues throughout the county, looking at each of the various trailheads,” Lorch said. “And our intention is to go out to all of those trailheads and identify some of the issues and any practical alternatives to address any of those issues.”

Some of the most popular trails are ones that include some type of water feature, such as a lake or waterfall, and it’s usually an added bonus if these hikes are family friendly, too. A few of the most popular hikes in the county include Quandary Peak and McCullough Gulch outside of Breckenridge, Rainbow Lake in Frisco, and Cataract Lake and Boulder Lake in Silverthorne.

Mitigation efforts have already been launched to help with some of the traffic at these trailheads, with most targeting parking. Cindy Ebbert, trails and wilderness manager for the Dillon Ranger District, said parking overflow at trailheads can cause a multitude of issues.

“Overcrowding is causing parking issues along county and town roads, which are often adjacent to neighborhoods, so that creates issues for the folks that live there,” Ebbert said. “Overcrowding on the trails themselves can cause natural resource damage and it can also kind of impact visitors’ experiences that they may be looking for.”

Quandary Peak and McCullough Gulch mitigation efforts have started, including a shuttle system and permitted parking. These new measures will begin at the end of the month.

Another strategy used to mitigate parking issues is to offer various access points around the community, something that the town of Breckenridge has already started, according to Anne Lowe, open space and trails manager for the town.

“We do not have a lot of trailheads with a lot of parking and so our focus of our open space and trails program over the years has always been to try and provide connections to our network to wherever people live or at staying,” Lowe said. “We have 130 portals, or access points, in and around the town of Breckenridge that get you onto a trail.”

In the future, Pete Swenson, open space and trails manager for the town of Frisco, said he wants to see both the towns and the county build more trails. Swenson said from his perspective, the issue doesn’t stem from the additional users on the trail, but rather the impacts from parking. He believes more trail mileage would help with this.

“That’s what we’re after here is real fixes, not Band-Aids,” Swenson said. “The only fix to overcrowding and increased usage is to increase portal, trailheads and overall mileage. As a land manager, I would say land managers, the outdoor industry, the forest services, a lot of us, have let down the American public in terms of increasing trail mileage and trailheads to public lands.”

Both Swenson and Lowe reported that trail traffic is up, anecdotally speaking. Neither had data because it is still in the process of being collected.

Lorch noted that it’s not always simple when discussing trail traffic and said that the term “overcrowding” means different things to different people. When the county sent out surveys for both Quandary Peak and the Dillon Reservoir Recreation Area, Lorch said it was clear there were two different perspectives at play.

“The perceptions are different depending on who you’re talking to,” Lorch said. “We certainly find a lot more consternation about the numbers of people from locals than we do from visitors who are here for the first time or people that are coming up from the Front Range.”

Lowe said she sees this same issue play out.

“Overcrowding can mean very different things to different people,” Lowe said. “I think a lot of what overcrowding can boil down to is user experience. When we have locals who have lived here 25 to 30 years and are used to having the trail entirely to themselves, now to start seeing people on the trails, that could mean overcrowding to one person, versus a visitor coming up from the Front Range where they have a lot of traffic on their trails pretty much daily, that’s expected. Their user experience is something different and they may not think that it’s overcrowded or crowded on the trails.”

As for how to balance these two perspectives and needs, Lorch said that’s the “million dollar question.” Both the town of Breckenridge and the county are currently working on master plans for their open space and trails to help identify solutions moving forward.

Popular Trails

According to local experts, these are some of the most popular trails in Summit County:

Quandary Peak near Breckenridge

McCullough Gulch near Breckenridge

Spruce Creek near Breckenridge

Lily Pad Lake near Frisco

Cataract Lake near Silverthorne

Boulder Lake near Silverthorne

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