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Rocky Mountain Low? Colorado 14ers See Record Dip in Visits

In 2022, fewer hikers hit the trails of Colorado 14ers than any year since 2015, when a local nonprofit began recording foot traffic.

quandary peakQuandary Peak trail seen during the 2020 season; (photo/Shutterstock)
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After several big-growth years of foot traffic in the Colorado Rockies, the number of hikers has finally fallen significantly.

Colorado’s biggest mountains, known as 14ers for their altitude of over 14,000 feet, saw 279,000 hiking days during the 2022 season, according to the annual Hiking Use Estimates report. Compared to the record 415,000 hiking days logged in 2020, that amounts to a 33% decrease in 2 years, said leaders of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, who produce the reports.

That’s not exactly shocking, as weather changes and the receding pandemic were likely to result in fewer visits to the mountains. But Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, feels concerned that permanent residents of the Rocky Mountain State are fed up with tourists.

“The number of people hiking 14ers fell consistently across the state and to levels we have not seen in more than seven years,” Athearn said in a news release. “Use continued to fall most dramatically on the peaks closest to Denver due to parking and access restrictions. The only area to see increased hiking traffic was the Mosquito Range, where the re-opening of the Decalibron Loop returned hiking use to more traditional levels.”

The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative uses infrared counters to track the number of hikers; (photo/Colorado Fourteeners Initiative)

Possible Pushback From Locals?

Even among the GearJunkie staff, there’s some anecdotal evidence that some Coloradoans are tired of sharing the trails. And just last week, the owners of Crystal Mill, one of Colorado’s most vistas, closed the site due to bad behavior by visitors.

Granted, those kinds of stories don’t reflect the sentiments of all Colorado residents. And the Colorado government has spent millions of dollars on developing trails on 14ers — for anyone who wants to visit.

However, Athearn feels concerned about growing resentment among locals who feel frustrated by the growing pains of living in one of the country’s fastest-growing states.

“I worry that we’re going in this negative direction where people are just saying ‘there’s too much. Too many people, too many dogs, too much whatever, and so let’s just stop,’” Athearn said during a recent safety panel. “Is this a canary in the coal mine for our recreation-based economy?”

A Mixed Bag in Peak Visitation Numbers

The Mosquito Range and the Elk Mountains are the only groups that did not see decreases in foot traffic, according to the annual report, which relies on infrared trail counters to track daily usage.

The Elk Mountains, near Aspen, include Castle Peak, Maroon Peak, North Maroon, Capitol Peak, Snowmass Mountain, Conundrum Peak, and Pyramid Peak. These mountains saw roughly the same number of hikers as in 2021 (about 7,000).

Then there’s the Mosquito Range, just east of Leadville, which actually increased its hiker count to almost double — from 17,000 in 2021 to 32,000 in 2022. That’s most likely because of a 2-month closure of Mount Lincoln, Mount Democrat, and Mount Bross in 2021, according to Athearn.

However, big dips in hiking days were seen in the Sawatch Range (west of Buena Vista), the Front Range (close to Denver), and the state’s most popular 14er: Quandary Peak (south of Breckenridge).

It’s likely that this year will also see fewer hikers than years past, mainly because of the record snowpack. But Athearn also worries about communities about new permits and fees for accessing some of Colorado’s mountains, most of which have long been free to hikers and climbers.

“The thing that’s always hard for communities to understand is that these are our national forests and our national parks,” Athearn told The Colorado Sun. “They may be located largely in the West, they may be in our backyards, but they’re really owned by all the people in the USA.”

a mountaineer on a summit ridgeline

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