Liability issue concerns, parking restrictions and wildfire smoke all contributed to 112,000 fewer visits to Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in 2021, down 27% from 2020, according to a report by the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.
A record number of hikers made the trek up Colorado’s fourteeners in 2020, when pandemic lockdowns popularized the outdoor activity, making the 2021 decline particularly stark.
The Fourteener Initiative has used infrared counters since 2014 to count hikers and gauge the environmental impact of visits to the mountains. Using the remote-sensor counters on 23 trails around the state, it counted around 303,000 hikers in 2021, down from 415,000 in 2020.
The 2021 numbers are not the lowest that hiker visits have fallen — just 288,000 hikers were counted in 2019 due to excessive spring snowpack — but they do represent the most significant annual decline that the initiative has recorded.
The lack of a steady trend has made tracking the economic impact of visitors more difficult for the Colorado Fourteener Initiative, which uses the numbers to gauge the amount of money being brought to area businesses and restaurants and to fundraise on behalf of its work to modify trails to sustain foot traffic and protect the fragile alpine ecosystem.
Fourteeners in the Mosquito Range experienced the greatest decline due to a temporary summer closure in 2021 by private landowner John Reiber. A 2019 reversal of the Colorado Recreational Use Statute by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals means private landowners are no longer protected from nonlabeled liabilities if they continue to allow free public access to their trails, causing several private landowners to restrict access.
Reiber, who owns land on Mount Democrat and Mount Lincoln, temporarily shut down the “Decalibron Loop” encompassing Democrat, Lincoln and Mount Bross from May 1 to Aug. 6, 2021. The loop was reopened once liability signage was created along the route, but the summit of Bross remains closed.
“I think the private land issues and parking issues and things that have been slowly simmering over the past several years all kind of came out and definitely affected fourteener hiking, particularly along the Front Range,” said Brian Sargeant, development and communications manager for the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.
In a press release, initiative executive director Lloyd Athearn said smoke from more than 100 Western wildfires, trailhead communities seeking to control parking, and more recreational options opening up after the pandemic lockdown period also contributed to the 2021 decline.
Least affected by the drop was the Sawatch Range, experiencing just a 13% decline and suggesting people drove farther to climb fourteeners unaffected by restrictions, Athearn said.
The most frequently climbed fourteener in Colorado in 2021 was Quandary Peak, despite parking restrictions at the main trailhead that began July 31 last year, followed by Mount Bierstadt, which experienced no access restrictions.
Sargeant said that anecdotally, there appears to be no drastic increase or decrease in 2022 fourteener hikers so far, but he expects to see an increase in Mosquito Range peaks traffic now that they are open again. Parking restrictions and payment requirements for parking and riding the shuttle at Quandary Peak, however, could deter hikers from visiting, he said.
Of course, there’s really no predicting.
“It’s going to be whether or not these parking restrictions and closing of public-private lands are going to be pushing folks elsewhere,” he said.
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