After a record year for Colorado’s highest peaks at the height of the pandemic, traffic on the state’s 14s fell in 2021, falling by more than 110,000 user-days.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, which deployed remote sensor counters on 23 trails across the state, counted about 303,000 hikers climbing the state’s 54 14,000-foot peaks in 2021, down 27% from an estimated 415,000 in 2020 . However, the summer of 2020 has been an outlier, with 14ers remaining one of the few activities available in the early months of the pandemic lockdown.
Still, 2021 traffic is an increase from pre-pandemic numbers in 2019, when the initiative’s infrared trail counts and surveys showed about 288,000 hikers at the peaks. In 2017, traffic numbers reached 334,000.
Lloyd Athearn, the director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, called 2021 “a significant bust” as communities and landowners restricted access to 14ers and other recreational opportunities in the wake of the pandemic.
Much of the 2021 decline came from the Mosquito Range. Traffic to the four 14s of the Mosquito Range — Mounts Lincoln, Bross, Democrat and Sherman — collapsed in 2021, falling by more than 30,000 hiking days. This was largely caused by a two-month summer closure of the privately owned Lincoln and Democrat by landowners affected by liability issues related to hikers and old mining structures on the peaks.
Combined with metered parking at Quandary Peak, no-parking signs on the road leading to the trailhead that leads to Grays and Torreys peaks, a construction closure on Halfmoon Road to the trailhead on Mount Elbert, and wildfire smoke last August, Athearn said : “The most popular signature mountains closest to the Front Range were kind of knee-deep in terms of access.”
“Even so, we had 303,000 people migrating across the state,” he said. “It’s good.”
Traffic on Quandary Peak dropped to about 35,000 hikers in 2021, down about 29% from the previous summer. Traffic on Mount Bierstadt remained heavy with about 32,000 hikers, a slight decrease from 2020. Traffic on Grays Peak and Torreys Peak was about 22,000 hikers in 2021, up from just under 35,000 in 2020.
The Elk Mountains — with challenging climbs to Capitol Peak, Maroon Peak and Snowmass Mountain — and the 10 14ers in the Sangre de Cristo range reported the only climbs among the Colorado mountain ranges with 14,000-foot peaks.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative estimates that 14er hikes in Colorado generated more than $82 million in economic impact in 2021. That’s based on a 2009 study by researchers at Colorado State University, who found that hikers who climbed Quandary Peak near Breckenridge spent about $271 a day.
The City of Alma sells day passes and camping passes at Kite Lake as a concessionaire for the US Forest Service. The Kite Lake Trailhead leads to the Decalibron Loop, which traverses four 14s: Mount Democrat, Mount Lincoln, Cameron Peak and Mount Bross.
In 2020, the city sold 14,817 day passes and 1,291 camping tickets, nearly three times the number of passes in 2019. In 2021, when landowner John Reiber closed access to the peaks of Mount Democrat and Lincoln over fears of hikers venturing into the century -old mining structures could be injured and sue him, Alma only sold 3,664 day passes and 363 campsites. The city’s concession agreement with the Forest Service, which helps the city protect its watershed around Kite Lake, directs 10% of revenue to the federal government. The remainder is used to maintain the road to the trailhead, the car park and the campsite facilities.
“Fewer visitors means less revenue, but also less traffic and less wear and tear on the road and facilities, so less spending,” said Alma Town Manager Nancy Comer. “The temporary shutdown has balanced out for us.”
This story first appeared in The Outsider, Jason Blevins’ premium outdoor newsletter. >> Subscribe to