As peak bagging surges on Colorado 14ers, Aspen’s Elk Mountains remain among least visited

Scott Condon The Aspen Times
Midvalley resident Margot Moselle stops to reflect climbing Capitol Peak Sunday with friends.
Margot Moselle/courtesy photo

Some of Colorado’s 54 peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation get deluged with as many hikers in a busy weekend as any one of the five Aspen-area fourteeners host all summer, according to a new study.

Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a conservation group, updated its counts and projections on hiker days on the high peaks recently and found that use increased as much as 7 percent on some peaks in summer 2017 compared with the prior year.

Mount Bierstadt is the busiest fourteener in the state, due to its proximity to Denver, accessibility and the relatively easy hike.

“The busiest single day last season on Bierstadt was July 18, which saw a whopping 1,382 hikers attempt the peak,” CFI’s study said.

Mount Bierstadt hosts between 35,000 and 40,000 hiker-use days per summer, the study said, citing information from a U.S. Forest Service counter and trailhead register analysis.

Torreys Peak and Grays Peak were the next busiest peaks. Counters installed by CFI indicated 25,000 to 30,000 hikers per summer scale those mountains, often hiked together because of their close proximity.

In contrast are the high peaks in the Elk Mountains surrounding Aspen. Castle Peak, Maroon Peak, Capitol Peak, Pyramid Peak and Snowmass Mountain log between 1,000 to 3,000 hiker-use days per year, according to CFI. That’s based on a counter at Castle Peak and projections from a multi-factor modeling process for the other four mountains, said Lloyd Athearn, CFI’s executive director.

As a whole, the five Elk Mountain peaks are estimated to attract 9,000 hikers and climbers during the heart of the climbing and hiking season.

Athearn said it is no surprise that use is lower for the fourteeners in the Elk Mountain Range.

“They are obviously some of the hardest peaks in the state,” he said.

Only the 10 high peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Range and a handful of individual peaks in the San Juan Mountains match the Elks for low use.

Athearn said CFI’s estimates indicate annual use for the Elk Mountains is remaining consistently low while it’s growing in many other ranges.

“Last year, an estimated 334,000 people hiked a 14,000-foot peak in Colorado during the primary hiking season,” CFI’s study said. “This total represents an overall increase of roughly 23,000 person days compared to CFI’s estimate of 311,000 hiker-use days for 2016.”

Some of the increase is attributed to better data collection, Athearn said. For example, installation of counters on the Mount Bierstadt trail by the Forest Service for 2017 showed CFI had underestimated use there in 2016. But some mountains where trail counters existed in 2016 and 2017 show a year-to-year increase.

Chances are that more people will be attracted to the state’s highest peaks as the population soars and destination tourism oriented around the outdoors surges, Athearn said. It is unknown if that will translate into an increase in hikers and climbers in the Elk Mountains, he said.

Data from 2018 visits will be assessed this winter.

Blue Lake resident Margot Moselle has hiked several of Colorado’s fourteeners and made her first trip up Capitol Peak on Sunday. The trail was far from crowded. Her group of three encountered about 12 people, including “some crazy trail runners,” she said.

Moselle said she realizes the fourteeners can be crowded at times, but it takes just a bit of strategic planning to reduce encounters with other people.

“It’s all relative to what day of the week you go,” she said.

She has hiked several of the 14ers in the Collegiate Peaks this summer on Sundays and weekdays and avoided crowds.

She said the mountain trails she has hiked are free of litter and generally in good shape.

CFI’s concern is over the condition of the ecosystem rather than the social implications of growing numbers of hikers.

“The challenge really falls on the land managers about what kind of experience people should have in this environment,” Athearn said.

The nonprofit organization was founded in 1994 to preserve and protect the natural integrity of the fourteeners through stewardship and education. It has constructed 31 sustainably designed, durably built summit trails on 28 of the peaks. (There are multiple routes up some of the mountains.)

With increasing numbers of hikers, the challenge for CFI is making sure the trails adequately handle the hordes. On heavily used Quandary Peak, the trail is holding up well, Athearn said. On Mount Bierstadt, hikers tend to want to stray from a muddy trail. That creates a problem because there is so much high tundra that gets damaged when people stray off trails, he said.

CFI is updating an inventory of trail conditions to gauge how they are holding up. The results will help it plan future courses of maintenance. For more on the organization, visit

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