Colorado’s most popular 14ers ranked by visitor numbers
Busiest Colorado 14ers (By Estimated Annual Visit):
Mount Elbert: 25,000-30,0000
Grays and Torreys Peaks: 20,000-25,000
Mount Bierstadt: 20,000-25,000
Quandary Peak: 15,000-20,000
Mount Sherman: 15,000-20,000
Mounts Lincoln, Bross and Democrat: 15,000-20,000
Pikes Peak: 15,000-20,000
The number of visitors to Colorado’s most iconic mountains experienced a 20 percent increase in the last year, according to the latest counts.
Approximately 311,000 treks up one of the state’s 54 official 14,000-foot peaks took place in 2016, according to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. The year prior, the group estimated a more conservative 260,000 hiker days — a metric that recognizes that use includes repeat climbs and people who hike multiple 14ers per year.
The sizable uptick is not necessarily representative of a dramatic expansion in visitation or the number of hikers who have joined the “peak-bagging” trend during the prime hiking season. Instead, the CFI believes it’s more likely a result of fortified efforts and investment to get more accurate totals.
“The only place where we really saw a surge where we had had a counter in a prior year and then saw a different count was on Mount Elbert,” said Lloyd Athearn, CFI’s executive director. “All three of the main hiking routes are covered with these thermal counters, so we feel very confident that that means a real increase in the number of hikers year on year climbing that mountain.”
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After Mount Elbert sat tied with Grays and Torreys Peaks — which border Summit County — and Mount Bierstadt with 20,000-25,000 visits from late-May to mid-October, the updated data moved Colorado’s tallest mountain into the new lead at 25,000-30,000 annual use days. Those other three remain in that prior elevated status.
Summit’s Quandary Peak, along with the Mosquito Range — Mounts Sherman, Lincoln, Bross and Democrat — in neighboring Park County each also maintain the projections of 15,000-20,000 yearly hikes. Pikes Peak, just outside of Colorado Springs, also joins that group to round out the state’s most frequented summer and fall traverses. (Winter numbers are not included in these counts, though CFI surmises Quandary would be on of the most popular to backcountry skiers.)
Just getting to the point of fully understanding all of this took considerable time and energy, however. The assistance of thermal counters starting in 2014, and subsequent grants to now deploy 20 of them around the state for this past year’s work, helped reach the current tallies.
A handful of years back when the organization began trying to get a real handle on how many people might be starting into the checklist climbs, the common theory was hiker days were probably about 500,000 per year. After early in-person counts along well-trod Front Range routes, Athearn said he concluded that estimate — and thoughts that increasing popularity in recent years may have even boosted it to 750,000 — was “clearly a bogus number.”
Now into the third year producing data, which entails working out the kinks of where best to position sensors and supporting formulas used to create realistic projections in locals where the U.S. Forest Service does not permit the equipment, he believes the numbers will only improve by the season.
“It’ll be a few years before what we think is a much more accurate number, even if we still think we probably have most accurate number of anyone out there,” said Athearn. “On the first part we were trying to get a better number, and 260,000 was more accurate than 500,000. And now 311,000 is even more accurate than the 260,000, but who knows.”
The numbers are important for CFI as it attempts to get buy-in from cities and towns where the various destination peaks exist so each will contribute funding toward trail building and maintenance. Outside of educating hikers on leave-no-trace wilderness practices and protecting delicate mountain ecosystems, upkeep of these public trails is the group’s primary mission.
Using a 2009 study by two Colorado State University economists on Quandary Peak’s economic impact, CFI calculated that more than $84 million in consumer spending related to bagging 14ers was generated in 2016.
“That’s really changed conversations with local governments for investing in maintenance of the peaks, because they realize it’s good for the environment, as well as for the local recreation-based economy,” said Athearn. “Because if we don’t do the work to protect the resource, at some point land-use agencies will have to step in and say, ‘There’s too much damage, we’ll have to restrict use.’ That could be a big impact to trailhead communities, because it’s so much a part of their tourism economies.”