Protect your local 14ers: Walking Mountains Science Center joins initiative to preserve our peaks
At the Quandary Peak trailhead, Von Campbell introduced himself to each hiker stepping onto the trail and ran through his usual list of questions.
“Hey there, are you guys planning to summit today?” he said to a couple walking towards the trail. “How many 14ers have you done? Do you have enough water?”
Campbell volunteers his time as a peak steward with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, a nonprofit organization that takes responsibility for protecting and preserving the 54 peaks in Colorado that rise above 14,000 feet, known colloquially as 14ers. Once a challenge that only the most experienced hikers would undertake, digital trail maps and improved pathways have made 14ers more accessible, and more popular, than ever before.
Around 415,000 people hiked 14ers in 2020
During the 2020 pandemic, the number of hikers climbing 14ers across the state reached an all-time high, with Colorado Fourteeners Initiative’s infrared counters clocking in around 415,000 hikers in a single season. This represents a 44 percent increase in traffic over 2019 numbers, which was a shortened season due to late snowfall, and an 18 percent increase over a season of similar length in 2018. Quandary Peak, known as one of the easiest climbs and located just 20 minutes outside of Breckenridge, drew around 50,000 hikers to its trail alone.
Colorado Fourteeners Initiative’s estimates show the most popular 14ers for hikers in 2020 were:
1. Quandary Peak, 45,000 to 50,000 hikers
2. Mount Bierstadt, 35,000 to 40,000
3. Torreys Peak/Grays Peak, 30,000 to 35,000
4. Lincoln/Bross/Democrat 25,000 to 30,000
5. Mount Elbert, 20,000 to 25,000
Hannah Clark is the volunteer coordinator at Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, and she said that the spike in numbers in 2020 is part of a larger trend of heightening traffic on the famous peaks.
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“With COVID, all people wanted to do was get outside, which makes sense because that’s really all that we could do in 2020, but even before that we’ve seen hiking use continue to increase year after year,” Clark said. “A lot of these 14ers, they get hiked and then the people go home, and they don’t often think about giving back to the places that we’re taking advantage of.”
The increased accessibility of 14ers has led to a large number of first-time and less-experienced hikers on the trails, and that has made Colorado Fourteeners Initiative’s education initiative, the Peak Stewards Program, all the more critical.
“We have a multi-pronged strategy for protecting 14ers, and this is a huge part of it because we can build perfect trails, but if people aren’t following the Leave No Trace principles there’s really no point to building the perfect trail,” Clark said.
A front-line defense
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative’s Peak Stewards Program is a volunteer program that trains people in Leave No Trace principles and the basics of alpine environment preservation, and then sends them onto the trails to connect with hikers and monitor visitor actions for the Forest Service. Once trained, peak stewards are asked to volunteer their time at a 14ner of their choice at least four days per season.
Campbell, a 63-year-old retired Air Force veteran, has been hiking 14ers since the early 1990s and starting volunteering as a peak steward last summer.
“I see so many more people on the mountains now, so what I want to do is help out and educate people to make sure they preserve and protect the 14ers like I did,” Campbell said. “I’ve learned from my discussions that people do want to talk. If it’s their first one, you can tell their eyes are a little bit larger, and they are more than willing to hear what you’ve got to say.”
On Monday, July 19, Colorado Fourteeners Initiative ran an on-the-ground training hike in collaboration with the Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon, bringing 15 people, primarily from Eagle County, to learn the basic principles of stewardship. This is the second year that Walking Mountains has collaborated with Colorado Fourteeners Initiative on these initiative hikes, leading one on Mount of the Holy Cross earlier this month before the hike on Quandary.
“I’ve always wanted to engage the mountain communities more in stewardship and taking ownership of the 14ers that are in the area,” Clark said. “It’s easier to take care of our backyard trails, the ones that are right in front of our faces all the time, and it’s easier to see the resource impacts happening there.”
The fragility of the alpine tundra ecosystem
Nathan Boyer-Rechlin is the community outreach coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon, and his role on Monday’s hike was to educate the group about the fragility of the alpine tundra ecosystem found above treeline on 14ers, and how easily this ecosystem can be disturbed by human behavior.
“It’s taken hundreds, if not thousands, of years for these communities to develop, and it can take weeks for them to get destroyed,” Boyer-Rechlin said. “Here in Colorado it’s easy to feel like it’s everywhere, so it feels maybe less at threat, but it’s still only about 3 percent of our state. So many of the plants, animals and other wildlife that live up in the alpine tundra can only survive in that ecosystem.”
Behaviors such as hiking with a dog off-leash, walking off paths and over plant life, picking wildflowers or defecating without proper waste disposal can all have dramatic long-term consequences for these fragile high-altitude ecosystems, especially when the actions are magnified by 415,000 people.
“It’s interesting to have such a fragile resource that is so overwhelmed because of the arbitrary height of those peaks,” Boyer-Rechlin said. “The part of Colorado’s backcountry environment that is the most appealing to people is also its most vulnerable.”
The National Forest Service is the only agency with legal enforcement ability on 14ers, and with limited funding there is not much official oversight available on the trails. In most cases, volunteer peak stewards are the front-line defense against detrimental behavior on the peaks.
Walking Mountains began leading initiative hikes with Colorado Fourteeners Initiative in an effort to promote broader stewardship in Eagle County and encourage sustainable hiking behavior through education.
“Having our niche in Eagle County, we have the opportunity to help them extend their audience, and help our community connect with these other organizations,” Boyer-Rechlin said. “Our whole philosophy about education is that you’re only going to protect what you value, and you’re only going to value what you know and understand. If we can help people know and understand and appreciate these environments, then that is going to inform their values.”
Colorado Fourteeners Initiative also offers online training for aspiring peak stewards who can hit the trail after completing the course. Walking Mountains is planning more peak steward initiative hikes next year, and offers a broad array of guided hiking opportunities on their website through the end of the summer.
Campbell will be back at Quandary Peak on August 7, connecting with hikers and protecting the mountains that he loves.
“It feels so good to tell somebody something that they aren’t aware of, and hopefully do some form of education where they’re going to have respect for that mountain now, and they’re going to want to pass that on,” Campbell said. “And if it is their first 14ner, maybe the next 20 that they do they’ll make sure to stay on rocks when they’re going up rather than trampling on the flowers.”
To learn more about Colorado Fourteeners Initiative’s Peak Steward Program and volunteer your time, visit 14ers.org.
For a schedule of upcoming hikes at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon, visit WalkingMountains.org.
To learn more about sustainable hiking practices, visit lnt.org.