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Fourteen thousand-foot peaks—“fourteeners,” in hiker parlance—are some of the most coveted hiking objectives in Colorado. Thousands of people from all around the world venture into the wilderness every year to bag the 58 peaks scattered across the state. But according to a study from the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, for the first time in decades, visits to the fourteeners are tapering off.
Since 2020, when the most popular fourteeners in the state saw their traffic skyrocket, visitation has begun to decline for the first time in years. Between 2021 and 2022 alone, the state’s fourteeners saw an overall 27% decline. While it would have been easy to chalk up that drop to the strangeness of the early pandemic—hiking, as one of the only ways to recreate, boomed across the country—the numbers declined by another 8% in 2022, and the reasons for the change are complicated.
The main reason for the decline in usage seems to be visitor management. At the forefront of the conversation about hiker management on Colorado Fourteeners is Quandary Peak, which has historically been one of the most accessible and beginner-friendly fourteeners in the front range. Located in Summit County, the mountain sees year-round traffic that often clogs the parking lot and spills out into the neighborhood, causing strain in the area. To combat the issue, officials implemented parking fees and strict traffic limits in 2021. On weekdays, those who chose to park at the peak’s trailhead had to pay a $25 fee. On weekends, that fee rose to $50, though the peak is still accessible via shuttle for $15 for visitors and $5 for locals.
Brian Sargeant, the development and communications manager of the Colorado Fourteener Initiative, told Backpacker that crowding made those restrictions necessary.
“That parking lot, especially on weekend days, would fill up super early in the morning and then cars would start parking all along the county road,” Sargeant said. “They were parking in front of peoples houses, along the shoulder of highway 9, which created issues. And you’d have cars parked illegally on both sides of that road, which caused issues for rescue vehicles and local sheriffs.”
At its busiest in 2020, the peak was seeing 49,000 visitors per year. Thanks in part to the new restrictions, however, CFI estimates that Quandary received only 22,000 visits in 2022, slashing its high point in half and causing it to relinquish its longtime status as the state’s most popular fourteener to Mt. Bierstadt. As of 2023, Quandary Peak is the only public fourteener in the state that charges for parking and offers a shuttle service for visitors. (Culebra Peak, in southwestern Colorado, is privately owned and requires hikers to pay a $150 per person access fee.)
In a similar vein, Grays and Torreys saw the heaviest decline in hiker traffic 2022, with a 14% reduction in usage since 2021 after officials began enforcing a new rule that prevented hikers from parking along nearby Stevens Gulch Road. This essentially meant that once the parking spots filled at the trailhead, the peak was no longer accessible unless hikers wanted to add about 7 miles onto their trip.
Grays and Torreys aren’t the first fourteeners where land managers have cracked down on hazardous parking. Mount Bierstadt, another accessible peak, saw a similar level of usage, which led officials to implement restrictions along nearby Guanella Pass.
“Six years ago, you would’ve seen cars parked along the shoulder of the highway or campers right off the road in non-designated areas,” Sargeant said. “So, the county started enforcing no more parking on the road and no more camping. There are now two official places where you can park.”
One of the factors driving this congestion is that Quandary, Greys and Torreys, and Mount Bierstadt are typically labeled as “easy” fourteeners. They have the tendency to draw less experienced hikers, which could contribute to the higher number of rescues that SAR personnel conduct on these peaks. And despite the usage on those mountains dipping over the past several years, SAR personnel report that rescue missions have remained consistent.
Colorado fourteeners are popular for a number of different reasons. Hiking is popular in Colorado and surrounding states: The Outdoor Industry Association’s found in a 2023 report that the Mountain West has an above-average rate of outdoor participation, with 57.3% of respondents recreating outside. And as Denver and its metro area continue to grow, the wilderness areas that seem to see that impact are those that are closest to the city.
Accessibility is likely one of the reasons for the burst in activity over the past decade. According to James Dziezynski, author of Best Summit Hikes in Colorado, Best Summit Hikes Denver to Vail, and a number of additional peak-focused guidebooks and Outside’s director of SEO, those Front Range fourteeners are “now more accessible than ever.” That also could be why the boom-and-bust of the past few years has been limited to some of the state’s more easily-accessible big peaks.
“The hardest 14ers—the 8-to-10[-mountain] group that is considered the most challenging—seem to stay rather steady in traffic, perhaps because more casual hikers only want to commit to a certain difficulty level,“ he said.
But according to him, hikers’ awareness of those “easier” fourteeners hasn’t necessarily equated to preparedness.
“The rise of influencers and the ease of video promotion on social media has given some very prominent voices to less-experienced hikers and climbers,” Dziezynski says. “Sometimes this results in the illusion that these mountains are safe. All these mountains, even the relatively easier ones, demand a level of respect that they don’t always get. I can see this in some of the clothing choices of inexperienced hikers, a lack of knowledge of weather patterns, or feeding wildlife.”
While land managers haven’t put parking restrictions in place for any new fourteeners in 2023, that doesn’t mean hikers’ access issues are over. In March, landowner John Reiber closed access to the Decalibron Loop, which provided hikers with access to the summits of Mts. Lincoln and Democrat, after the failure of a state bill that would have limited landowners’ liability for accidents hikers and other recreationists suffered on their land. CFI, which advocated in favor of the bill, said at the time that it would look for possible alternatives to restore access; so far, none have materialized.