Aspen’s biggest peaks targeted for trail maintenance projects |

Aspen’s biggest peaks targeted for trail maintenance projects

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Members of a Rocky Mountain Youth Corps trail crew use a sling to move a heavy boulder during work on North Maroon Peak Trail in August 2012. Colorado Fourteeners Initiative is assessing how much work is needed on other big peaks.
Aspen Times file photo |

summer trail projects

For more information on the projects on Capitol and North Maroon Peaks this summer and to volunteer, go to

A nonprofit organization that protects Colorado’s tallest peaks from environmental degradation is gathering vital information on how many people are hiking the 53 mountains with more than 14,000 feet in elevation.

Colorado Fourteeners Initiative placed infrared counters in rock cairns on five mountains in summer, including on Castle Peak southwest of Aspen.

The counters are much more dependable for getting an accurate picture than relying on trailhead registries or people in the field, said Colorado Fourteeners Initiative Executive Director Lloyd Athearn. The unblinking eye of the counters can record data for 150 days of the summer. The only glitch last summer was when hikers would stop to add rocks to the cairns, unknowingly obscuring the instrument, Athearn said.

The information will help determine priorities for trail maintenance on the 14ers, he said.

For example, the trail counter on Castle Peak in the summer showed average daily use at about 60 people in July and slightly fewer in August. The number of hikers spiked at about 230 per day on an early August weekend. User numbers plummeted in September.

In contrast, the Front Range 14ers, Grays and Torreys peaks, host as many as 700 climbers on peak days.

“The Elk Mountains (around Aspen) are some of the more challenging and dangerous ones in the state,” Athearn said. That reduces the numbers of hikers. However, Castle is the easiest hike among the six 14ers surrounding Aspen. The other big peaks in Aspen’s backyard are Maroon and North Maroon peaks, Pyramid Peak, Snowmass Mountain and Capitol Peak.

Athearn said his theory is that not as many people consider hiking Castle Peak after a vast snowfield melts out of a bowl-shaped area below the final ridge. Hikers don’t want to cross the rock-scree field.

“When it ceases being snow covered, it stops being an attractive destination,” Athearn said. “Castle is one of those mountains where we’ve never done a formal route on it.”

The information indicates that the usage is low enough after the snow melts that there isn’t much danger of environmental damage. And while the snow is there, it protects the vegetation from getting trampled. Colorado Fourteeners Initiative is concerned about people using unsustainable trails — those that are too steep or rutted out — and encourage hikers to seek alternatives. That leads to trail braiding and degradation to a broader area. The initiative has rerouted sections of trails on several of the big peaks. It usually concentrates on the terrain above timberline and below the final rocky spines that line most of the tall mountains.

“Our goal is to protect that rare and fragile alpine tundra,” Athearn said.

The trail work often goes on for years because of the ongoing need for maintenance and alterations, Athearn said. That is the case with North Maroon Peak and Capitol, where Colorado Fourteeners Initiative will hold two of its four major volunteer projects this summer. The group’s professional crews have worked in the past on trail sections through the fragile tundra of both mountains. Crews worked through summer 2012 to reroute a portion of the North Maroon Trail off a steep slope into nearby talus. The old, user-made trail was rutted out so that vegetation to either side was getting trampled.

The North Maroon Peak Backcountry Project will be held Aug. 20 to 23. A crew — probably two leaders from Colorado Fourteeners Initiative and up to eight volunteers — will hike in 2 miles on day one and establish camp. They will focus on the reclaimed, former trail. They will plant willows and build restoration checks, which help keep soil in place. They hike out on the last day.

The Capitol Peak Backcountry Project will be held July 29 to Aug. 2, with a 6-mile hike on days one and five. In between will be three days of work on the section of trail between Capitol Lake and the saddle between Capitol and Daly peaks. The trail needs roughly 33 features added, such as rock check steps and retaining walls.

Athearn said the initiative’s focus is limiting environmental damage, not creating easy trails. For example, when its crews build rock stairs, it shouldn’t be confused with a stairs in a building, he said. Some rocks are strategically placed to avoid erosion and compaction of soils and preservation of vegetation.

“There’s nothing that we’re doing that’s degrading the climbs or the technical nature of these climbs,” Athearn said. The work typically ends “well below” the technical parts of the ascents found on the big peaks, he added. On Capitol, the work will end before the trail gets to the Knife’s Edge, a ridge with extreme exposure.

“We’re getting you through the opening act of the play, if you will,” Athearn said.

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