Quandary Peak Trail gets a makeover as part of effort to protect state’s ever-busier 14ers
Colorado’s 14ers have been getting a lot of love in recent years, drawing more than 300,000 hikers and climbers in 2016. But all of that attention can take a toll, eroding trails and damaging fragile high-elevation ecosystems.
Thankfully, the number of people hiking up to do much-needed trail work has increased as well. This summer was a banner year for the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative nonprofit, which logged a record 1,952 volunteer hours — a 25 percent increase from summer 2016.
“These are some of the most sought after hiking mountains in the country and they see people from all over the country,” CFI executive director Lloyd Athearn said. “So we’d better start taking care of these trail systems that are needed to handle these high volumes of use.”
This summer was the first year of the Find Your Fourteener Initiative, a project of the National Forest Foundation that seeks to encourage volunteer stewardship of the 54 peaks in Colorado higher than 14,000 feet in elevation.
The initiative helped CFI carry out more than 70 volunteer projects across the state, including three on some of the state’s heavily trafficked mountains. One of those is Summit County’s Quandary Peak, which draws 15,000 to 20,000 hikers per year, according to CFI data.
With funding help from local towns and The Summit Foundation, CFI helped coordinate extensive trail work on Quandary this summer, a mountain with particularly vulnerable vegetation above tree line.
“Because (Quandary) is one of the most climbed routes and is one of the more entry-level 14ers, it gets a lot of use by people who might not be as familiar with staying on the trail and really protecting the alpine ecosystem,” Athearn said. “So it’s suffered from trail grading and erosion.”
This year, crews focused on getting the lower sections of the Quandary route stabilized by building retaining walls along the trail to make it easier to follow and building rock steps that help prevent erosion.
“Particularly on Quandary you have a lot of work that has to be done above tree line, because people will walk along up there and knock over rocks and do things to that trail that cause a lot of erosion,” said Mike Connolly, executive director of Friends of the Dillon Ranger District.
The Summit-based trail maintenance and environmental education group sent more than two-dozen volunteers up Quandary over four weekends this summer to help build rock-armoring walls to help shore up the route. Volunteers also helped build rock slab steps up steeper sections of the trail, improving hiker safety and erosion control.
Since most routes up Colorado’s 14ers were originally put up by climbers and hikers without much planning, many don’t follow the most ideal path. That created problems as peak-bagging became one of the state’s more popular pastimes.
That was the case on Mount Elbert, Colorado’s most popular 14er with as many as 30,000 visitors a year. Over the summer, volunteers with CFI cut 1.5 miles of new trail through low-elevation aspen groves, allowing the closure and restoration of a social trail that went up steep terrain.
“We cut in a much more sustainability-oriented lower bypass,” Athearn said. “In the early parts you go through a beautiful aspen grove, and it takes you a little longer but it’s a much more enjoyable route up to timberline.”
Crews also finished a second season of work on Mount Columbia this summer, moving 13 dump trucks worth of material through steep scree fields to construct nearly a half-mile of new trail.
Those three, high-profile projects rounded out more than 70 trail projects throughout the summer. Those helped maintain more than 10 miles of trail, restore 6,500 square feet of eroded tundra and educate thousands of hikers on Leave No Trace ethics.
Next season, CFI plans to finish its third and final year of intensive trail work on Quandary, Elbert and Columbia. The group might also start a new project on Grays and Torreys, a popular pair of peaks on the Continental Divide that attracts 20,000-25,000 hikers a year.
The group will also be following-up on its 14er Report Card, an assessment of trail conditions completed in 2015.
“At the end of that we should have a pretty good snapshot of how things have changed on a whole bunch of mountains across the state,” Athearn said. “That should give us a better sense of, are we making headway or are we just barely keeping up with increased impact?”
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