This summer, CFI has placed 5 TRAFx counters on trails of popular 14ers. These counters use infrared beams to count hikers, marking every time a warm body moves past. We constructed cairns to house the counters and protect them from weather, animals, and vandalism. This project will provide us with the actual figures behind 14er usage, and allow us to see trends in usage over time. We have previously estimated that 14ers have around 500,000 hikers per year, but this number is based largely on snapshots provided by peak stewards on isolated occasions. Furthermore, many local hikers claim that there has been an exponential increase in the number of people on 14ers within the past few years. Long-term data on trail traffic would be able to back-up these anecdotal pieces of evidence.
As with any project in its pilot phase, we have already discovered a few bugs that need to be fixed. On one peak, a hole exposing the infrared beam was plugged by a hiker who decided it would be a great place to stick a rock. At another peak, we found that the trail had become flooded with water from snowmelt. As a result, hikers were not following the trail, preventing them from traveling in front of our cairn.
In spite of these struggles, we have managed to collect some interesting data. The graph below gives us a snapshot of usage on Quandary Peak from mid-June to mid-July. The graph demonstrates a steady increase in hikers during this time period. It also shows dramatic spikes in trail traffic over the weekends. About 50-150 people will hike Quandary each day during the week, while the mountain may see nearly 500 hikers on a Saturday or a Sunday.
Having more accurate idea of trail usage on 14ers is useful for many reasons, as it can help us make future management decisions. For instance, some 14ers have been experiencing problems with parking on public and private roads near trailheads due to lack of capacity in parking lots. With data on how many hikers are using the peaks, we will have a rough sense of the needs for parking space. Furthermore, we can determine the sustainability of the trails that are currently in place. When we see a trail in bad shape, data on hiker traffic will inform us of whether the damage is a product of trail usage or other factors. This knowledge will help us decide how to effectively rebuild the trail.
You, as a hiker on a 14er, will play a huge role in this process by providing us with data! So keep enjoying the peaks, hike smart, and if you see a cairn on the trail, don’t stick rocks inside of it!