THIS. IS. RIDICULOUS. THERE ARE ENTIRELY TOO MANY PEOPLE. Startled, I looked up from the scree field I had been carefully picking across and dove to the side to avoid the grumpy-looking young man pounding down the trail. Looking up the switchbacks of the East Slopes approach to Grays Peak this past Sunday morning I could definitely see his point- the scene looked something like a festively colored ant farm. However, the statement was so comically hypocritical I couldn’t help but laugh. After all, each one of us grumbling about the annoying hordes disrupting our own wilderness experiences is in fact part of the horde disrupting everyone else’s solitude.
Even on such a popular and easily accessible route as Grays and Torreys however this is certainly not always the case. Since this trail is currently being monitored by a Sustainable Trails counter, Brian and I have on many occasions over the past several weeks run or hiked the lower section on a week day to check equipment and download data. While we have never been precisely alone, encounters with other users are few and far between.
Given the typical American Monday-Friday work week, increased recreation on weekends is to be expected. However, the discrepancy between weekend and weekday trail use revealed by last year’s Sustainable Trails data is truly eye opening, especially in the Front Range. A whopping 37% of all hikers on Grays in 2015 hit the trail on a Saturday, another 36% on a Friday or Sunday. Wednesdays meanwhile receive less than 1/5 of a typical Saturday’s traffic.
As an intern with CFI I have had the great privilege to see the 14ers at “off times”, to crunch across talus fields on a Wednesday morning with nothing but the eerie glass-like tinkle of grinding stone to break the stillness, to have a summit to myself when counter-install work finishes with enough daylight left to play. When I convince my friends to join me on weekend excursions, usually to peaks I have worked on but not had the opportunity to summit, we always have a good time but it is definitely not the same. The last time Brian and I were on Grays for work, the cheeky tailless marmot who lives under CFI’s counter cairn (who we have dubbed Monty) became sufficiently comfortable with our presence to approach close enough to sniff my boots and lick my trekking poles. I was excited to introduce my hiking partners to my furry little friend, or at least to point out some of his squeaking kindred on the nearby slopes, but as we trudged by in the Summit Train not a single marmot was to be seen.
The sight of milling throngs at each Front Range 14er summit on a weekend morning may appear discouraging to an enthusiast in search of a ‘real’ back country experience, but I promise the numbers don’t lie. Solitude is out there. If we are willing to get up a little earlier, drive a little farther, and capitalize on any chance to head out mid-week, moments of wilderness serenity are attainable. Just maybe not at 10 am on a Saturday on Grays and Torreys.