Collaboration is Key: Trail Improvements on Colorado's Fourteeners

If summiting one of Colorado’s “fourteeners” is a feat, imagine how much work it takes to build the trails to the top! As the popularity of Colorado’s highest peaks has increased, so has the need to create sustainable features throughout the trails that will make it a safer climb for both visitors and the ecosystem itself.

From Grays Summit

For the past four years, trail crews with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, and Rocky Mountain Youth Corp, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, as well as others, worked diligently to complete several projects on Grays and Torreys Peaks. The goal of this four-year push has been to raise the grade to a “C” or better on the Statewide Report Card. Trail restoration on such high peaks is complicated, requiring coordination among many partners. Crews must be trained to work in rough conditions and fragile ecosystems, equipment is often carried by hand, and the more they accomplish, the further out they must hike each day. The thousands of hours put in by volunteers throughout this push has been the equivalent of one person working every day for 9 years.

Visitors to the area can expect to see rock walls, stone steps, check dams, and gabions throughout their alpine ascent. These features help limit erosion and “scree creep”, the accumulation of loose rocks at the foot of steep slopes. Although they are more sustainable, these features cannot completely stop erosion and will require annual maintenance.Gabions Grays & Torreys

“The greatest benefit I saw from the work done on the trail was that hikers were remaining on the established route, minimizing damage to the tundra areas adjacent to the trail,” said Ralph Bradt, a Forest Service employee in Trails and Wilderness Management.

As fourteeners continue to be a bucket-list staple, the need for collaborative care and maintenance of these places will also rise. However, trail projects involving multiple partners are just part of the solution. Small individual choices from thousands of visitors can make a big impact.

"Just five footsteps can kill most alpine plants," says Loretta McEllhiney, USDA Forest Service Fourteener Program Manager.

Animals that are uniquely adapted to the high-altitude environment also face challenges from increased visitation. Staying on trail, keeping pets on a leash, and following Leave No Trace principles are small steps that will help maintain the longevity of these trails and awe-inspiring ecosystems for years to come.