Hikers aiming to reach Mount Elbert’s summit from the south will walk upon a predominately new trail this summer, thanks to years of trail work efforts.
At 14,439 feet, Mt. Elbert ranks as Colorado’s highest mountain and one of the five most-visited 14ers in the state. On summer weekends hundreds of hikers can be seen traversing the mountain’s ridgeline, amounting to over 25,000 annual-use days.
Decades of high use have degraded the mountain’s trails. In 2015, the north and south routes to Elbert’s summit received “F” ratings from the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.
Decades of drainage issues and hiker use have led to flora and fauna loss and soil erosion on the mountain’s delicate alpine tundra. Hikers have also widened the south trail over time, creating side trails that braid off the main route in various directions damaging Elbert’s alpine environment.
“Just walking on the vegetation alongside the trail can have very detrimental long-term effects,” U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Colorado Fourteeners Program Manager Loretta McEllhiney told the Herald. “As few as five footsteps can kill many alpine plants.”
Since 2017, USFS, Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RMYC) and other partners have worked to reroute Elbert’s south trail from the bottom up. When the new south trail is complete in full, likely by this fall, it will be less steep and a little longer than the old alignment.
Trail work on the new alignment resumed above treeline earlier this month.
A four-person CFI crew and eight youth corps members will spend the summer on the mountain’s East Ridge building new switchbacks, retaining walls and a stone staircase supported by gabions. The reroute will predominantly bypass Elbert’s tundra, weaving up a durable but steep talus field that will hold hikers to a narrow path.
A pack string, brought to Lake County for the project from Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming, will help the human crews carry loads to and from the work site for a week in June. The mules’ assistance is welcome, as collaborators had to cancel a variety of volunteer trail work weekends because of COVID-19.
“You never have a rodeo on the trail with this string,” McEllhiney said of the mules.
Trail crews will also re-grade and restore eroded portions of the “Cat’s Claw,” the previously mentioned area of alpine tundra damaged by hiker-induced trail braiding.
Later in the summer, CFI and RMYC will work on a quarter-mile realignment of Elbert’s north route, a stretch of trail experiencing drainage issues just below treeline.
Though the Forest Service and CFI are accustomed to heavy trail use, both agencies are worried about increased hiker traffic amidst the pandemic. According to McEllhiney, some 14ers close to Denver, like Quandry Peak, are already seeing significantly higher use than June of last year.
Specifically, McEllhiney worries that social distancing recommendations will lead hikers to wander off trail onto tundra that cannot survive the human footprint. Bathroom closures are another issue as recreators will likely leave waste that has difficulty decomposing in the cold, dry alpine environment of the mountain.
Though the Forest Service recently submitted a proposal for federal stimulus dollars to fund a regional “leave no trace” campaign specific to COVID-19, the agency does not expect to hear back any time soon.
For the remainder of the summer, hikers can experience the first three miles of the new south route after it diverges from the Colorado Trail. The old trail, which is no longer open to recreators below treeline, is now covered with native grasses, shrubs and trees.
“If a trailhead is full, consider going somewhere else,” McEllhiney, who is a Lake County resident, advised. “There are so many beautiful places to explore in this county — there is no need to hike with tourists.”