Thanks to a variety of trail crews and volunteers, environmental restoration and trail maintenance projects are underway on Mount Elbert this summer.
At 14,439 feet, Mt. Elbert ranks as Colorado’s tallest 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.
Drainage issues plague both trails and have led to vegetation loss and soil erosion on Elbert’s delicate alpine tundra.
“The plants and animals that exist in the alpine ecosystem have been rigorously selected and adapted to harsh conditions,” U.S. Forest Service Colorado Fourteeners Program Manager Loretta McEllhiney told the Herald. “Unfortunately, the flora and fauna have not adapted to the presence of large numbers of people.”
Hikers have also widened Elbert’s trails over time, sometimes creating side trails that braid off the main routes in various directions. Additionally, human and dog waste left on the mountain has difficulty decomposing in the cold, dry alpine.
“Just walking on the vegetation alongside the trail can have very detrimental long-term effects,” McEllhiney said. “As few as five footsteps can kill many alpine plants.”
Since 2017, USFS, Colorado Fourteeners Initiative, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and other partners have worked to reroute Elbert’s south trail from the bottom up.
Crews are currently working on segments of the trail above 11,000 feet. Day after day, crew members build retaining walls, staircases and barrier walls to harden the trail, ensuring its future sustainability.
The old trail alignment is also undergoing restoration. McEllhiney aims to stabilize and re-contour the route to its pre-trail state, an effort that requires the installation of retaining structures and the movement of copious amounts of material to fill erosion gullies. Once stabilized, crews will plant native grasses, shrubs and trees.
The first three miles of the new route are already open to the public. When the trail is completed in a few years, it will be less step and a little longer than the old alignment.
In June and July, groups of over 30 volunteers worked on the trail for three consecutive days.
June’s family-friendly “work weekend” supported by Get Outdoors Leadville! featured Colorado Parks & Wildlife educational programs and interpretive hikes with the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association. In July, more-seasoned volunteers backpacked to a high-altitude base camp.
The volunteer outings were made possible, in part, by a Great Outdoors Colorado grant. The $300,000 grant, which GOCO awarded to Lake County in June, will fund stewardship and restoration projects on Elbert for the next three years.
The grant, along with $20,000 from Climax and $250,000 from Colorado Parks and Wildlife, has widened the scope of the project to include rehabilitation of the north route and volunteer-based stewardship events like this summer’s volunteer weekends.
“The amount of community engagement already happening here was huge,” National Forest Foundation Colorado Program Manager Emily Olsen said of Lake County’s award. GOL! submitted the grant application on behalf of Lake County with the help of NFF and other partners.
If all goes as planned, trail crews will begin work on Elbert’s north route next summer. The trail will be restored, not rerouted, to reduce erosion and better user experience.
“Hiker enjoyment is important but the bigger issue is the impact to alpine ecosystems around the trail,” Olsen told the Herald.
In 2018, McEllhiney received a call from a man who has climbed Elbert countless times in the last 30 years. According to McEllhiney, the man was angry that USFS was making the south trail longer and vowed to keep using the old route.
A month later, the man called McElhiney back. He reported that he had hiked the new trail and had indeed loved every bit of his experience.
This summer, McEllhiney heard from the man a third time. He was heading to Lake County for another Elbert summit and wanted to know if the upper portion of the new trail was open to the public.
“He was terribly disappointed when I told him we would not have the upper portion open until sometime early next summer,” McEllhiney said. “He was actually look forward to the slightly longer but more sustainable route.”