"Look at all the smiles though," reads a comment left behind by one Facebook user under an online post complaining about Labor Day crowding on one of Colorado's highest peaks. The original post features a photo taken on the summit of the 14,065-foot Mount Bierstadt. It captures dozens of people as they pose for photos, dive into their summit snack, or admire the stunning scene around them. Most of the other comments accompanying the post seem to share the same sentiment as the original poster – disgust at the crowd.
Colorado's mountain trails are getting more trafficked – there's no doubt about that – and that comes with plenty of negatives – trail degradation, a less serene experience, and parking issues, to name a few. However, as Colorado's peaks get more crowded, this comes with a few positives, too, and in my opinion, the good that comes with the crowding may outweigh the bad.
Note from the author: This is clearly a conversation that has two sides, with many negatives that come with crowding, too. In the day of the Internet and in a day when more people than ever are turning to outdoor recreation, it's very unlikely that crowds will decrease or go away. With that in mind, here's a silver-lining look in regard to the crowds.
The smiles people get from outdoor recreation are one positive, and this passion can be contagious. As people find joy on trails around the state, they tend to share this newfound passion with others, who may end up finding that same joy as a result. In an era of stress, digital obsession, and angst, everyone can use a positive, healthy outlet and outdoor recreation has helped to fulfill that need for many.
The positive impact of someone falling in love with outdoor recreation doesn't stop at the individual, either, as it can also be a beneficial for the greater community.
With more people caring about natural spaces, these parts of the country can be pushed to a higher priority in the political realm. More people will likely remember their experience on a mountain summit in the voting booth and politicians will likely take note of this, adjusting their strategies accordingly.
This louder voice from the outdoor recreation community is important. In a world where a single person cares about stopping the destruction of a natural space, that space will likely be destroyed. However, if hundreds or thousands or millions care, that natural space will have a better chance at being preserved for future generations.
Not only will new members in the outdoor recreation community likely support what they love when it comes to policies and how they want their tax dollars to be spent, there's a good chance they'll also become advocates for protecting outdoor spaces while on the trail.
With a growing community that's passionate about nature comes a growing awareness of responsible use of outdoor spaces. More people feel the pull to take it on themselves to protect this space, spreading the principles of Leave No Trace, picking up trail trash, and helping others learn about best practices. Approaching outdoor recreation in a responsible manner becomes more feasible for the novice party when it's easier for them to find someone that can answer questions they might have.
Additionally, as outdoor recreation booms, so does the economy built around it. A greater demand makes it easier for officials to justify building more trails and it's easier to justify increasing the access to more areas to keep that economy growing. Small businesses in tiny mountain towns can attract droves of customers and a lot of that money stays local, often helping these outdoor recreation hubs improve their infrastructure and their ability to manage the wild land around them.
The increase in interest in outdoor recreation also has an impact on gear and accessibility. As businesses flood the market to capitalize on a growing industry, more gear options become available amid competing companies looking to find their niche. Women's gear is now being sold in colors other than pink and technical gear is offered in larger sizes. No longer is high end, expensive gear in limited sizing and color options the only offering.
While crowded trails can be a headache at times, it's the impact these crowds have while they're away from the trail that's important.
I used to view crowds on the trail as a bad thing, somewhat of a nuisance and an inconvenience. Over time, I've realized that this isn't the a fair assessment.
Crowds on the trail mean that more people are seeking a healthy lifestyle. Crowds on the trail mean that the outdoor recreation community has a louder political voice when it comes to preservation and protection. Crowds on the trail mean a greater demand for more trails, more access, and a wider range of gear options. Crowds on the trail mean that there's a better chance trails will be enjoyed by future generations. And that's something I can get behind.
Instead of griping about parking farther from the trailhead or about getting stuck behind a slow-moving group, I now remind myself to look at the smiles and consider what those smiles mean. More times than not, I'll find myself grinning, too.
Many thanks goes out to the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative for the work they do on trails around the state. If you'd like to support their cause, visit their website at 14ers.org.
A big thanks also goes out to Colorado Search and Rescue, which relies on volunteers to keep the many hikers around the state safe. As hiker numbers have increased in recent years, demand for their help has never been higher. Those seeking to support their cause can find more information on the Colorado Search and Rescue Association website. They can also be support through the purchase of a CORSAR card.