Colorado's highest peaks got a rare break from foot traffic last year — relatively speaking.
The number 288,000 might still sound alarming to anyone familiar with the damage people can bring to fragile alpine tundra. But that's 18.4% down from the number of hikers figured to have trekked the 14,000-foot mountains in 2018, according to Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.
The nonprofit annually compiles hiking reports based on estimates from in-ground trail counters. In the study released Thursday, CFI attributed the drop-off to 2019's late-season snowpack and unprecedented avalanche activity.
Debris from slides blocked several roads to trailheads, noted the organization's Executive Director Lloyd Athearn. Some trails couldn't be accessed until mid-July.
"That start (to the hiking season) is more than a month later than normal," Athearn said.
The drop from 2018 to 2019, he said, "was even more dramatic when you consider that 2018 was a drought year in which some trails were snow-free in May, allowing 14er hikers to get out earlier than normal."
Next year's report is anticipated to reveal record data. The drought of 2020 combined with the pandemic has resulted in packed parking lots and parades of people on trail.
On weekends at the Quandary Peak trailhead, the adjacent Colorado 9 has been lined with long rows of cars. CFI found that peak to once again be the busiest 14er, with an estimated 35,055 hikers reported between May 29 and Oct. 7. On the busiest day last year, Aug. 3, CFI found 1,090 ascended Quandary.
Mount Bierstadt was determined to be the second-busiest 14er, with 34,740 tallied on the season.
Those mountains along with nine others closest to Front Range population centers were determined to account for 57% of all hikes on Colorado's 54 14ers. The route including mounts Democrat, Lincoln and Bross attracted an estimated 22,500 people, while Grays and Torreys drew another 22,500 in CFI's report.
For people looking to avoid crowds: the study suggests about 60% of all 14er hiking happens on Fridays (13.7%), Saturdays (25.7%) and Sundays (19.9%), while Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays each reportedly see about 9% of total foot traffic.
The Elk Mountains, deemed the state's most technical and dangerous mountains, saw the fewest people among all 14er ranges in 2019, with CFI reporting fewer than 1,000 taking on the likes of Capitol and Maroon peaks.