National Forest Foundation

Collaboration, Innovation & Hard Work on Mount Elbert


by Emily Olsen

Last year, hikers made approximately 334,000 trips up Colorado’s spectacular 14,000-foot peaks (known as “Fourteeners”), making these strenuous hikes among the most popular hikes in the country. The non-technical nature of most Fourteeners makes them uniquely accessible to fit hikers and runners, but surging visitation is threatening fragile alpine biodiversity. The problems have been particularly acute on Mount Elbert, Colorado’s highpoint.

On Mount Elbert, the steep slopes are marred by hiker-created “rogue” trails cutting across thin tundra soils. These rogue trails create damaging impacts that grow over time. The trails become gullied with repeated use. And when hikers step off muddy, gullied trails, they inadvertently create wider, braided trails.

Kellon Spencer

According to peak report cards prepared by the Colorado Fourteener’s Initiative, Mount Elbert’s East Slopes route received an overall “F” grade and is among the three worst routes in the state. It received failing grades for trail erosion, braiding, widening, and required maintenance.

Based on the documented trail erosion, surging visitation and opportunities to fix the damage through creative approaches, the NFF and partners chose Mount Elbert as a priority for the Find Your Fourteener campaign.

So how are we helping? With major partners such as Freeport-McMoRan's Community Investment Program, REI and local organizations, we are blazing new, sustainable trails. Collaboration is the most important ingredient to our success.

Here’s a look at some of our creative approaches on Mount Elbert:

Trail crews and youth corps:

The NFF is proud to be working with the US Forest Service, Colorado Fourteeners Initiative and Rocky Mountain Field Institute to field crews of youth corps and professional trail builders throughout the season. These crews live and work on Mount Elbert, working long days to accomplish as much trail construction and restoration as possible.

In 2018, thanks to a unique partnership between the Forest Service, Get Outdoors Leadville, and Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, a local high school-aged crew contributed to the work and learned critical trail building skills.

Kellon Spencer

Volunteer events:

While the crews are digging into the trail work, powerhouse organizations such as Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado and Wildland Restoration Volunteers have organized large-scale events to bring new energy and capacity to Mount Elbert. Many other volunteers made their way to the mountain throughout the summer via the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative’s volunteer program. Get Outdoors Leadville hosted the first “family” volunteer event on a Fourteener this summer.

Kellon Spencer

Kellon Spencer

Horse-packing and outfitting:

Like other backcountry projects, traditional horse-packing skills are necessary to shuttle heavy supplies and materials – such as wooden planks – up steep alpine trails. Local and regional horsepacking experts have been instrumental to the work on Mount Elbert and other Fourteeners. Each season they work in close coordination with the US Forest Service and skilled trail crews to accomplish work that may otherwise be impossible.

Kellon Spencer

The 2018 season marked the second year of intensive work on Mount Elbert. Through the Find Your Fourteener campaign, the NFF is committed to work with our partners for at least the next three years, to improve trails on Mount Elbert. Together, we are looking forward to moving the trail report card grades from Fs to As!

Kellon Spencer

Special thanks to Kellon Spencer for photographing our projects on Mt. Elbert. You can find more of his photography at http://kellonspencerphotograph...

Would you like to get involved in the Find Your Fourteener campaign? Visit:
Thank you to our partner the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) for tracking hiking use across Colorado’s 14ers. CFI’s annual data was used to inform this blog. Learn more:

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