On Friday, June 12th, members from the Forest Service (USFS), Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RMYC), and the National Forest Foundation (NFF) met at the trailhead of Mt. Columbia in Buena Vista, Colorado, to take a look at the trail construction completed over the last six years and to plan for the final year of the project. Mt. Columbia is one of the Colorado “fourteeners” (peaks reaching over 14,000 ft) and has been a top priority of the Find Your Fourteener campaign for sustainable trail construction and restoration.

Mt. Columbia has experienced increasingly heavy foot traffic in the past decade. Prior to the new trail construction, hikers used a social trail that ascended straight up a loose scree field. The lack of a sustainable trail caused heavy erosion and damage to the fragile alpine ecosystem and the unstable trail conditions made for dangerous hiking.

Still early in the season, snow piles are common in shady areas in June. If you are planning on hiking in the high-alpine this time of year, make sure to account for large fluctuations in temperatures.

With the necessary COVID-19 precautions in place, trail crews are planning for the final season of work on Mt. Columbia. Work will look different this year: smaller crew sizes, new plans for meal times and driving, and heightened hygiene practices. But these changes haven’t slowed the momentum of this project and excitement is running high to finish trail work.

On Friday, the group hiked up the old, eroded social trail to assess its current condition and plan for the restoration work happening this summer. Trail crews from the CFI and RMYC will fill in the old trail with rock and debris, and plant seeds collected from Mt. Columbia to help establish native alpine plants in the eroded area.

The group scaling the steep, degraded, and dangerous old social trail on Mt. Columbia. Use of this trail has decreased as the newly constructed trail provides a welcoming and safer alternative. Restoration of the old trail is set to happen this year.

Mt. Columbia is known by the trail crews as one of the best fourteeners for alpine wildflowers. However, these unique plants are fragile - just five human footprints will kill most alpine plants. This is just one of the many reasons sustainable trail construction and keeping to the trail is so important.

King’s crown, Rhodiola integrifolia, is in the stonecrop family and is one of the alpine plants that flowers during the summer months. Look for brilliant red flowers and fleshy, succulent-like leaves.

The group then hiked down the newly constructed trail to see the extreme contrast in quality. Over the last six years of work, trail crews from the CFI and RMYC have constructed over a mile of sustainable and safe trail. Mt. Columbia is located in the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness Area and therefore the trail crews cannot use machinery, making this project even more impressive. The crews have transported huge rocks to create stone staircases and hauled timber up from the treeline to reinforce trails.

Hiking down the newly constructed trail on Mt. Columbia. The new trail is clearly visible and well defined, encouraging hikers to stay on trail to protect the alpine ecosystem and prevent unnecessary erosion, as well as increase hiker safety.

Stone steps built by trail crews take the place of eroded switchbacks on the newly constructed trail on Mt. Columbia.

The work remaining for 2020 includes trail construction on the last few switchbacks, building staircases and restoring the old, degraded social trail. Crews from the RMYC and CFI are set to complete the work by this fall, and the conclusion of the Mt. Columbia project will be a major milestone in the Find Your Fourteener campaign. The impressive new trail will help protect a fragile and invaluable alpine ecosystem and increase the safety and enjoyment of hikers that come from around the world to experience Colorado’s spectacular fourteeners.

National Forest Foundation