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Colorado fourteener rules and restrictions; here's what you need to know

John Meyer, The Denver Post on

Published in Science & Technology News

DENVER — Summer officially arrived on Thursday, as defined by the June solstice, which means fourteener season is fast approaching. For some hardy hikers, it has already begun.

Inexperienced peak baggers would be wise to wait a while before venturing out. Patchy snow is being reported on many trails where microspikes or crampons are recommended. Other reports on popular hiking sites suggest bringing waterproof shoes due to wet and muddy conditions.

On Longs Peak, for example, the trail is nearly snow-free up to the Boulderfield at 12,800 feet, according to a conditions report posted this week on the Rocky Mountain National Park website. Beyond that, though, only experienced climbers should venture.

It won’t be long, though, before that magnificent mountain and Colorado’s other 14,000-foot peaks are good to go. That means now is the time to start researching routes, parking and camping rules, and the regulations and restrictions governing some peaks.

Before we get into that, here are some good sources of information for newbies: The Colorado Mountain Club has a useful blog post called, “So you want to hike a 14er?” There’s also a 43-minute CMC YouTube video that provides a good introduction. Most experienced fourteener folks prefer 14ers.com to other sites for information about current conditions and climbing routes because some sites have been known to lead hikers astray.

There are several reliable guidebooks, including The Colorado Fourteeners: the Best Routes, published by the CMC, and Colorado’s Fourteeners: From Hikes to Climbs, by Gerry Roach. The CMC also publishes a pocket guidebook called The Colorado 14ers: Pack Guide.

Decalibron Loop

Now let’s get down to specific rules and restrictions, starting with the popular Decalibron Loop near the town of Alma, which takes in mounts Democrat, Cameron, Lincoln and Bross. It has been open on and off in recent years due to landowner liability concerns, but it will be open this summer — with the signing of a liability waiver (see below).

Much has happened in the past year that affects the rights and responsibilities of hikers there. Last fall, landowner John Reiber sold the trail to the summit of Mount Democrat to the Conservation Fund, and it later became public land after it was conveyed to the U.S. Forest Service. Reiber still owns Mount Lincoln and parts of Mount Bross, for which he allows public access to hikers who sign an electronic waiver. The summit of Bross remains closed because of safety hazards, but there is a bypass just west of the summit so the loop is doable.

In February, the state legislature passed a bill that strengthens liability protections for landowners in order to encourage public recreational access on private land. That bill was supported by Reiber, other landowners and a coalition of outdoor recreation non-profits. It doesn’t go into effect until Aug. 8, though, so Reiber is still asking people to sign the waiver to hike on his land. And, he may continue to do so after the liability shield takes effect.

“Even when it goes into effect, there are still a few questions I have as a landowner that I don’t (believe) have been quite addressed,” Reiber said this week. “Whether or not that (waiver requirement) will continue past Aug. 8, I don’t know right now.”

For example, the legislation requires landowners to post warning signs informing hikers of potential hazards. Reiber supports that, but he is seeking clarity on the details.

“On one hand, it sounds like if you post (warning signs) at the trailhead, you’re covered,” Reiber said. “But, it also looks like, as the landowner, you need to post where your land starts, not necessarily at the trailhead. In the case of the Decalibron loop, that trailhead is on forest service ground now, not private property.”

Either way, Reiber’s waiver is painless and there is no fee. Hikers can sign it online ahead of time or via a QR code at a kiosk just outside of the town of Alma on County Road 8, which leads to the trailhead. There’s also a QR code at the trailhead, but cell service there is sketchy.

Quandary Peak

 

Three miles to the north on the other side of Hoosier Pass looms Quandary Peak, annually one of Colorado’s busiest peaks, where reservations for trailhead parking have been required since 2021. Full-day parking (5 a.m. to 3 p.m.) costs $30 Monday through Thursday, $55 on weekends and holidays. Shuttles to the trailhead from Breckenridge run from 5 a.m. until 5 p.m., costing $7 roundtrip.

Longs Peak

Fortunately, Rocky Mountain National Park’s timed-entry reservation system doesn’t really affect folks who want to climb Longs Peak. Entry to the park at the Longs Peak trailhead is covered by the timed-entry reservation requirement, but only from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m., and Longs Peak climbers are advised to begin their climbs well before sunrise. That’s because it’s 15 miles roundtrip and usually takes 10-15 hours to complete. Rule No. 1 in climbing Colorado’s big peaks is to be off the summit and headed down before noon to avoid dangerous afternoon lightning storms.

Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak

In the Elk Mountains southwest of Aspen, restrictions imposed by the U.S. Forest Service last year have made access for climbing the iconic Maroon Bells and adjacent Pyramid Peak more difficult. Parking permits are required in advance, and there is limited camping near the peaks since the forest service required overnight permits last year in heavily used areas of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

There are two approved camping areas in the Crater Lake zone at the base of the Bells, but they have only 28 sites between them. There are other forest service campgrounds down valley from the trailhead at Maroon Lake, but they are four to five miles from the trailhead. That’s on top of the roundtrip distance from the trailhead to the peaks of eight to nine miles.

Limited overnight and two-night parking permits are available for $10. Camping reservations for the Crater Lake zone are available through recreation.gov. There is a shuttle from Aspen, but it’s no help for climbing the Bells because it doesn’t start running until 7 a.m.

“I know people who have not gotten a parking permit and they’ve ridden a bike in the middle of the night from somewhere outside of Aspen — ridden to the trailhead and started climbing,” said Lloyd Athearn, executive director of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative.

Athearn has concerns about the new rules governing Maroon Bells access, which the forest service imposed because explosive visitation growth in recent years resulted in the accumulation of trash, human waste and other troubling impacts on the wilderness — a 280 square-mile swath of land between Aspen and Crested Butte that stretches north to Mount Sopris.

“You oftentimes have to be planning three to six months in advance to get your reservations,” Athearn said. “One of the challenges that land managers sometimes don’t think about, when it relates to climbing, if people have to plan months in advance, what happens if the weather (is bad)? Are people going to be encouraged to go up in difficult weather or snow conditions just because they’ve gotten a permit? Does it cause people to take excessive risks, where if the permits weren’t limited and required to be done in advance, you might be able to say, ‘Wow, we’ve got a week of good weather, I’m going to figure out a good time to go climb.’”

Culebra Peak

One Colorado fourteener requires you to pay to play: Culebra Peak, 20 miles south of the Great Sand Dunes and nine miles north of the New Mexico border, is located on private land. It’s only open on weekends and costs $150. Climbing is not allowed in August through December due to hunting season.

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