An outdoor hot spot: Summit County community tries to promote education, increase access as trail use soars

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Hikers look at surrounding mountain peaks while hiking in the Mineral Hill area near Breckenridge.
Photo by Liam Doran / Breckenridge Tourism Office

There are multiple metrics that show Summit County has become an increasingly sought-after place during the pandemic.

There’s the skyrocketing demand for local homes. There’s the tourism numbers reflected in cellphone and sales tax data. And then there’s the exponential growth of people on local trails.

“I feel a lot of people were cooped up, particularly on the Front Range,” Breckenridge Recreation Director Scott Reid said. “They were looking for ways to escape and get out of lockdowns.”



Those numbers are most acute in the county’s recreation capital: Breckenridge. Anne Lowe, Breckenridge’s open space and trails manager, said the town and county saw a sharp increase in the number of trail users right at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Lowe said the high levels of recreation remained consistent through fall and winter.

The year 2020 served as an exclamation point on what already was trending in the past five years toward an exponential increase in hikers and bikers.



Lowe points to a 78% increase in traffic at the B&B Trailhead near French Gulch for summer 2020 — July through September — versus 2019. Compared with 2016, the number of people is up a whopping 328%.

Over at the Sallie Barber Trailhead, numbers spiked 43% year over year in 2020 and were up 196% overall from 2016. And at Cucumber Gulch Preserve — one of the crown jewels of the town and county’s open space programs — numbers were up 46% year over year and 196% since 2016.

As for winter, the town’s B&B Trailhead use was up 76% year over year before the pandemic and 192% since 2016. Those numbers, though, don’t include this past winter, when Tony Overlock, Breckenridge’s open space and trails supervisor, said the town expanded its grooming operations by 10 miles. The expansion was to the Fall Classic, Hard Luck, Slalom, Upper and Middle Flume and Tom’s Baby trails in the Gold Run Road network. The initiative was to help spread out the rising number of winter trail users — namely those trying the growing sports of winter fat biking.

The trail use numbers shine a light on how droves of fresh-air seekers flocked to Summit as the ideal place to recreate — whether by short-term stay or long-term residence.

In many ways, Summit County is a perfect place for people of all experience levels to get outside.

Breckenridge is a great example. The town has 63 miles of trails in its network and 130 trail-access points to public lands. Of all homes in Breckenridge, 80% are located within a quarter-mile of a trailhead.

With that reality, Lowe and other members of the Summit County outdoors community view the growing interest as both an opportunity and a challenge. To Lowe, it’s encouraging that the masses want to enjoy the county’s trail network, but the unprecedented numbers also mean an increase in less experienced recreationists who are not familiar with trail ethics and the Leave No Trace Seven Principles.

“We’re recognizing we have a lot more users who are new to the area or to a sport,” Reid said.

Local municipalities and independent recreation groups have devised several strategies to attempt to accommodate everyone while protecting the local trail ecosystem. In Breckenridge, that includes an atypical approach to trail signage.

The town worked with local athlete and artist Nikki LaRochelle, a commissioner on the town’s Open Space Advisory Committee, to draw creative signs that illustrate trail etiquette messages.

LaRochelle’s animations include a rabbit with flowers reminding recreationists to show kindness on the trails and a sloth conveying the message to ride slow and stay in control.

Lowe said the new signs are especially neat in that they’re meant to be relocated periodically to different trails — something the town hasn’t tried before. Lowe said moving the signs could help because trail users often become accustomed to eternal signage, and the message blends into the background. In essence, the town hopes the signage with the cute animal visuals will catch people’s attention.

This trail sign, created by Breckenridge resident Nikki LaRochelle, is one of several animal-themed signs the town of Breckenridge will place along local trails in hopes of improving trail etiquette.
Image from Nikki LaRochelle

It’s not just municipalities devising ways to educate trail users and protect natural resources. Local nonprofit organizations like the Summit County Mountain Bike Alliance also have tried to help the trail situation.

Jewels Olsen, Mountain Bike Alliance board member and avid cyclist, said local mountain bike trail use exploded in 2020.

“And that’s really great to see,” Olsen said. “But it’s been really hard on the trails with more traffic and more people on the trails leading to more erosion.”

Olsen said the cycling nonprofit has undertaken a concerted effort to welcome in those people who have recently developed a love for the sport. Part of that effort in summer 2020 included increasing the number of skills clinics and trail workdays. The organization lives and breathes a mantra that it’s best for everyone to welcome new riders with events that also give back to the trail network and community. It’s a work-hard, play-hard approach to community caretaking where members enjoy group rides followed by a stop for drinks. Members also help with twilight sessions to rebuild a small section of trail, such as a berm.

“Our motto is, ‘build, maintain and unify,’” Olsen said. “Beer and mountain biking go hand in hand. But at the same time, so do shovels and rakes. And if we want to be able to ride the best trails, have the most amount of fun, then mountain bikers need to know that we need to put a little bit of elbow grease into what we’re riding.”

Olsen pointed to the Peaks Trail between Breckenridge and Frisco and the Tenderfoot Mountain area in Dillon as mountain biking destinations that have exploded in popularity. As such, the nonprofit has put in hours of work on Peaks Trail.

As for Tenderfoot, the group plans to further manifest a “ride center” out of the mountain’s network. The organization is working with the town of Dillon, U.S. Forest Service and Summit County Resource Allocation Park — known as the Dillon dump — to construct new trails to add into an already substantial system.

This Tenderfoot ride center, north of U.S. Highway 6 and to the east of the disc golf course and cemetery, would be sculpted specifically for mountain biking.

The location is perfect for dry early season riding, according to Olsen and fellow Mountain Bike Alliance board member Robert Klima. The spot also is adjacent to the Summit Cove community, a neighborhood that links to a wide swath of trails between Keystone and Breckenridge.

The alliance would like to start the first of three phases of construction as early as this summer, including the construction of the new Blue Flow Trail that runs from Tenderfoot Trail Road down to the archery range. The alliance also wants to construct a beginner serpentine trail and kids’ Strider trail just off the highway. Klima said future phases would expand the trail network to the north and east.

Town of Dillon officials largely responded positively to the proposal. Olsen said the Dillon effort is one of several initiatives with local towns as part of the nonprofit’s five-year plan to improve and build new trails.

“There’s so much open space at Tenderfoot to be able to work with in order to give our community a place to ride, have fun and a place to take their families,” Olsen said. “We really think that this could pull together … the whole community through the whole county — not just Silverthorne, Dillon and Keystone. We’d love to work with the county to make it one of the best projects in the state.”

Back in Breckenridge, the trail-loving community also is assessing what the future holds for its hills. Lowe said the town will field feedback from the community of trail users this summer. The takeaways will influence the first revision of the town’s open space and trails plan in more than a decade.

That public feedback will affect the town’s decisions and recommendations regarding such current nuisances as parking at popular trailhead locations. For example, Lowe said the town is one of several stakeholders assessing the public’s pulse on the idea of shuttles or carpooling to hike the 14,000-foot Quandary Peak.

“If people don’t find a spot, they park on the road, and that’s problematic for emergency vehicles,” Lowe said.

The town is also adding new trails to its system. That includes cultivating certain locations for specific recreation, including the growing hiking network on Mineral Hill in the popular French Gulch area. As for biking, the town is building the new Rose mountain biking loop near the Wellington Ore Bin across from the B&B trailhead. Rose is a beginner figure eight with pull-offs where cyclists can improve certain skills. The town believes these types of trails will help new cyclists grow enough to access the rest of the surrounding intermediate and advanced trail options.

“It’s nice to have an opportunity for these folks to go somewhere and find that escape or peace of mind,” Overlock said about trail users flocking to Summit County.

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