80,000 trips recorded in the lower Slate River Valley last summer[ By Mark Reaman ]
Last summer’s survey of the lower Slate River Valley area confirmed it was busy out there. Approximately 80,000 visitor trips were logged between Memorial Day and Labor Day in four zones including the Lupine Trail area, the Upper Lower Loop and Gunsight Pass area, the Peanut Lake area and the Oh Be Joyful Campground area.
Western State Colorado University graduate student Brian Lieberman conducted the survey for the Bureau of Land Management and Crested Butte Land Trust. He compiled his data from conducting surveys, infrared counting technology, physical observations and county traffic count information.
Not surprisingly, the data showed the numbers spiking around July Fourth. But the area starts to see significant numbers on Father’s Day weekend and it stays steadily busy through the Crested Butte Arts Festival, with a late spike on Labor Day weekend.
“Overall, July was the busiest time. Basically it showed that weekends were about 30 percent busier than weekdays,” Lieberman told the Crested Butte Town Council at a work session on Monday, May 2. “While the Lupine area received use early in the season because the trails probably dried out faster, it was farther out from town so generally fewer people used it overall. Biking was the predominant activity in most zones, followed by hiking and jogging in, say, the Peanut Lake zone.”
Full-time residents comprised just over 40 percent of the users. Second-home owners tallied about 6 percent and visitors to the area came in at more than half of the users. Lieberman’s data indicated special events such as weddings bring about a quarter of the visitors.
The area around the Oh Be Joyful Campground, Lieberman said, was used a lot for overnight camping, with more than 19,000 overnight uses recorded for the summer. While there are only 14 official campsites, the dispersed camping is major and Lieberman said it peaked on the Fourth of July when 147 tents were counted, located in 67 separate dispersed campsites.
Day-users were also drawn to the Oh Be Joyful area, with hundreds of cars per day driving to the beautiful spot located on BLM land along the Slate River north and west of Crested Butte. Saturday was the busiest average day for vehicles, with more than 200 counted on average all summer.
Trailheads also attracted vehicles. For example, almost 10 vehicles on average were constantly parked at the Slate River trailhead where the pavement turns to gravel by the Lupine 2 trail. The Lower Loop trailhead drew more than 13 vehicles every mid-day and during really busy times, the cars were strung out along the road.
Lieberman said people heard about the local trail systems from friends, online or from local retail stores.
“There is a sense of crowding at the trailheads, especially during busy weekends in July,” Lieberman said, responding to a question from mayor Glenn Michel about his observations. “Some people might not have realized they could have ridden from town.”
Crested Butte town planner Michael Yerman said he was glad to have solid numbers when discussing the backcountry crowding issue, which has been getting a lot of attention recently. “And it is interesting to see the cumulative impacts of special events,” he noted.
Crested Butte building and zoning director Bob Gillie was also appreciative of the data. “It’s a great baseline for the summer of 2015. The question now is, ‘What is the carrying capacity?’ What do we do up there?” he asked.
Councilman Chris Ladoulis pointed out that during the peak July Fourth period about 900 people a day were using the Upper Lower Loop/Gunsight Bridge area, while on average about 400 to 500 people a day were using the area. “Were those all different people or people coming to the Lower Loop one day and Gunsight the next?” he asked.
“There weren’t 80,000 individuals out there over the summer,” Lieberman explained. “It was 80,000 total trips. The locals were out there all the time. The idea of crowding for us is probably different from people, say, from the Front Range who are used to more people and more vehicles at the trailheads.”
Lieberman suggested that similar studies could continue to build on the baseline data and determine trends that might occur over the coming years.