Study finds most winter trail use has been declining since 2017

Snodgrass the exception; 2020 might still be busier

[ By Mark Reaman and Katherine Nettles ]

Researchers from the Western Colorado University School of Environment and Sustainability this week started their fourth consecutive year of monitoring winter backcountry trailhead use around Crested Butte.

Surprisingly to some, the data so far shows a decrease in overall winter recreational trail user numbers in the past few years, by about 20 users per day. Considering the overall increase in visitation across the valley in 2020, that might change.

The Upper Gunnison Valley winter use study was first undertaken in 2017/2018. The goal was to gather “quantitative data regarding backcountry travel and use” to help the U.S. Forest Service make decisions in its winter travel management planning, now more than 20 years old. The study is partially funded by the local Silent Tracks and Share the Slate organizations. The town of Crested Butte has also provided grant funds for the project.

The baseline dataset concerning the recreational use of winter trailheads in the upper valley can shed light on what people are already doing in the winter and where.

The study installed trail cameras at eight trailheads in the six major drainages used for backcountry travel within the north valley and recorded use between December 1 and April 1 each year. The cameras capture images of trail users, so that researchers can classify what types of winter recreation is happening on the different trails.

Assistant professor of environment and sustainability and executive director of Western’s Center for Public Lands Melanie Armstrong informed county commissioners of their findings on November 24, and the 2020/2021 study began December 1.

The same classification and collection methods have been repeated with minimal variation since the pilot study conducted in 2016, and the 2019/2020 season very closely followed the previous years in data collection.

The results from winter 2019/2020 data collection show that at least 22,313 recreation visits took place on Upper Gunnison Valley winter trails between December 6, 2019, and April 15, 2020. That worked out to about 220 users per day across the area of study.

“There was of course a significant bump during the holiday times,” said Armstrong.

Armstrong also said that each of the trailheads had its own unique demographic of users. For example, the trailheads at Snodgrass, Cement Creek and Gothic primarily attracted non-motorized users. Not surprisingly, motorized users dominated the Kebler Pass Road trailhead. The Slate River, Washington Gulch and Cement Creek trailheads had a more “shared use” demographic.

In terms of users per trailhead, Kebler Pass had the most recreationists, with a total of 8,154 users (36.5 percent of all users). These were primarily snowmobiles, which made up 7,233 of the users there. Motorized use was also found at the Slate River trailhead, and a few were also found at Washington Gulch and Cement Creek.

Armstrong said that despite perceptions about snow bikes, the study found an average of only about one snow bike per trail per day.

Due to a stolen camera, the Snodgrass Trailhead only had 58 days of data collected, but the rest of the locations had between 105 and 126 days of data. During 2020, the study determined to leave the cameras in place an additional two weeks beyond the usual April 1 study termination, to capture notable changes from the pandemic and Crested Butte Mountain Resort’s early closure.

“We haven’t found anything too significant there yet,” she said of the additional two-week time period the study extended after the resort shut down. “It seems people were using the trailheads at about the same rate they had the year previously.”

Decline in users
“This is the first year we’ve really attempted a multi-year data comparison,” said Armstrong. “And there are a few things we are still aiming to integrate into these data. But what we see overall over three years is a decline in average daily users from about 280 daily users in 2017/2018. That dropped to 222 average daily users in 2018/2019 and that was pretty consistent from this year.”

Armstrong said the declines are consistent across all user types. And the researchers believe that decline is not coming from any study methodologies, but an actual drop in use.

The decline is most significant at Kebler, Brush Creek and Gothic, according to the past two years. And Snodgrass trailhead use was up in 2019/2020 after seeing a decline the year before. Motorized recreational use has dropped about 25 percent since 2017, according to the study. It should be noted that people using the trailhead for accessing their homes at or near Irwin town site, rather than for commercial purposes, appear to have increased.

Armstrong said it couldn’t be extrapolated why the recreational use has declined.

“We are working to correlate avalanche data and snowfall levels with these data in order to understand how those factors are influencing those changes,” she said. A statistician on campus is working on those correlations, expected in January or February 2021.

The study has been paired with a community survey to get more qualitative information to understand why and how people are making their recreational choices. There was a baseline survey done two years ago, but the pandemic cut last year’s survey short.

“We’re always thinking about ways to better engage community members in this, thinking about potential citizen science approaches where we could take some of the labor away from Western students commuting up and down the valley,” said Armstrong.

“We talk a lot about what our perceptions are without really looking at the day to day use,” commented commissioner Roland Mason. “Having some of this data, especially over a three-year period, is surprising. My conversations have always been with people who are using these trailheads on a daily basis, that they feel it’s becoming more crowded and more crowded.

“When you compare that against the actual use overall, it’s very interesting. As we continue to gather this data I think it’s very useful,” concluded Mason. “I think we can use this in a lot of different aspects.”
Mason also suggested that snow bikes are a new sport, and may take time to take hold but eventually make more of an impact, like paddle boarding has.

Commissioner Jonathan Houck said he thinks 2020/2021 will be interesting, with higher sales of snowmobiles and backcountry gear reported, and based on how visitor numbers have been up since summer began.

“And we’re hearing lots of folks say ‘I didn’t buy a ski pass,’” Houck said. “It’s going to be interesting to see… if those changes are enduring over time or if this is a trend.

“It’s been consistent, but it seems to just be growing by leaps and bounds that the partnership with Western gives us the ability to really utilize the learning environment… and how that goes on to benefit the citizens here. Land management, all kinds of different decisions have been really strongly influenced by the work of Western. Thanks for your leadership on that, and so many other related projects,” said Houck.
“It’s great for our students, and we appreciate the support,” said Armstrong.

Armstrong also commented that the researchers do have fun noting the various faces captured by cameras when passersby notice them. So remember not to tamper with the equipment, but you might as well smile.

Dr. Armstrong will be presenting the results of the 2019-2020 Upper Gunnison Valley Winter Visitor Use Report at the Crested Butte Town Council Meeting on Monday, December 7 at about 7:35 p.m. You can access the agenda at or click on the link to the Zoom meeting at

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