Colorado outdoor issues and concerns

I recently received an email from a reader thanking me for information he found on my website.

He enjoyed the trip and his time in the San Juans.

But he was surprised to see all the pine bark beetle kill. Made for difficulty finding a campsite. And that this information was not readily apparent on various websites.

It occurred to me that though this information is well known to Colorado residents, and is information on many websites including this one, it is rarely linked to trip planning resources.

With that in mind, I started thinking of other issues or concerns known to many Colorado (and American West) residents. Issues that may not be as well known to people planning their vacations from outside this area.

Here is a list of some issues and concerns that may be of interest to someone planning an outdoor vacation in Colorado or even the American West in general.

These points are not to be alarmist but rather some concepts to think about when you are performing your trip planning. Points that seem to take some people by surprise:

  • The pine bark beetle and spruce beetle epidemics

From the Public Land Partnership

Look out on many American West mountainsides, and the once vibrant green pines and spruces are now a rust colored brown. The cause? The pine bark beetle epidemic is the primary reason and additionally, the spruce beetle epidemic is now starting to crop up.   Many dead and fallen trees. Lots of pick up sticks to negotiate. And non-maintained areas to camp may be harder to access.  A dubious silver lining is that the pine bark beetle epidemic is slowing down as there are less live trees to consume. :O  Be it because of hotter weather, forestry practices, or shorter winters; these impacted forests are now part of the American West landscape. Because of the population base and tourism industry of Colorado, these epidemics seem extremely visible.

What does this issue mean for outdoor users?  Besides the aesthetic impact, it also means more widow makers, harder to negotiate trails that do not see regular maintenance and impacted campsites. Many popular state parks, USFS areas, and NPS units will have routine maintenance to clear the trails and campsites. Going off the beaten path? Be aware.   And when not if a major fire happens, the outdoor experience will, of course, be impacted. Speaking of which…

  • Regular forest fires are now part of the American West experience.

DENVER, CO – MARCH 19: Fire crews fight a wildfire from the air in Sunshine Canyon on March 19, 2017 in Boulder, Colorado.  (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Every year large portions of public land will be closed due to fires. And not just in the Summer or Spring, either. The fire season has started late Winter and late Fall. Public lands will be closed, roads may be blocked, and alternate plans will have to be decided. It is no coincidence that the many dead trees now found in the Colorado forests are contributing to these fires.  The best source for current fires is InciWeb.

What does this issue mean for outdoor users?   The obvious answer is that during a fire the public lands will not be accessible. But after, the lands may be closed for a while until trail maintenance crews can remove some of the trees and clean up the campsites.  Aesthetically the woods will be charred and exposed. Floods could happen after as the ground cover is gone. And on a more immediate level, there are probably open flame bans when the fires are occurring.

  •  Open flame bans are becoming more common

From the USFS

When there are wildfires, or even “just” hot and dry conditions, the local government agency will ban open flames. No campfires of course, but no smoking (of all types for your certain types of CO tourists 😉 ) stoves without an on/off valve, no charcoal grills, etc., etc. etc.   At  Colorado resource for finding these bans may be found at the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention & Control website.

What does this issue mean for outdoor users?   In addition to no campfires, backpackers must use a canister or white gas stove. No Esbit, wood, or alcohol stoves.  

  • Bears seem to be a concern for many when in Colorado.

With the wildland-urban interface blurring and growing, even more, bears have been in the news in Colorado.  But the linked bear incident was in an area where there are many homes where bears are habituated to humans (and our garbage!).  I was in line at my local Costco, and a person was buying bear spray meant for grizzlies!  Mice, deer, chipmunks, etc. are more likely to be a problem. Be “Bear Aware,” but no need to needlessly worry.

What does this issue mean for outdoor users? A few simple precautions are all that is needed. Follow the local regulations, keep a clean campsite, and secure food as appropriate.

  • Lightning concerns 

Above or near treeline is a frightening place to be when thunderstorms are rolling into the ridgeline you are hiking. Colorado has the third highest fatalities for lightning.

When out and about in the outdoors, esp during the summer months, a few items to keep in mind.

  1. Avoid wide open spaces if the weather looks threatening.
  2. If climbing a high peak such as a 14er, be back below treeline by the early afternoon
  3. Read your map and have bailout plans for when a storm moves in. Be prepared to take an alternate route or relax below treeline for a bit.
  4. Turn around when in doubt. Bagging a peak ain’t worth it.

What does this issue mean for outdoor users? Have situational and time awareness. Other useful information may be found on the Lightning Safety Institute website

  • Colorado has a monsoon season ??? 

From about mid-July to about mid-to-late-August, Colorado will typically have the afternoon thunderstorms noted above. And associated torrential downpours.  Winds will pick up, the rain will be cold, and you can expect a few hours of constant rain.

What does this issue mean for outdoor users?  Have adequate rain gear in addition to following the tips noted above for lightning. Ideally, I try to be in the trees when the afternoon t-storms and rain starts. But to quote the wise sage Yogi Berra:  “If the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.” 

  • Acclimation

From Pinterest

Coming from the lower elevations? Don’t go to the higher elevations right away. Less oxygen means your body is working harder in an environment it is not used to for vigorous exercise. Yeah, some people do just fine. But taking a day or two in Denver, Boulder, or other places at “only” 5000′ or so is advised.  Or take it easy and car camp at a higher elevation area before backpacking or extensive day hiking.  More relaxing than being in town! Drink plenty of water and limit your alcohol intake as well.

What does this issue mean for outdoor users?  Don’t go backpacking to 10,000 feet right off the bat. Take it easy, take it slow, and enjoy yourself a bit. Once your body is a little more used to the elevation, you can ramp up your activity level accordingly.

  • Mobile device coverage in the backcountry?

Old photo. I frankly forget where I found it initially!

Another common concern is what kind of mobile device coverage will there in the backcountry?

The short answer?  Little.

On some ridgelines, you can get a weaker cell phone signal esp. when above a town. But even in the foothills, coverage is spotty for the most part.  As you get closer to a road, or again on or near a peak, you may receive a signal.  This coverage map for various providers may be useful.

What does this issue mean for outdoor users? Don’t count on making calls to your family to check in while in the backcountry. Or to bail you out if ah, stuff hits the fan.  If those concerns are significant, something such as a SPOT device for tracking and simple text communication is suggested.  More concerned about Search And Rescue scenarios versus simple communication? A PLB will be more reliable.  Use the mobile device when back in town to give your family a call.

  • Marquee areas are getting busier…

More wise words from one of my favorite philosophers.

And that means more permits are needed. Bear canisters are becoming increasingly mandated. WAG bags are being talked about. And the campings sites are getting booked.

What does this issue mean for outdoor users?  Do your research ahead of time. Look up the district website, park, or recreation area and see what regulations are in place. Call if you have questions. Try to book any permits in advance. Go on a weekday if you can and perhaps after Labor Day. And please don’t tweet me on a Thurs evening because you have not done your research, you have a question, and your trip starts Friday.  😉 This incident really happened to me!

  • The Colorado roads from Denver to the mountains and back are wicked busy.

I was stopped. The only reason why I could take a photo!

I’ve discussed this issue before. I’ll sum it up with a suitable quote that applies to all the major highways in Colorado leading to the mountains:

“It’s a system that was designed in the ’50s and built in the ’60s for a population that they thought would be about three million statewide in the ’80s,”

What does this issue mean for outdoor users?   Given the option, try to go during off-peak hours. Don’t leave for the mountains on a Friday between 4 PM and 7 PM.  Leave for the trailhead in the afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday instead of mid-morning hours. Come back after 7 p.m. Or start the trip very early in the morning and come back before noon or so on the weekend. Best option if possible? Go during the week.


A few odd and ends of different questions, issues, and concerns discussed for anyone planning an outdoor vacation in Colorado. Hopefully, some of this information was useful.

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6 years ago

All this (except possibly the thunderstorms) applies to the Cascade Range in the Pacific NW, too! We do get occasional spells of afternoon/evening thunderstorms in late July through August, usually the scary “dry lightning” kind. My defense against lightning has been to get up before dawn, get on the trail as early as possible, and plan to be off the high places by early afternoon. This takes a loud alarm (something I’ve had trouble with) and the willpower not to sit around leisurely drinking morning coffee (another trouble spot for me!). Speaking of climate change: Back in the 1950s, when… Read more »

Nick Gatel
6 years ago

That bark beetle picture is quite telling. We’ve had this problem for a couple decades in So Cal, but nothing as visually impacting as your picture.

Nick Gatel
6 years ago

Our fire suppression for the past 100+ years is a huge problem also. Too much ground fuel creating too hot a fire. An unintended consequence to protect forests.

Todd Anderson
Todd Anderson
6 years ago

Nice post! 🙂 Regarding dead trees, what are others doing to avoid dead trees falling on their tent? Finding small clusters of live trees? Avoiding thunderstorm season and camping in open areas away from trees? Other?

6 years ago

During my family car camping days back in the 90’s, we saw other campers while we were out walking and I was constantly asked, “You don’t have a gun”? I never had one but everyone else seemed too and they were shocked that I didn’t. You have crossed paths with many more hikers than I ever will and I rarely see this discussed, so I’ll ask… Do hikers pack a weapon or is this something everyone does and it is taboo to talk about? Or do hikers generally just go weaponless. I’m talking about pistols of course. I’m not a… Read more »

6 years ago

Good summary of things people should be aware of. I think the overcrowding issue is one of the most underated: everyone comes here for the same reasons and is surprised to find that they are not the first to arrive! Thursday has become the new Friday for getting out of town, at least along Colorado’s front range. I see more trash along the trails and more crowding, even at non-“marquee” areas and even several miles in from trailheads, and things are definitely noisier (more dogs, more portable speakers, more whooping and hollering in general). It is sad to see this… Read more »

6 years ago

Colorado’s outdoors will continue to suffer and one reason is because tourism (more people) is such an incredible asset to the state. It will be many many years after I am long gone before people (like those here) will really struggle to find solitude in those once unspoiled mountains. Luckily most people (unlike those here) want to go to a water park, a ski resort, a Mexico resort or a National Park where hundreds if not thousands of other people are. There were 4.5 million visitors to RMNP in 2016. 50+ million go to Disney World each year. Most could… Read more »

Daniel Pittman
Daniel Pittman
6 years ago
Reply to  Tom

Better not make Red Mountain Pass a toll road! It’s funny though, my hikes rarely take me more than five miles from a trailhead, and I don’t really see an overcrowding issue. Maybe it’s a Western Slope thing, but everyone is quiet (almost reverent) on the trails. You might get a nod ‘hello’ or a quiet greeting as you cross paths, but the whole encounter is over in a few seconds and not intrusive at all. When I used to hike in the South, people would strike up conversations and want to get your whole life story… I’ve been in… Read more »