Follow Up


'It’s not sustainable': Residents, visitors frustrated by irresponsible hikers at St. Mary's Glacier trailhead

Posted: 9:14 PM, Aug 08, 2023
Updated: 2023-08-09 13:28:34-04
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St Mary's Glacier

CLEAR CREEK COUNTY, Colo. — It's no secret that Colorado's trails are becoming busier over the years, but the problems are exacerbated when parking is limited and hikers are irresponsible.

That's the case up at St. Mary's, a census-designated place in Clear Creek County off exit 238 of Interstate 70.

On May 16, Denver7 reported the 300% price increase to park at the trailhead for St. Mary's Glacier. This came in the wake of several years of people not paying the required $5 permit fee and leaving trash around the trail. The fee is now $20 for 24 hours to park in one of the two private parking lots, which are both nestled in the small communities of St. Mary's, Winterland and Alice. The self-pay fee stations at these parking lots only accept cash or checks.

St Mary's Glacier

Local News

Parking fee increases for St. Mary's Glacier after years of overcrowding

Stephanie Butzer
11:14 AM, May 16, 2023

These are the only legal parking areas for the trail and parking is not permitted on Fall River Road or in the subdivision.

But it doesn't stop drivers from illegally parking. And long-standing laws haven't stopped hikers from strewing litter around the pathway up to St. Mary's Glacier.

After this story was published, both residents and visitors explained the long-time issues they have seen with people who were disrespectful to the land, laws and trail.

Residents, visitors frustrated by irresponsible hikers at St. Mary's Glacier

Resident expresses frustration with irresponsible crowds

Chuck Longhenry has lived in St. Mary's for about five years. His home is about 500 yards from the trailhead for the glacier trail, he said.

"It gets more crowded every year," he said. "More people, more issues, more cars, stuff like that. It just gets worse every year."

It's a pattern every time the weekend brings beautiful weather, he said.

"Everybody comes up to hike to the glacier," Longhenry said. "There's only so much parking. And so then people start parking on streets. And there's been times where there's been cars on both sides of Fall River half mile down. And the same for when people are hiking up to Loch Lomond. It's the same kind of situation, you know? You're not allowed to park on a county road. But everybody does."

Alexis Sohlden_St Mary's crowding

It's a problem that has become worse over the past few years.

He said the fee increase from $5 to $20 may deter some people, but most will still go. And some will still park illegally along Fall River and near Loch Lomond, he said.

Longhenry is a firefighter and said another of his concerns is getting emergency personnel into the area with so many vehicles parked incorrectly.

"It just makes it that much tougher for first responders to get up there and take care of things," he said. "And a few years ago, there were several deaths up there. So, I mean, it's pretty popular and can be very dangerous if they're not careful."

As far as solutions, he has one idea: Installing a reservation system. While not always popular, it does help with crowd control in places like Mount Evans, Rocky Mountain National Park and Quandary Peak, among others. This would allow people to still enjoy the area through a more structured system.

"It's an awesome area," he said. "Enjoy it. Understand that people do live up there year round. And just be respectful of the outdoors and your neighbors."

Some visitors try to do their share to keep trail clean

About five times a year, Alex Mears, of Lakewood, heads up the curvy road to St. Mary's in the early morning hours of weekend days.

"It’s one of the first or second hikes that I went on, so it has a little sentimental value as well," he said. "It’s just beautiful. When you get up, you get to see this beautiful view of the mountains all around Colorado.”

Even if he leaves early, he said he will see anywhere between 300 and 400 people on the trail. And while the crowding itself is irksome — he called the parking lot a "free-for-all" and "fight to the death for the parking spots" — he's more concerned about the trash left behind by fellow visitors.

Alex Mears, Lakewood
Alex Mears, Lakewood

“Nobody knows how to pick up their stuff," Mears said. "I don’t know if it’s the tourists, if it’s the Colorado residents. But everybody has gotta step it up because when we’re walking up and down the trails, it’s not just trash like little gum wrappers here and there. It’s cigarette butts (and) whoever wraps their dog poop up and just leaves it is the worst.”

He said he doesn't mind the fee increase for parking. He doesn't necessarily want to pay a whole $20, but said if it's a deterrent for irresponsible people visiting and trashing the trails, he's for it. He said he wouldn't be surprised if the parking lot starts a reservation system, so parking would only be available to those who pre-plan their visit.

"It’s just one of those things that if things keep going the way they’re going, it’s not sustainable," Mears said.

Rachel Noble, of Jefferson County, works in the restaurant industry and her days off fall on weekdays. Luckily, the parking lot was empty the day she chose to visit and she didn't see many people.

It took just one visit in the summer about a decade ago for her to decide never to return during a summer weekend, she recalled.

"People don’t understand that you have to respect nature," she said. "And you have to be prepared. There are rules you’re supposed to follow.”

Rachel Noble
Rachel Noble, Jefferson County

Nowadays, she picks up some trash along the trail, but is frustrated by it. It's not just little pieces of plastic accidentally dropped, but rather entire food and drink containers.

“It’s mostly along the trails, but I’m sure this summer, it’s going to get worse in the lots," Noble said. "The porta-potties are always disgusting, I’m sure.”

She said respect for the environment can be traced back to education.

"And a lot of people just want to go camp and drink beer and go fishing and they don’t want to have to clean up after themselves," Noble said. "They just assume somebody else is going to do it.”

Limited other solutions available via county, local authorities

According to a site lease agreement signed in December 2019, one lot is owned by Paul W. Johnson and Erin T. Johnson, and they entered the agreement with the Clear Creek County Board of Commissioners. The agreement expires Dec. 31, 2024. Denver7 was unable to contact the Johnsons for this story.

They developed the property as a trailhead and parking facility as a commercial venture, the document reads.

Both the board of commissioners and Johnsons agreed in the 2019 document that they wanted to continue to work together to provide the bathroom facilities. It reads that the county would pay the Johnsons $1 for the term of the lease. The county would then have the right to install and maintain the two porta-potties and install signage. As written in the document, the Johnsons would then maintain the pads for the porta-potties and secure them. They were also listed as being responsible for oversight of the bathrooms and to ensure they are properly serviced by the vendors.

Undersheriff John Stein with the Clear Creek County Sheriff's Office said its deputies respond to calls for service but the department does not deal with the parking decisions at the lots, since they are private property.

Alexis Sohlden_St Mary's crowding

"The parking issues we responded to are illegal parking on the county road, littering, etc.," Stein said.

Visitors driving up to the parking lots will notice "No Parking" signs dotting the roadway from Silver Creek Road up to the homes around the trailhead, said Karl Schell, director of Clear Creek County Road and Bridge Department.

"The idea was to educate the public about the County’s parking ordinance and hopefully help the sheriff’s office with the number of calls for illegal parking on the county roadway," Schell said. "The parking lots are run by a private entity. We do not have control over pricing or managing the lots. This has been an ongoing issue for several years, especially since the pandemic."

The St. Mary's Glacier trailhead, just off of Fall River Road, leads visitors up a rocky, wide trail to St. Mary's Glacier, which is technically a semi-permanent snowfield, and Saint Mary's Lake below it. The glacier itself is in the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, however the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) said their boundary is "pretty far" from the parking area.

St mary's glacier land ownership
The darker green color is National Forest land in this above map. The light green is non-USFS land, including private property.

Reid Armstrong with the USFS said the department will always advocate for fire prevention, Leave No Trace ethics, and sustainable public lands management practices.

"We don’t have authority to make any management decisions that would relieve the neighborhood issues here," Armstrong said. "We encourage the concerned citizens to work with their local county officials to seek solutions to their concerns."

If Clear Creek County were to initiate discussions on this issue, the National Forest managers would likely engage in those conversations, Armstrong said.

St. Mary's Glacier as seen on Oct. 5, 2022 via drone.

Local News

On thin ice: What stories are Colorado's glaciers telling us?

Stephanie Butzer
1:43 PM, Oct 13, 2022

With opportunities to shorten or lengthen the hike, and beautiful views within a mile of the trailhead, St. Mary's Glacier is a very popular place to visit and usually sees heavy use throughout the warm months. It's relatively close to Denver and hikers can reach the lake within a mile.

Those who want to go longer can reach the 13,000-plus-foot James Peak, the Continental Divide Trail and beyond.

Don't want to pay for parking or worry about finding a spot? There are plenty of other local hikes to check out, but you will need to hop back on the interstate. Near Georgetown, there's the Silver Creek Trail, and beyond Empire, you can find high-altitude views on Berthoud Pass and the hikes below, or up to, Jones Pass (like Butler Gulch Trail and Hassell Lake Trail). Farther east is Maryland Mountain near Central City.

And if you're set on seeing one of Colorado's glaciers, you can learn more about their current state and where you can find them in our story here.

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