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Loretta McEllhiney: The woman who designs Colorado's 14er trails

Posted at 1:56 PM, Aug 14, 2023

CASCADE, CO — Over three decades and countless miles, Loretta McEllhiney has designed (or realigned) all but two of the sustainable trails that ascend Colorado's vast array of mountains that exceed 14,000 feet in elevation.

Operating as the US Forest Service's only program manager for Colorado's Fourteeners, Loretta reports having designed more than 50 trails on Colorado's highest peaks over her long career. The two notable exceptions on her roster are the Barr and Keyhole trails on Pikes Peak and Longs Peak respectively.

"I actually do the planning and design work on the Colorado 14ers, the trails that approach the Colorado 14ers, " commented Loretta, "and then go into partnership with nonprofit organizations, youth corps, [and] stewardship organizations throughout Colorado to actually perform the implementation of those projects."

This mountaineer's storied career began in 1989 as a seasonal employee for the US Forest Service where she worked an array of jobs from wilderness ranger to trail crew leader; however, after only three years, she was tasked with designing her first fourteener trail.

Loretta reports that her supervisor at the time approached her and said, "Hey, we've got this area we're really concerned about on Mt. Elbert and we're going to bring in a Student Conservation Association (SCA) crew to do some work up there, can you go design a trail?"

So, she did just that, even though, "It's not that easy."

Another year after her debut on the trail-crafting scene, she and a partner from the American Mountain Foundation (now known as the Rocky Mountain Field Institute) were tasked with seeking out areas that were suffering from significant resource damage, "where we're losing soils and vegetation," and she found that Colorado's fourteeners fit the bill.

These mountains, the vast majority of which are/were located on land that falls within the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, were crisscrossed with social trails; in other words, paths that were created due to a couple of factors:

  • Long-standing popularity of the mountains in question
  • Thousands of visitors habitually walking the same routes

Most of those trails did not fall in a "proper" or sustainable location, "A lot of the times they're going straight up the fall line of a mountain, and water wants to come straight down that fall line, so you end up with huge erosion gullies," stated Loretta, "and as it gullies out, people walk to the sides and it gets wider and wider and wider."
So she brought back the information and presented it to a number of stewardship wards, including: RMFI, Colorado Mountain Club, Colorado Outward Bound School, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, and the Forest Service.

"I did a presentation to them and said, look what I'm finding, we've got to do something."

The groups formed a coalition in 1994 under the title of the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI) to assist the Forest Service in caring for the state's highest peaks. From there, the new conservation partnership raised funds, hired a dozen interns in order to survey the remaining fourteeners, and then started on trail design.

We realized that we needed a standalone organization that was focused on that work, because it's really intense; none of these trails get built in a season. When you're putting big crews out into the back country season after season, you really need to have your own organization to do that.

You need to have really professional trail crew members; and sure, it's wonderful to have volunteers come to help... but these are maybe some of the most technical trails in the state of Colorado, the ones up the fourteeners.
Loretta McEllhiney

The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative would go on to formalize into its own 501(c)(3) which continues to work alongside the various conservation groups such as RMFI, the Mile High Youth Corps, and many others, to provide both well-trained trail crews (which contribute thousands of work-hours yearly) as well as necessary funding to enact positive and sustainable action on Colorado's highest peaks.

All the while, through the various stages of her employment with the Forest Service (which included a stint as an office manager), Loretta has been designing the 14er trails and coordinating with work crews.

Interestingly, it wasn't until 2001 that the position of Colorado Fourteener Program Manager was formalized, allowing Loretta to officially step into the role.

"It's been wonderful," she added, "it's been an amazing career and we've accomplished a lot, but there's still a lot to accomplish. The fourteeners, they're very young geology and they keep moving on us, they keep doing their thing, and that's okay. I want to see our partners continue to be able to work on these mountains, and I think they will."

Following dozens of years allocated towards maintaining, realigning, and creating trails, efforts to sustain the state's alpine areas have become streamlined; Loretta reports that design work on the 14ers now undergoes a five-year planning process.

The Process of Planning a 14er Trail

Even though the majority of her professional life has been focused on sustaining Colorado's highest peaks, with each year including about a hundred field days, Loretta admits that she doesn't have a firm grasp on how many times she's actually summited the mountains she's worked on.

Because I don't track that!

Most of the time I'm going to where the resource damage ends... and I'm ten feet from the summit and I'm like, 'okay, we're going down.'

And [they say], 'wait a minute, you're not going to go to the actual summit?'

Uhhh, no?

I love the alpine, it's an amazing environment. The plants and animals in that area have been rigorously selected and have adapted to the harshest climate in the world; why wouldn't you love it? To see those things that are thriving in that area?

So, for me, being in the alpine is enough. It's amazing.
Loretta McEllhiney

Amazing and in constant need of protection, which is one of the biggest reasons Loretta has so fiercely pursued her conservation-centric career.

Protecting Colorado's Alpine Ecology

According to Loretta, the majority of the state's fourteeners see some sort of attention each year between inventory, maintenance, and fixed-site projects, "meaning we bring a crew in and they live on the mountain all summer or the majority of the summer."

During the 2023 season, there are fixed-site, fourteener projects taking place on:

  • Mount Elbert
  • Mount Shavano
  • Pikes Peak
  • Humboldt Peak
What Types of Work Happen Each Year on Colorado's 14er Trails

One of the last portions of this story has to be dedicated to mentioning Loretta's thoughts as she looks towards the future following the question of, "How much longer do you do this?"

"Not much," she admits, "I can't do it, my body is broken; it's to the point that there's some risk associated with continuing to do this and that's hard, it's been my life, right?"

She goes on to say that she never would have guessed that she'd get the opportunity to do this job for so long, "But time flies when you're having fun."

If you're looking for more information on Colorado's fourteeners, how you can get involved, or best practices out on the trail, you can follow the links below:

As a final note, I (Jon, the reporter writing this article) thought it might be interesting to include Loretta's secret to a happy life out in the Colorado wilderness.

Loretta's Camping Essentials