Quandary Peak parking: How the new parking system, free shuttles are working

The scene at the Quandary Peak trailhead at mid-morning last Saturday might have seemed unimaginable for nearby residents. But on July 30, Summit County imposed paid parking requirements and instituted free shuttles from Breckenridge to solve hazardous overflow parking problems at the foot of Colorado’s busiest fourteener.

No cars were parked illegally along Blue Lakes Road or along nearby Colorado Highway 9, which had become a serious safety issue in recent years as Quandary Peak user numbers soared. There also were plenty of empty parking spaces in the newly expanded trailhead parking lot.

Emily Martino shot a glance at the parking lot across the street from the home she has shared with partner David Pfau for 20 years and said the lot surely would have been full if not for the new restrictions, which went into effect the day before.

“Cars would also be up and down the road, and up and down Highway 9,” Martino said.

It now costs $20 to park at the trailhead from 4 to 11:30 a.m. or from noon to 7:30 p.m., while all-day parking costs $50. Reservations must be made online, and there is no cell service at the trailhead, so hikers are advised to make reservations before they head to the peak.

The trailhead lot also serves nearby McCullough Gulch, a quicker hike that parallels the Quandary Peak climb about 2 miles to the north. Ten spots are set aside at the lot for those users, with three-hour slots costing $5.

For those who don’t want to pay to park — or who try to reserve a spot, only to discover the lot is sold out — shuttles run every 30 minutes from a parking lot a couple of miles north of the Breckenridge town center, beginning at 5 a.m., for the 10-mile trip south to Quandary. Twenty hikers were standing in line at 5 a.m. Saturday when the first 12-passenger shuttle van arrived, meaning eight had to wait for the next one 30 minutes later.

Among those waiting for the first shuttle were Holly Bennett and her “adventure buddy,” father Mike Glock, who were visiting from Ohio “to get some altitude” in preparation for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in September. Riding the shuttle wasn’t in their plans when the day began, though.

Having flown to Colorado Friday night, they were unaware of the new Quandary parking restrictions until they were on their way to the trailhead at 4 a.m. Saturday and saw signs about the new policy. They pulled over while they still had cellphone service to reserve a parking spot, but there were none available, so they turned around and drove to the shuttle lot.

“We did quite a bit of research on this, starting last year, to climb this peak,” Glock said. “Nothing online said anything about parking permits. I’ve climbed big mountains all over the west, all the big peaks in all the big states. I’ve never seen paid parking before.”

Among those who rode the 6 a.m. shuttle were Aubrey Keys and her 8-year-old children, Johanna and Jonas. Keys said she found out about the parking restriction a week earlier.

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“We’ve been planning to do a fourteener at the end of the summer, and this is one of the easier ones for the kids, so I kept looking up stuff about it and I saw, ‘Uh-oh, can’t park there anymore,’ ” Keys said. “Actually the shuttle works out, because I don’t have to worry about finding a parking spot.”

A separate shuttle runs back and forth between the Quandary Peak parking lot and the McCullough Gulch trailhead. That hike is much shorter and easier than the 6-mile, 3,300-foot roundtrip hike to Quandary’s summit at 14,247 feet. The McCullough Gulch trail is 2.6 miles round trip, ascending 815 feet to top out at 11,105 feet.

“It’s a pretty moderate hike, rolling elevation gain, absolutely beautiful,” Breckenridge resident Hannah Rheaume said as she waited for a shuttle ride back to town. “There’s a bunch of wildflowers right now, the lakes are pristine, and if you get up there early enough there’s nobody else up there. Even with the shuttle system, we were up there at 6:30 and we didn’t see anybody else until well into the hike.”

In his front yard across the street from the Quandary trailhead, Pfau reminisced about the way things used to be when he first bought the house 30 years ago. Back then he could hike trails in the area and have them almost to himself. On the Fourth of July last year, he counted 520 cars at the trailhead, most of them parked illegally. On the Fourth this year, he counted only 400, because the Summit County sheriff showed up and started writing tickets.

Martino said after the couple posted no parking signs on their property, people would park next to the sign.

“We’d ask them to move and they’d flip us off,” Martino said. “Now that this is all set up this way, I think people will get the idea.” Tickets for parking along the road or parking in the lot without a reservation will cost $100.

Pfau proudly showed a visitor a shopping bag full of fresh mushrooms he’d picked earlier that morning, hiking a trail he’d come to avoid over the past 10 years because of the crowds.

“It was so nice this morning,” Pfau said. “We went up Quandary, the first part of it, to our mushroom harvesting area and we only saw three people. We got our trail back.”

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