It didn’t seem to matter where I planted my grippy-soled hiking boot. Even rocks that looked firmly lodged into the earth were slipping under my weight. My toes were cramping, and both of my knees were begging for a reprieve. I castigated myself for having thought that the first five miles of the Decalibron Loop—a seven-mile circuit near Alma that brings hikers to the apexes of Mt. Democrat, Mt. Cameron, and Mt. Lincoln and skirts the summit of Mt. Bross (which has been closed to hikers since the mid-2000s due to fears that an underlying mine could collapse)—would be relatively easy. When I fell for the fourth time in less than a half-mile descending Bross, I thought: This is what I get for being cocky.

The route—which had been closed to peakbaggers since March, when John Reiber, the private landowner of Mt. Democrat and Mt. Lincoln, shut down the trail due to liability concerns—had reopened to foot traffic on July 28. One week later, my friend and I decided to tackle the loop while it was still accessible. We knew we wouldn’t be the only ones, but we e-signed the newly required waiver (note: do this before you drive to the trailhead), checked the weather, and, upon arrival, decided to take a clockwise approach.

The trail—from Kite Lake, up to 14,155-foot Mt. Democrat, over to 14,238-foot Mt. Cameron, on to 14,295-foot Mt. Lincoln, and over to the path that allows hikers to bypass the summit of 14,178-foot Mt. Bross—is decidedly difficult but very well maintained. The trail that descends back down to Kite Lake from Bross, however, is what one might kindly describe as a total mess.

The poorly kept trail, which is steep, narrow, and laden with scree, came as a surprise to us—and to the couple in front of us who said, “This is horrible,” and “This should be labeled as a goat trail” as we passed. After all, the trail up until then had been the kind of path Coloradans have become accustomed to trekking as they ascend many of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks. That is, well-marked, well-constructed, and routinely cared for, often by nonprofits like the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative (CFI), because the underfunded U.S. Forest Service does not have the budget nor any trail maintenance crews to do such work.

Knowing CFI had done some maintenance on parts of the loop in the past, I decided to give the 29-year-old organization a call to find out more about the Bross section of the trail. “There’s been a change in expectations over time,” says Lloyd Athearn, CFI’s executive director. “We used to view fourteeners as mountains that required some effort and route-finding. Now everyone has this notion of well-planned trails with smooth, crushed gravel and drain features.”

Appropriately—but gently—chastised, I still (sheepishly) asked Athearn about the condition of that section of trail, which he agreed was rough. His answer was multifaceted. First, he explained, CFI’s primary mission is to protect natural resources by building trails that keep hikers’ footfalls off fragile alpine tundra, not to build “no-slip, no-fall trails.” On Bross, he said, there are very few plants to defend. Second, the challenging terrain would make airlifting in necessary trail-maintenance materials, like large logs, too dangerous to attempt. And third, the trail-project grants CFI might apply for—specifically through the Colorado Parks & Wildlife Trails Program, but also others—often require that the dollars go only to trails that are on public land and are certain to be open to the public for at least 25 years. Because the ribbon of rockiness that runs down from Mt. Bross crosses through some private land, it would be a long shot to receive grant funding; the landowners could conceivably close access at any time.

Near the bottom of Mt. Bross, after tackling the scree-filled trail. Photo by Lindsey B. King

That all made sense, but it gave rise to a question: Had my friend and I been trespassing as we descended Mt. Bross? We stayed on what was a very clear—if neglected—trail, and we didn’t see any “No Trespassing” signs like we did on Mt. Democrat. According to Athearn, we likely weren’t, but only because the private land we crossed is mostly owned by Reiber, who also owns the property that encompasses Mt. Democrat and Mt. Lincoln. He’s given provisional permission for hikers to ply the trails up those mountains, as well as the Mt. Bross summit bypass, because he wanted to make sure people could do the Decalibron Loop as, well, a full loop—even if they must negotiate what Reiber calls “the scree slope.” As such, he’s worked with CFI, the U.S. Forest Service, and other outdoor-access organizations like the Colorado Mountain Club to give people safe, legal passage while still protecting himself from liability (see: the new waiver). “I enjoy the mountains,” Reiber says, “and I want others to enjoy them, too.”

Josh Voorhis, district ranger for the Forest Services’ South Park Ranger District, understands that some hikers are frustrated—and confused—by what he assents is a “tough trail.” While the majority of the path down Bross is on Forest Service land, he says the agency doesn’t have the resources to maintain the part over which it has purview. And with the recent failure of legislation in the Colorado General Assembly that could’ve made landowners less concerned about the liability of having hikers crossing their properties, both Voorhis and Athearn say the future accessibility of the entire Decalibron Loop—and other privately owned fourteeners, like Mt. Lindsey and Mt. Sherman—could be uncertain. “I hope that legislation comes up again,” Voorhis says. “It would make all of these public-private land access questions so much easier to manage.”

It might make trail building and maintenance executed by nonprofits like Athearn’s easier, too. In the meantime, though, Decalibron Loop hikers have a decision to make. After bagging Mt. Democrat, Mt. Cameron (which doesn’t technically count as a ranked fourteener because it doesn’t have 300 feet of prominence), and Mt. Lincoln, hikers can choose one of three options. Number one: They can go back the way they came, which means not finishing the loop. Number two: They can traverse the Bross bypass and hope their ankles and knees can take the pounding as they navigate down to the trailhead. (Tip: If you choose this option, definitely bring trekking poles to help stabilize yourself on the scree.) Or, number three: They can opt to hike the loop in a counterclockwise manner, keeping in mind that it’s not the standard route and that going up a steep, sloppy trail isn’t ideal either.

If I were to attempt the hike again, I’d choose option one. But then again, maybe my expectations for what a trail should look like are a little too high.