A job that counts: Meet the man who keeps tabs on trail users
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Connor Frithsen is 15, and he might have one of the most important jobs in the Steamboat Springs outdoor industry.
Frithsen is the trail counter technician for Routt County Riders, spending the last two summers installing and maintaining counters and analyzing the data they acquire about area trail usage. Steamboat Springs lives and dies with the outdoors, and Frithsen’s job helps track trends and provides information to area land managers, including the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the city of Steamboat Springs. The data he collects is used to help acquire grants used for trail maintenance and creation.
You could say that Connor and his father, Craig, the vice president of the Routt County Riders board, are Steamboat superheroes.
“We just like to be good community members,” Craig said. “We’re avid bikers, and we like to support the bike community.”
Steamboat Springs has been using trail counters since 2015 to track usage on popular trails. Connor and Craig have been in charge of the counters for more than two years now, taking the job over from Eric Meyer.
After learning the ropes over the first summer, Connor has become proficient in managing the counters. The job takes about 100 hours of his summer, starting in the spring.
“The first thing to do is set up the counters, which is making sure they have charged batteries, making sure they’re all named the correct things, that the location name is the common name,” Connor said. “Then it’s figuring out where we’re going to put the counters. After that, it’s a matter of going out to all the trails we want to have counters on and putting them there.”
The process starts on Rotary and Ridge trails, which are the first in Routt County that are usable as the snow melts. Then they move up Emerald and finally move to Buffalo Pass. When the trail counting initiative began in 2015, there were just three at Beall, Rotary/Ridge and Blackmer. Now, Connor has 10 counters to maintain on Emerald and nine on the Buffalo Pass trail system.
Routt County Riders purchased the first counters, but the city has purchased the rest and replaced the originals that reached the end of their life.
Once the counters are in place, they require check-ins every week or two. Frithsen rides his bike around Emerald and Buff Pass, sometimes joined by his father, collecting data.
“It’s just cool to go up on the trails and see the cool views from everywhere and be out in nature — get some exercise,” Connor said.
The pair bring docks that take code from the counters. The dock later connects to a computer, and Connor inputs the code onto a website, TRAFx.net, which then displays the information in graphs and charts.
The data can’t be ingested as is, though. Sometimes, the numbers are wrong.
Problem solving required
Like all equipment, the trail counters can malfunction or have shortcomings. In the 2020 Routt County Riders annual report, it’s stated that the permanent counter on Blackmer was reading 40% lower than the counter put there over the winter. The best guess as to why it’s reading lower is, because the counter is so far off to one side of the trail, it’s not picking up users traveling on the far side of the trail.
“Things happen,” Craig said. “We’ll put it on a tree, and a bush will grow in front of the tree. Next thing you know there’s a branch from a bush waving in front of it, and all of a sudden we have 20,000 riders a day.”
Blackmer, Spring Creek and the Yampa River Core Trail all have year-round counters in place in addition to the seasonal counters.
When analyzing the data and looking for trends, the Frithsens have to take note of anomalies and sudden increases. They have to consider weather, local events and races while interpreting usage numbers.
“The infrared counter we had on Grouse last year must have been pointing towards the sun or something like that,” Connor said. “Two weeks into the season, we started getting 10,000 riders a day on Grouse. We tried moving it; we replaced the battery. We did all sorts of stuff, but it was still getting weird numbers. We figured out it was a faulty counter. It had nothing to do with location or anything.”
Infrared counters will count anything that breaks the infrared beam, including wildlife or falling branches. There are also magnetic counters, which have a trigger set off by metal, which is best for counting mountain bikes.
A few trails, like Beall, have both counters to compare bike usage compared to overall usage.
“We value knowing how the trails are being used as a system, and we can see what types of trails, and the location of trails, that are seeing the most use,” said Winnie DelliQuadri, special projects/intergovernmental services manager for the city of Steamboat Springs. “We can also see how the use changes by time of day and time of year, and how that use changes over time as new trails are introduced – all of which helps with planning future additions or changes to the trail system.”
What did last year’s data show?
Looking at Emerald, usage more than tripled on Lupine, going up from 4,793 users in 2019 to 17,227. The Bluffs trailhead saw an increase from 38,707 users over the summer of 2019 to 48,448 users last summer. Users at the Beall trailhead appear to have gone down, but the magnetic counter at the trailhead showed no change in bike usage year over year.
Usage at the Rotary trailhead continues to climb. After an increase from about 4,000 to nearly 17,000 between 2018 and 2019, the summer of 2020 saw nearly 20,000 users at the Lower Rotary trailhead.
“Trail user experiences are impacted when trails get overcrowded,” Craig said. “What number that is, we don’t really know, but certainly counters can tell us what trends are occurring with certain trails. If we get feedback that says the experience on X trail is getting brutal, there’s too many people, we can look at that and see the trail used to get 40 people a day, now it gets 400.”
Users on Buffalo Pass continue to increase as well. Just three counters from 2020 were in place in 2019 to offer comparisons. Counts on Grouse went up from 1,129 to 3,340, and the top of Spring Roll saw users increase from 4,860 to 6,929. Meanwhile, BTR decreased from 9,086 to 5,147.
Spring Creek trailhead was most popular in June, when little else was open, and September saw decreases across the board as the weather started to cool.
Full data can be seen in the appendix of the Routt County Riders 2020 Annual Report.
To reach Shelby Reardon, call 970-871-4253, email sreardon@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @ByShelbyReardon.
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