Dave Ochs spent some long days last summer working on a new bike trail up the Slate River above Crested Butte.
The executive director of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association was driving down to town one July evening when he counted a train of 20 cars a minute heading up the drainage.
“All the campsites up there were already taken,” he said. “I was like, ‘Where could all these people be going?’”
Wherever they wanted. The river drainages that spill into the East River Valley above Crested Butte offer some of the most popular dispersed camping escapes in Colorado.
Maybe too popular.
After a deluge of trailer-hauling, tent-tossing campers last summer, a coalition of locals and forest officials plan to end the free-for-all, camp-anywhere bacchanal. Beginning this spring, the six drainages surrounding Crested Butte will have designated campsites. By as soon as next year, reservations will be required.
“I chalk this up to Colorado’s growing pains,” said Joe Lavorini, the Gunnison County Stewardship Coordinator for the National Forest Foundation. “None of us would really want to go down this route if we didn’t have to, but this is best for the resources and ultimately it’s what’s best for the users as well.”
The new management approach is part of a collaboration between the Forest Service and the Gunnison Valley Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee. That committee, created by Gunnison County’s commissioners, includes 19 members from the community.
The STOR Corps, as they call themselves, works to promote sustainable tourism and recreation in the valley and approached the Forest Service with the designated-campsite plan after last summer, when Crested Butte was busy with campers and visitors eager to get outdoors during the pandemic.
“We decided as a community and as a committee, that it was time to say you just can’t camp anywhere,” said John Norton, the executive director of the valley’s Tourism and Prosperity Partnership. “It’s not an anti-camping sentiment. Everybody here loves to camp and everybody here does camp. It’s just that you can only take so much without hurting the resource. We need to protect the natural resources that make this valley so special and this one one way to do it.”
Camping exploded in Colorado last summer with record numbers of residents and visitors popping tents and parking trailers in remote corners as a way to get outdoors and distance themselves during the pandemic. In some areas, the deluge overwhelmed both land managers and facilities.
The South Platte Ranger District in the Pike National Forest last fall converted 340 dispersed campsites into reserved, fee sites after the close-to-Denver forest swarmed with record crowds. The district’s $15-a-night sites have assigned parking spots, pit toilets and fire rings. And they are a sign of the future.
Reservations are increasingly common in Colorado’s busy high country. Hikers need to book access to Hanging Lake. Camping permits are mandatory around Conundrum Hot Springs. Access to the Maroon Bells outside Aspen starts with a shuttle ticket. Even Vail Resorts required reservations to ride chairlifts this winter.
This summer the backcountry-protecting Crested Butte Conservation Corps will help the Forest Service install campsites, with posts and numbers to designate each site. They will start up Slate River Road with 43 sites and 48 campsites up Washington Gulch Road and then expand into Kebler Pass, Irwin Lake, Brush Creek, Cement Creek and Gothic Road. By next spring there should be 211 designated camping sites across the valley.
Norton said if everything works well this summer, campers will be able to book the sites on rec.gov by next spring. But that would require the campsites to meet a host of infrastructure criteria, like fire rings and toilets, outlined under the Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act’s rules for establishing fees.
The Crested Butte Conservation Corps is already building campsites. A crew of 10 STOR Corps workers — paid by a Great Outdoors Colorado grant — will spend the summer helping campers learn the new rules. Tourism officials in the valley will warn visitors to have a back-up plan for camping. And maybe a back-up back-up plan on busy weekends.
“This is our community being proactive and doing something before the recreation gets out of control,” Lavorini said. “It’s time because we are seeing these areas lose their wild and wilderness characteristics due to overuse.”
The STOR Committee studied camping landscapes around other popular destinations, including Sedona, Prescott and Maricopa County in Arizona.
“We saw that if you don’t have reserved camping, it’s just chaos,” said Ochs, whose mountain bike association formed the Crested Butte Conservation Corps in 2017 as a professional trail and stewardship team focused on protecting the valley’s backcountry.
The camping crowds last summer were gasoline on the Crested Butte community’s simmering plan to designate campsites around the valley. Ochs and his corps spent many days talking with campers about proper etiquette, including how to bury poop (deeply!) and where to discard trash (not piled at makeshift campsites and trailheads!).
“Some of them truly just did not know,” Ochs said.
Ochs and his corps have some concerns about the coming camping season. More people have their toys — rooftop tents, trailers and vans — and are eager for another summer in the woods. He’s joining the Crested Butte community in a chorus of messaging urging visitors to make a plan and have an alternative in mind when that perfect campsite they’ve visited for years is not available.
He’s urging town leaders to set up a temporary one-night spot in a local parking lot for campers who get denied when they arrive late.
“People are coming here to camp and ride and … they are going to do it,” Ochs said. “We need to be ready for them and help them.”