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Why Rocky Mountain National Park’s new online reservation system is only a short-term fix

Attendance has soared by 1.5 million since 2012, leading the park to introduce temporary measures to manage visitors

View of Sawtooth Mountain, south of Rocky Mountain National Park, from the Peak-to-Peak Highway on May 20, 2021, near Ward. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)
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After years of worsening crowding turned one of the state’s most pristine places into rush hour gridlock, Rocky Mountain National Park’s new timed-entry permit system is slowing the surge of summer visitors. But the system only runs until Oct. 11, a temporary fix to problems caused by a 44% increase in visitors to the third-busiest national park in the country. 

Rocky Mountain National Park welcomed around 4.6 million travelers in 2019, up 1.5 million from 2012. Its growing popularity has congested certain areas — particularly Bear Lake, Wild Basin, and the Alpine Visitor Center — and more visitors are degrading natural and cultural resources.

The overcrowding diminishes the quality of experiences, increases safety concerns, and strains park facilities, park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said. That led the park to develop new ways to manage its guests. 

“Our timed-entry permit system’s main goal is to spread use out throughout the day as well as spreading use throughout the park,” Patterson said. 

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It’s not the first time the park has tried to regulate visitor numbers, nor is Rocky Mountain National Park the only public land to respond with limitations after sharp increases in visitation. Yosemite and Glacier National Park require reservations to enter. The Forest Service is also implementing a timed-entry system in Colorado for cars driving up Mount Evans and visitors driving into the Brainard Lake area west of Boulder.

Rocky Mountain National Park introduced short-term measures from 2016 to 2019, namely metering spaces in parking lots, which Patterson said came with its own challenges. Visitors who might show up at a full lot would be redirected to another.

“It’s kind of like the Balloon Theory where you start to squeeze at the different fingers of the balloon and all you’re doing is putting that pressure to other places in the park,” Patterson said.

In 2020, Rocky Mountain National Park rolled out the timed-entry permit system for the summer months that remain the most popular. Patterson said the park has had to turn away visitors who weren’t aware they had to reserve spots in advance. But she added that it’s been an overall success that allows the park to staff areas more efficiently while reducing long lines in parking areas and crowding on trails.

However, it’s not just the summer that’s busy.

The park staff is figuring out how to grapple with increased visitation during the rest of the year. In 2020, November attendance increased by 28% over 2019, while in December it increased by 38% over 2019. Visitor numbers have increased every month through April compared to the previous years. 

“We’re doing this short-term, stop-gap thing this summer as we continue to move forward on our long-range visitor-use management planning as well,” Patterson said.

To determine the best ways to manage visitors year round, Rocky Mountain National Park has held two webinars this May on long-range day use. In those sessions, some guests said they liked the timed-entry system because the park was less congested.

Public comment on the plan will remain open until July 19

In the future, officials from a number of parks hope to implement technology to make going outdoors a smooth and seamless experience. They’re exploring apps that might soon let visitors see in real time when parking spaces open up and when trails are less busy. 

In the meantime, Patterson said those heading out to Rocky Mountain National Park still need to do their homework.

“If you’re somebody who travels to national parks,” she said, “and you’re wanting to be more spontaneous, it’s pretty hard.”

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