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Robert Fix of Westminster and Mike Wright of Boulder prepare to go climbing on March 4, 2022, at Eldorado Canyon State Park in Eldorado Springs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

People traveling to Eldorado Canyon State Park by car will need a timed-entry ticket on summer weekends if the parks commission approves a recommendation this week, in a first-ever attempt by the state to handle soaring use across Colorado open spaces

Online reservations would be free under the proposal, but would limit car visits to a few hundred a day in a bid to tame traffic jams stretching west through the tiny town of Eldorado Springs to the park and on to south Boulder County roads. The state parks commission will consider the staff proposal this week. 

Use has doubled or nearly tripled at many popular Front Range state parks in recent years, from Barr Lake to Staunton, with parks like Roxborough and Cherry Creek turning back cars from full lots by mid-morning on summer weekends. 

With a park up a box canyon just a few miles from a major metro area, and backing up cars onto neighbors’ lawns, it’s time for frequent users of Eldorado Canyon to face reality, said Scott Roush, manager of the northeast Colorado region of state parks. Eldorado is a favorite destination of rock climbers.

“I have no place to put more vehicles,” Roush said. “I have to stop the vehicles coming in.”

Crowd and parking management systems in one form or another are now in place at a number of Colorado’s most popular outdoors spots, including Rocky Mountain National Park, Hanging Lake near Glenwood Springs, and Maroon Bells near Aspen. 

At Eldorado Canyon, a timed ticketing scheme partially copied from Rocky Mountain National Park will be paired with a continuation of a shuttle service from parking lots closer to Colorado 93. The number of people coming via shuttle will not be limited, Roush said — visitors report that once they get inside the gate, there’s plenty of room to spread out at Eldorado on foot. Walk-ins at the main gate will also be discouraged in favor of funneling entries through the shuttles.

Eldorado Canyon State Park is seen on March 4, 2022, in Eldorado Springs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Boulder County, Eldorado Springs leaders, and law enforcement agencies that deal with the traffic jams are supportive, Roush said, though park planners know new rules can dampen Coloradans’ outdoors enthusiasm. 

“Most people are spontaneous, hey, let’s go for a hike or whatever,” Roush said. “You might have to think about that.”

Hikers and rock climbers who visit Eldorado dozens of times a year echo what state parks officials keep hearing in public comments: Something has to be done. We get it. Does it have to be this? Let’s see how it works.

“We’re loving it to death and that’s the problem,” said Richard Molenaar, lacing up hiking boots for a walk in the canyon with wife, Darlene, and friends from Larimer County. 

“We don’t try to come on the weekend, so it’s not going to affect us as much here,” said Suzy Paquette, who as a northern Colorado resident spends more time at other parks. “It does affect us at Rocky Mountain National Park, though.” Paquette wondered aloud whether the new computerized system could give some kind of preference to local park users. 

We’re loving it to death and that’s the problem.

– Richard Molenaar, Eldorado Canyon hiker

Rock climber Brenton Kreiger, belaying for Rich Friedeman on the popular Bastille formation yards from the lower Eldorado parking lot, said timed entry has helped with crowds at national parks, but can also “be limiting, because not everybody can be at their computer every minute making all those reservations.” 

The canyon is a hugely popular after-class or early Saturday climbing destination for CU Boulder students just a few miles away, as well as for Boulder County’s wider climbing community. Friedeman shouted down the wall that he’s climbed Bastille “five or six hundred times,” and Kreiger, on a Friday, said he’d been to Eldorado every day that week. 

Kreiger avoids climbing on the Front Range from April to October because of the heat, “so I wouldn’t be bummed about the summer” timed entry, he said. But, he said, year-round timed entry is the “logical next step.” 

“There’s a lot of younger people coming to Eldo, and climbingwise it makes things a little more difficult because you don’t necessarily like planning,” he said. 

In the town, cars cram the doorsteps

For many people in Eldorado Springs, just outside the park entrance, time entry is an absolute “yes.”

John Eha was clearing branches from his mom’s back yard on South Boulder Creek, saying “it’s a beautiful place in the summer. But you know, it kind of takes away from it when there’s just a steady line of traffic,” Eha said. “Everybody’s parked in the front of everybody’s place and it really doesn’t benefit anybody.”

He sympathized with weekend hikers who get turned back by rangers or deputies well east of the park.

“It can’t be enjoyable for those people driving up here. They get up here and it’s a solid line of traffic and it takes two hours to get to a place and there’s no parking,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

Boulder County Commissioner Claire Levy is also a fan of the state’s attempt to try something to ease summer congestion.

“Residents of Eldorado Springs and the valley bear the brunt of the popularity of the park. If this pilot is successful, it will help manage the crushing traffic,” Levy said.

State parks managers do think about an Eldorado Canyon clampdown simply pushing users to mob nearby open space that’s already stressed, from Chautauqua Park to Marshall Mesa to Flatirons Vista

“That’s obviously a possibility” at other Boulder County locations, Levy said. Still, she added, “having one-way in and out with so much potential for user conflicts on that road tips the balance for me. And, Chautauqua already instituted paid parking and there’s more space at Flatirons Vista.” 

Relentless growth at all the parks no doubt means more planning required of all users, Roush said. There’s just no getting around that diminishing of spontaneity, given population and recreation trends, he said. 

From left: Odessa, Ben and Amanda Smith of Boulder pack up climbing gear on March 4, 2022, at Eldorado Canyon State Park in Eldorado Springs. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Details of the Eldorado Canyon plan to be considered by the parks commission include: 

  • Timed-entry pilot running weekends and holidays from July 1 to Sept. 15 this year and from May 15 to Sept. 15 next summer, with evaluation planned for the fall of 2023. 
  • Reservations would be required for each vehicle entering the park from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on those high-volume days. There are 200 permitted parking spaces at Eldorado Canyon.
  • Timed-entry passes, likely in two-hour windows, are free, but users still have to buy the applicable parks use pass
  • 10% of permits would be held back for 3 p.m. release the day before. 
  • Each person is limited to four reservations a month. 
  • Those making the reservation have to be in the car and show ID, with no transferring, trading or sale of the permits allowed. 
  • Once in the parking lots on a permit, there will be no limit on time stayed. 

Parks officials said in public questionnaires about Eldorado Canyon management in recent years, 48% of people supported timed entry, while just under 52% opposed it. 

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...