So many visitors are heading to Rabbit Valley near the western border of Colorado that the Bureau of Land Management will immediately require camping reservations and begin building or revamping campsites to open no later than next spring.
Located west of Fruita in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, Rabbit Valley is managed for motorized recreation, including riding motorcycles, ATVs and in some spots, driving full-sized vehicles. BLM wants to control the surge of riders by requiring reservations and collecting fees because dispersed camping threatens the area’s fragile desert soil.
Rabbit Valley is the latest place in Colorado where limits on dispersed camping have been imposed in recent years. While camping remains free in most of Colorado’s 11 national forests, some areas are becoming more restricted.
Fees were introduced in the South Platte district of the Pike National Forest in fall 2020, and a reservation system for designated sites was contemplated for the drainages surrounding Crested Butte last spring. Chaffee County has also struggled this year with the depletion of resources at busy campsites, where trash and waste left behind by visitors threatens trout populations.
“You’re headed out there for some solitude and some peace and quiet, and that means we have to kind of limit the number of people and designate where they can camp,” said Chris Herrman, executive director of the Colorado Canyon Association, an organization promoting stewardship of national conservation areas in Western Colorado.
McInnis Canyons reported 264,390 visitors in 2019, and camping across Colorado has gone up since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Too many people camping at unregulated sites can hurt the vegetation and desert soil, which erodes easily with overuse and is slow to recover.
The BLM will develop or improve about 75 new campsites and implement the fee system for Rabbit Valley in late winter or early spring of 2023. Visitors will be allowed to stay only at developed sites once construction is complete.
Starting today, however, visitors need a free temporary Individual Special Recreation Permit.
Once the new campsites are complete, fees will be $20 per night for each campsite with two vehicles included. At larger sites, each additional vehicle over two will cost an extra $10, with a maximum of five vehicles. The BLM can begin collecting overnight fees at Rabbit Valley campsites starting Sept. 30.
The construction of new campsites at Rabbit Valley was approved in July 2019 in response to increased visitor demand. As these new sites are created, the BLM will phase out the temporary permit program.
“Use of the area has increased over the last 15 years, and the camping fees will be used to improve infrastructure, develop amenities, and maintain the area,” McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area Manager Collin Ewing said. “We involved the public throughout the process with several comment periods, meetings and consultations with the Southwest Resource Advisory Council.”
Colorado Trails Preservation Alliance founder Don Riggle, who has advocated for motorized trails and access in Colorado for 20 years, said he hopes the BLM installs camping regulations on all the public lands between Fruita and the state border. Mountain bikers have long camped in dispersed sites on the south side of Interstate 70 near the Kokopelli Loops trails.
“I think they ought to make it universal, not just at Rabbit Valley,” said Riggle, who just returned from a few days riding on BLM trails west of Fruita near Rabbit Valley. “I think it’s just a matter of time before this happens everywhere. So there is only so much space left open to camp and more people than ever before are out here.”
Herrman said as Colorado’s population and outdoor recreation grows, businesses and county governments need to maintain a level of sustainable tourism.
“If we love this to death, then we’re not going to have the quality of life benefit for residents and we’re not going to have the economic benefit from tourism,” Herrman said.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 2:35 p.m. on March 30, 2022, to clarify that there is no reservation system in place for camping in drainages near Crested Butte.