• Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
Visitors explore the Maroon Bells Scenic Area on Monday afternoon, August 9, 2021, near Aspen, Colorado. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

If you want to visit some of Colorado’s most iconic and beautiful outdoor spots this summer, you’re likely going to need to make a reservation. Park officials say the reservations are needed to manage crowds that are growing bigger every year.

“It improves their visitor experience because they’re able to find parking at the sites when they get there and not trying to turn around in a dangerous spot or trampling vegetation trying to park off the side of the road,” said Reid Armstrong, who is the public affairs specialist for Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests.

Crowded parking lots aren’t the only reason parks implement a reservation system. Bigger crowds have led to more waste, more shortcut trails that tear down the land, and more poaching of wildlife in the past several years, according to officials at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Reservations look to be the future of outdoor exploration in Colorado and the emerging approach to accessing public lands. Some of Colorado’s busiest locations will require timed entry reservations that can fill up months in advance.

Do you need a reservation? Check the list

Where will I need a reservation?

Reservations are coming back to Hanging Lake in White River National Forest again this summer, as is Hanging Lake itself. The trail to the lake was badly damaged by flooding and mudslide debris after the Grizzly Creek fire last summer. A temporary trail is set to open on June 25, with reservations going live more than a month in advance.

“There’s hundreds of places you can go in the forest where you don’t need a reservation,” said David Boyd, the public affairs officer for White River National Forest. “But both Maroon Bells and Hanging Lake are iconic locations and they get heavy, heavy use.”

The 181,535-acre Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness requires overnight campsite permits around Conundrum Hot Springs. The system is currently free, but White River is considering adding a $12 per night fee.

Campfire smoke lingers inside the San Juan National Forest at a designated campsite on July 4, 2021, near Lake City. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

In the White River’s Eagle-Holy Cross District, Forest Service officials are limiting how long dispersed campers can stay in the park to seven days from 14. It’s a step toward reducing crowds, though not quite as far as camping reservations like at Arapaho and Roosevelt. There, officials dealt with trash, overflowing parking lots and illegal fire rings from surging crowds and decided to close campgrounds.

Arapaho and Roosevelt are bringing back reservations for visiting Mount Evans and Brainard Lake. All 13 Colorado state parks have had online camping reservations since 2020.

The South Platte Ranger District is among the first in the state to implement a reservation and pay system for formerly dispersed campsites in 2020. Rabbit Valley is ending free-for-all camping through reservations, a move Crested Butte made last summer through designated sites.

Rocky Mountain National Park is continuing its timed entry pilot program this summer. Pikes Peak and Eldorado Canyon State Park also have some aspect of vehicle timed entry for the season.

Dispersed campsites, seen on Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, near the Hecla Junction Campground, popular among raft guides in the Arkansas Valley during summer months, is being considered for closure due to overuse. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Rocky Mountain National Park has slipped since implementing reservations from the third most visited national park to the #14 slot in 2021. But the park is still welcoming upwards of a million more visitors per year than it did a decade ago.

For Armstrong over at Arapaho and Roosevelt, reservations aren’t bringing down the number of visitors either.

“We’re able to kind of say, ‘Come in the middle of the week,’ rather than everybody showing up on a Saturday,” Armstrong said. “I think that we’re just dispersing the use rather than decreasing overall use.”

Can equitable access and reservations go hand-in-hand?

In recent years, officials have heard calls to promote more equitable access to public lands. Reservations are designed to protect natural resources, but by limiting who is able to enter the park, they are — by nature — exclusionary.

“There are many barriers for people — often low-income, people of color and immigrant communities — to access nature and the outdoors,” said Will Roush, executive director of the conservation watchdog Wilderness Workshop, in an email.

Entry reservations themselves aren’t always the issue, according to Kyle Patterson, public affairs officer for Rocky Mountain National Park.

“When you think about some of the challenges and barriers for underserved communities to visit national parks, availability of transportation and transportation costs, as well as entrance fees, are more likely the bigger hurdles than the technology required to make reservations or the cost of the reservation,” Patterson said.

A reservation at Rocky Mountain National Park is just $2. The entry fee itself is a bigger expense, with a vehicle pass costing $30 for a day or $35 for a week. That’s tied for the highest vehicle entry fee across all national parks. Roush held a similar sentiment to Patterson that other barriers can be more challenging than reservations.

“Reservations and fees are only one of many barriers that exist for many people to spend time in nature and on public lands, factors like the high price of gear, the risk of medical expenses, time when working multiple jobs and proximity to nature all add additional and often greater barriers,” Roush said in the same email.

The Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests is temporarily closing dispersed campsites along Rainbow Lakes Road to help protect the area after record traffic last summer. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Transportation is a big hurdle to access the state’s public lands. While there are plenty of outdoor spaces with their own shuttle systems, it’s often a challenge to get to these remote locations in the first place.

“If people don’t have a vehicle or have a friend who has a vehicle, it’s difficult for them to just get here,” Patterson said.

Park officials have teamed up with the Colorado Department of Transportation to provide a bus line between Denver and the national park on the weekends. The Bustang line carries riders to Estes Park, with a new stop this year inside Rocky Mountain National Park. Visitors can skip the park’s timed reservation, but they do need to reserve their seat on the bus.

Other public lands are also trying out shuttle services to transport people from urban areas into the outdoors.

Pikes Peak will run a complimentary shuttle in June and July to the summit. The bus offers an alternative to crowded parking lots and vehicle fees. A timed reservation to drive up to the peak costs only $2, but general admission fees are $15 per person or $50 per car.

A free shuttle on weekends and holidays will carry visitors to Eldorado Canyon State Park and other trailheads. The shuttle and all stops are ADA accessible and include a stop at the wheelchair-accessible Fowler Trail. Reservations are not required to ride the shuttle, and it stops at several trailheads without any passes or fares.

Summit County tried to tackle accessibility issues with free shuttle service last year, though parking at the trailheads for popular spots like Quandary Peak and McCullough Gulch had to be reserved and paid for in advance. This year, it’ll cost $15 for a ride on the shuttle and parking will reach $50 on peak days.

Are reservations here to stay?

For the time being, yes.

Many of the state’s reservations are pilot programs whose success is reevaluated each summer, including those at Rocky Mountain National Park. Patterson said officials are considering turning the pilots into permanent rules, but that’s just one possible option for managing crowds.

“We’ve tweaked them a little bit each year to learn from them,” Patterson said. “So our pilots are helping inform our long-range visitor use planning.”

Officials in Chaffee County want to keep dispersed campsites open, but the task has become more difficult. The number of visitors on dispersed campsites keeps going up while populations of mountain goats, bighorn sheep and elk are declining.

If spontaneity is your thing, it’s still possible to plan a last-minute trip. Reservations are released at Arapaho and Roosevelt and Rocky Mountain National Park a few days in advance. The park has a number of first-come, first-serve locations, like Longs Peak campground in the national park. But you would still need a timed entry reservation to get through the gates.

Mount Sneffels Wilderness Zone and its surrounding areas could be next for reservations. The Forest Service has proposed a permit system restricting the number of visitors to Blue Lakes in Ouray County.

In what was once a crowded dispersed camping site along the Slate River near Crested Butte, Colorado, a camper occupies a newly designated single camping space in the Musician’s campground on Aug. 1 2021. A year prior, this single site may have seen up to a half dozen vehicles occupying it as people flocked to public lands during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Outdoor leaders want feedback to understand the success of reservations, even before they are implemented. The group developing the management plan for Maroon Bells is holding a workshop in early June to hear public input on how to best protect natural resources while welcoming crowds that have more than doubled in the past decade.

“The involvement of stakeholders and the public from the onset of this effort is critical to ensuring we consider and address all interests and concerns,” White River ranger Kevin Warner said in a statement. “The long-term visitor management strategy for the Maroon Bells Scenic Area could have a large impact on aspects of the local economy.”

Summer isn’t the only season when crowd management comes out to play. Some ski areas tried out reservation systems during the 2020-21 season to limit crowds. This past season, Arapahoe Basin restricted pass sales and capped daily lift tickets, which could only be purchased online. Other sites like Eldora and Copper Mountain held on to their pandemic parking lot reservations this year.

No matter the season, the future of outdoor play in Colorado is leaning toward those who know before they go.

“You wouldn’t go on a trip out of state without doing a little bit of planning and making sure you know where you’re gonna stay and you have reservations in place,” Armstrong said. “It’s the same thing now for visiting national forests and other public lands.”