Imagine you are on your way to explore the beauty of nature, and instead of stepping out of your car and breathing in fresh air, you’re stuck in a traffic jam. Without long-term planning at Rocky Mountain National Park, you may experience that exact scenario.
Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is developing innovative solutions to park overcrowding that can serve as a model for parks nationally. As the park’s superintendent for 13 years until I retired in 2015, I had a front-row seat for years and saw both the challenges faced with overcrowding and the benefits of developing strategies to address it.
When I first started at Rocky in 2002, we had just below 3 million visitors per year. By 2019, that had shot up to more than 4.6 million, a 56% increase. With the park’s national popularity and the number of Front Range residents rapidly increasing, it has quickly become one of the most popular parks in the country.
Leading up to the park’s Centennial in 2015, we were already seeing the parking lots on Bear Lake Road filling early in the morning and roadside parking becoming an issue. In addition, pullouts along Trail Ridge Road were completely filled between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Concerned about the effects of crowding on the visitor experience and park resources, we initiated studies to determine the impacts and what alternatives existed to manage the burgeoning visitation.
Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses more than 265,000 acres, comfortably more than double the size of Denver. The vast park is mostly wilderness, and visitors predominantly visit the same small handful of readily accessible areas, like the Bear Lake Corridor and areas right off of Trail Ridge Road.
Crowding in these smaller spaces creates issues such as congestion in the parking areas, crowding at trailheads and overlooks, and impacts on resources such as wildlife and the fragile alpine tundra, all of which diminish the overall visitor experience and the ecological future of this crown jewel.
Over the last seven years, the park has been focusing on various ways to address these issues. The timed-entry permit system, which has been in place in various iterations for the last three summers into early October, allows a set number of permit holders to enter the park during a two-hour entrance window. Illustrating the adaptive nature of this process, after the first year of the permit system, the park pivoted to allow two different types of access: one that focused on the Bear Lake Corridor and another that focused on the other areas of the park absent Bear Lake, including Trail Ridge Road.
This not only ensured much less overcrowding at peak times, but it also allowed visitors to disperse more effectively throughout the park. Some have suggested more shuttles to limit long lines and avoid heavy congestion. Unfortunately, an increase in shuttles is not a sustainable solution as it brings in a flood of visitors all at once.
Many visitors – including myself – have enjoyed their park visits during the permit system. Several people have commented to me that the park feels more like the less-crowded days of the early 2000s. During my own trips to the park during the reservation system, I found it was much easier to experience the park’s natural beauty, without the worry of long wait times or overcrowded areas.
Because Rocky employed the nation’s first timed entry system in 2020, the park served as a model for other parks and recreation sites that have now adopted and are successfully utilizing visitor use systems, including Glacier National Park, Acadia National Park, and popular Forest Service sites like Brainard Lake and Mt. Evans Recreation Areas. With such systems proving so successful at Rocky and across the country, we should think about the lessons learned from the last three years and develop even longer-term solutions.
Reservations are a normal part of nearly all trips we take these days. But if reservation systems are to be continued, we must remember that the strength of these systems is adaptability, and each year the park has studied the trends and adjusted as needed. They would help ensure that people experience better park visits without endless traffic, crowded trails, and degraded facilities.
We would also need to keep accessibility in mind. The ability for non-English speakers to use the reservation system should be improved. Flexibility is also critical. The park has wisely held back some passes for day-of visits so people can still visit on short notice.
Looking to the long-term process ahead, the park and the people who dedicate their careers toward its protection need our support. We owe it not only to ourselves to honor these special places, but also to future generations. They deserve to enjoy the natural beauty of Rocky Mountain National Park much as visitors have done for more than 100 years.
Vaughn Baker, of Estes Park, was superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park from 2002-2015.
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