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Rocky Mountain National Park Visits Hurt By Shutdown, Floods

Rocky Mountain National Park
Section of Old Fall River Road washed out by flooding

Visits to national parks were down across the U.S. by about 9.1 million in 2013 – a decline of 3.2 percent, according to a new National Parks Service report on park attendance that year. In Northern Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park saw an even greater decline, with visits down by 7.4 percent.

One of the primary reasons for the nationwide drop was the government shutdown that forced national parks to close for several weeks last October. The impact might have been even worse in Colorado if state officials hadn’t decided to foot the bill for re-opening the parks.

Credit National Park Service / nature.nps.gov
Screencap of graph showing month-by-month change in national park visitation during 2013.

Although the shutdown cost RMNP and the surrounding communities millions, it was only part of the problem. Spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said September’s historic flooding took a much bigger toll.

“With US 34 and US 36 outside the park being closed for a number of months, September and October… it was amazing how quickly those roads reopened in November,” Patterson said. “But that really is what had the biggest impact to our visitation last year.”

Before the floods hit, visits to RMNP were actually up 7.8 percent, said Patterson.

The numbers are looking better for the first half of 2014 – with visitation down only half a percent compared to the end of June 2013.

“We obviously still have a lot of busy months ahead of us, so, all things considered, our visitation is almost the same as it was this time last year, year-to-date,” Patterson said.

While summer is the park’s busiest season, it also sees visitor spikes in the autumn around elk rutting season and when the aspens change color. Even winter is becoming more popular with tourists looking for a quiet holiday getaway.

The report [.pdf] estimates that nationwide, spending in so-called gateway communities – such as Estes Park – totaled roughly $14.6 billion in 2013. Other reports have estimated Estes Park lost $462,774 in sales tax revenue because of the floods and the flooding. According to the report, nearly two-thirds of national park visitor spending is for lodging and food outside the parks.

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.
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