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Crowds At Rocky Mountain National Park Inspire Some To Visit Colorado’s Lesser-Known Areas

Brant Porter, the supervisory ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, is contending with a very Colorado kind of problem: people, a lot more of them than in years past.

So far this year, the park has attracted 55 percent more visitors compared to the same period a year ago. The park isn't alone. That trend is taking place at most of the state's national parks, monuments, historic sites and other areas.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park attracted 153,000 visitors between January and June, many of them first-timers, awestruck by the steep, narrow canyon. Porter said more people have become aware of the park since 2016's national parks centennial. He added that the massive crowds -- millions of people each year -- at Rocky Mountain National Park are leading more people to look down the list for alternate areas.

"It is getting hard to get reservations in the well-known places, like Rocky Mountain or Mesa Verde [national parks]," Porter said. "So a lot of folks, I feel like, came and found places like Black Canyon."

That comes with its own set of challenges, Porter added, like full parking lots and the need for visitors to plan better by making reservations weeks or, in some cases, months earlier than they used to.

For Porter, it's about "trying to stay true to being stewards of the resource while providing that customer service and allowing people to really come in and explore on their own terms."

Credit Ashley Jefcoat / KUNC
A view of the steep, spectacular Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

The state’s rising population, its popularity among tourists and its jam-packed highways, particularly along the Front Range, are inspiring people to travel further, even to relatively isolated places, according to experts.

For instance, visits to Dinosaur National Monument are up nearly 8 percent over the first six months of 2017, according to National Park Service data analyzed by KUNC. The monument, about 110 miles north of Grand Junction, has welcomed about 133,000 visitors so far this year. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, a 30-mile drive west of Colorado Springs through the Pikes Peak area, has brought in 30 percent more visitors so far this year compared to last year.

Driving a lot of the increase is cars. Americans have more confidence in the economy and are willing to dip into their pockets and splurge on a road trip, said AAA Colorado spokesman Skyler McKinley.

"People generally believe that the economy is in a good place and, while they're not seeing wage gains like they might during other boom times, they've got a little extra money in their pocket," McKinley said, adding that many want to escape the urban grind and are "going to areas that are more remote and connecting with nature."

The rising number of visitors to other areas in Colorado doesn't appear to be cutting into the hordes at Rocky Mountain National Park. So far this year, that park has welcomed about 1 percent more visitors compared to the first six months of last year. Park officials attribute much of that rise to spring crowds in May when the weather was unseasonably warm and dry. Additional spikes in traffic like that could put the park on track for its most visitors ever.

Last year, Rocky was the 19th most-visited NPS area in the country with 4.43 million visitors, the second-most it has ever logged. That was only slightly fewer visitors than those who went to the Statue of Liberty National Monument in New York.

Just three areas have fewer visitors in the first six months of this year compared to the first six months of 2017. That includes Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve as well as Colorado National Monument. At Curecanti National Recreation Area, visits are down 2.6 percent so far compared last year. Porter, who is also the supervising ranger at Curecanti, said wait times associated with construction last year may have deterred some from coming.

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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