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Rocky Will Have A Timed Entry System Again This Summer. It Could Become Permanent

Cars wait to enter Rocky Mountain National Park at the Beaver Meadows entrance station.
NPS Photo/B. Beach
Cars wait to enter Rocky Mountain National Park at the Beaver Meadows entrance station.

For the second year in a row, Rocky Mountain National Park will begin limiting visitor access this week in a bid to control growing summer crowds that are damaging the park’s landscape.

Starting May 28, advance reservations will be required to enter all areas of Rocky during the day.

Unlike last year, there are two types of reservations available. One permit is for access to the popular Bear Lake Road corridor. The other is more of a general admission permit that excludes the Bear Lake area.

Park officials say they wanted to bring back the pilot system to help inform a broader, long-term planning effort to crack down on crowds. Rocky’s annual visitation has grown 44% during the past decade, according to National Park Service data.

In 2019, more than 4.6 million people entered the park. Last year, despite the pandemic and multiple wildfires, Rocky was the fourth most-visited national park in the country.

As crowds have grown, hikers have stamped out dozens of miles of unplanned trails. Human waste has piled up on the subalpine forest floor, draining into the town of Estes Park’s water supply. Traffic has contributed to worsening air quality, illegal parking and the disturbance of wildlife migration patterns.

“I think we can all acknowledge that the 1990 Colorado is unfortunately gone,” said Darla Sidles, the park’s superintendent, during a recent public meeting on long-term planning. “It’s incumbent for us to manage the park for the reality of our current and future visitation.”

No permanent decisions have been made yet, Sidles said. The long-range planning process will likely take more than a year to complete.

She encouraged the public to share their thoughts and ideas on crowd control measures. A public comment period is now open online through mid-July.

Staff have been testing new crowd management methods on a temporary basis as far back as 2015.

They’ve expanded parking areas to hold more cars. They’ve designed a shuttle system to get people out of them. They’ve even tried limiting vehicle access to certain parts of the park when they get too busy.

Still, the overcrowding problems persist.

“There’s not a silver bullet in here,” said John Hannon, Rocky’s visitor use management planner, during the May 20 public meeting. “There isn’t one thing that’s going to change the course of what we’re seeing.”

Hannon mentioned a number of possibilities that could help. They include setting up metered parking, installing automatic gates to help control traffic flow through the park and placing more webcams throughout the park to monitor overcrowding.

The timed entry solution was first implemented in 2020 as a way for the park to navigate public health restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic. The first iteration of the system capped the park at 60% total capacity.

This summer’s reservation system will cap the park between 75% and 85% of total parking capacity.

While effective at spreading out visitation throughout the day, the system has drawn some criticism for its potential impacts to park entry equity. An online petition calling for its suspension has garnered close to 2,000 signatures.

Organizers say park staff are moving too quickly and making it harder for people to access public lands without proper public input. The reservation process does add an additional $2 fee on top of the $25 cost for a day pass.

The limitations disproportionately impact poorer, working class communities, said Dan Denning, an Estes Park resident and one of the petition’s organizers.

“There’s real anger out there from a lot of people, and frustration,” Denning said.

In their May 20 meeting, park officials said they were looking at ways to address potential inequities in park access that may get worse with increased crowd management measures.

The park has set up a call center that’s open seven days a week to serve people without internet access. Staff are also working with the Colorado Department of Transportation to run a pilot Bustang route that shuttles passengers from Denver to Estes Park for a subsidized fare.

“We need partners beyond the park to help address some of these things,” Hannon said. “But it’s definitely on our radar as something to be addressed.”

Entry permits for June went up for sale on May 1. Slots for July will be available on the National Park Service’s website next week.

Like last year, the system will remain in place at least through October.

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