After barring visitors for two months, the National Park Service is preparing to reopen Rocky Mountain National Park after Memorial Day weekend. But to get in, you’ll likely need to plan ahead.
Park leadership is developing a new permit system to stagger visitation and prevent overcrowding that could pose a public health risk to staff and the community. The idea is still awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the NPS.
Here’s what we know, and don’t know, about the proposed permitting system.
What is it?
The system is similar to one already in use at other popular outdoor sites in the state, such as Hanging Lake in Glenwood Springs. Visitors would purchase a permit online days in advance to enter the park at a specific time.
That would allow Rocky’s staff to control the flow of vehicle traffic in staged windows between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m.
In a presentation to the Estes Park Board of Trustees on May 12, the park’s superintendent Darla Sidles said daily visitation would be capped at 60% of the park’s parking capacity under the proposal. That’s about 4,800 vehicles per day.
“If there are tweaks that need to be made, we can make them,” Sidles said. “We can adjust it accordingly as social distancing rules change or when everything goes completely back to normal someday.”
Under the plan, pedestrians entering the park on foot would not need a permit.
Why is the park proposing this?
The short answer is COVID-19 is still a threat and park staff don’t want the area to become the epicenter of an outbreak. But they also want to open the park back up and help struggling local businesses.
Last year, the park saw 4.6 million visitors from around the world. The vast majority of visitation happens between May and late summer. Visitors routinely crowd trailheads and popular lookout spots, such as Trail Ridge Road.
“The last thing we want to end up with is huge crowds and congestion that threaten to close the park again,” Sidles said. “We don’t want that to happen.”
By instituting the timed entry system, visitors would be able to freely explore while socially distancing themselves from other visitors.
“We’re trying to be as responsible as possible,” Sidles said.
How do I get a permit?
Under the plan, visitors would purchase a permit through recreation.gov, which already handles most of Rocky’s camping permits.
The exact timeline is still up in the air. Staff said permits could be available as soon as May 19 if the government approves the plan by then.
At least 10% of daily permits would be held for two-day-out “last-minute” reservations.
How much will it cost?
Regular park fees would apply.
It's still unclear how the proposed permit system would apply to park pass holders.
Is the park going to be totally open?
Staff said all outdoor areas of the park will be open for visitors on May 27.
Shuttle bus operations along the Bear Lake Road corridor will also start that day. Each bus will accept up to 15 passengers per trip, according to a park release.
It’s still unclear if the “Hiker Shuttle” from the Estes Park Visitor Center will be running. The center will be closed for the time being to prevent indoor crowding.
Backcountry camping permits will also be issued again starting May 27.
On June 4, Moraine Park and Glacier Basin Campgrounds will open half their available campsites. Aspenglen, Timber Creek and Longs Peak Campgrounds will remain closed.
Why was May 27 picked as the opening date?
The state’s first phase of its “safer-at-home” rules are scheduled to expire on May 26.
Sidles said the park also only recently started hiring its seasonal workers to help with maintenance and security.
“They still need to be trained and many of them don’t have any experience,” Sidles said. “It takes time to get them up to speed.”
What happens if the permitting system isn’t approved by then?
Kyle Patterson, Rocky’s spokeswoman told KUNC “if the timed entry proposal is not approved, we will revert to other entry restrictions similar to those that have been in place over the last five years.”
“These strategies result in turning away hundreds of visitors when parking lots fill, leaving many visitors disappointed that they can not access the park,” Patterson said. “It also increases the likelihood for crowding and congestion within Estes Park in particular.”
Is it safe to go?
Staff said they hope by reducing Rocky’s daily visitation, they can minimize the risk of person-to-person coronavirus spread in the park.
Estes Park leaders have also taken steps to stop the spread. The town’s Board of Trustees recently passed a local law requiring people to wear face masks in public settings.
Despite those steps, some residents still say they’re worried tourists could bring the virus with them.
Estes Park’s population skews older than Colorado as a whole, meaning more of its full-time residents are at a higher risk of complications from COVID-19 than other communities.
The Larimer County Department of Public Health and Environment has also asked local hotels to limit guests’ access to common areas, including swimming pools and breakfast bars. Most businesses are also conducting check-in services over the phone or online to reduce face-to-face contact.
Tom Gonzales, the county's public health director, said Estes Park was a big concern for his department due to its high-risk population.
“We’re gonna have to make sure the visitors coming in understand why we have these restrictions,” Gonzales said during a presentation to the town board. “I think if you do that, I think we can get through this without a surge on our medical system.”
“I want Estes back open again,” he added.