Please Don't Park On The Ecosystem: The Downsides of Rocky Mountain National Park's Visitor Boom

Aug 24, 2016

The Alpine Visitors Center is the busiest visitor’s center in all of Rocky Mountain National Park, where roughly 7,000 people come every day to take in the views. But it’s also a symbol of a park changing with growing demand - more people means more litter, more noise and fewer parking spaces. Visitors looking for the solitude of the great outdoors need to work even harder to find it in the park, and officials have few solutions.

Susan Holtsclaw stands out on the observation deck with her husband and two young sons. Rocky Mountain National Park is special to them. They’ve been visiting almost every year for 15 years.

“We love to camp and things like that, and we used to be able to come up and find a spot,” she says. “You didn’t have to reserve ahead of time, you could just come out and throw your stuff in the back of the car and find a place to camp and now you have to plan ahead. It’s very very different.”

The only reason Holtsclaw could make it this time is because a friend of theirs couldn’t use their reservation, which was made back in February.

Inside the visitors center, Park Ranger Sam Heindel helps people plan hikes in the alpine tundra landscape more than two miles above sea level. While he’s glad more people come to witness the beauty of the park, the surge in visitors has its setbacks.

“People that don’t know better we’ve seen parking on the tundra ecosystem, which damages that,” he says.

That’s an ecosystem that can take centuries to recover from such damage.

Visitors crowd into the Alpine Visitors Center. On this day, much of the higher regions of the park were shrouded in thick, white fog.
Credit Ann Marie Awad / KUNC

“We are here to preserve the natural environment, but we’re also here to provide for the enjoyment and education of our visitors and reaching a good balance between those two missions has been a challenge, not just for Rocky, but for all national parks since we were established over 100 years ago,” he adds.

This year, Rocky became the third-most visited national park in the country, behind Great Smoky Mountains and the Grand Canyon, respectively. The leap from fifth-most visited is only one of the handful of visitorship records the park has broken in recent years.

“We have half the staffing of Yellowstone National Park, and a third the staff of Yosemite National Park, and yet we’ve leapfrogged over both of those national parks in 2015,” says Kyle Patterson, the spokeswoman for Rocky Mountain National Park.

Parking, road rage and illegal camping have become big problems, she says.

“Last year we were seeing more and more, truly what we would call ‘parking lot rage,’” Patterson says, “where people would get to our parking lots, and our volunteers or our park staff would indicate that they’d need to move along, that there was no parking. We had signs up that said: ‘No Parking,’ and we had visitors that would just refuse to move.”

The park responded by restricting vehicles in some areas when it’s really busy. Another thing that’s been suggested to park officials is raising the price of admission. Rocky’s admission fee is $20 for the day, but there’s concern that raising that would put the park out of reach for people who could no longer afford it.

“Parks are still a great bargain compared to a lot of things people pay for to recreate today,” says Melanie Armstrong, a professor with the Masters in Environmental Management program at Western State Colorado University. She used to work for the Parks Service for 15 years.

“Money is still a barrier to entry,” she adds. “People still struggle to find access and money creates the perception that it’s not necessarily something that anyone can do regardless of income level.”

Until last year, Armstrong was working at Canyonlands National Park in Utah. That park is currently taking public comment on ways to address high visitor numbers. Other parks, like Denali in Alaska and Yellowstone in Wyoming, are doing the same, all the while considering caps on the number of visitors allowed to enter each day. Armstrong says that idea is even more controversial.

“This is the kind of thinking that came about in the early days of the environmental movement,” she says. ”You know, ‘We need to stop population growth. We need to cut numbers back.’ and that kind of argument so easily begins to tread in a space of unequal systems of power and justice.”

A view of Rocky Mountain National Park from two miles above sea level, where sunlight is nearly walled off by dense fog.
Credit Ann Marie Awad / KUNC

Armstrong says one effective strategy she’s seen are ads that encourage people to visit the park during times that are typically less busy, like early mornings on weekdays.

But what works in one park may not work in another. Rocky faces challenges that are unique among national parks, such as being the connecting lifeline between Grand Lake and Estes Park via Trail Ridge Road.

Based on data park officials collect from this year, the park may seek public comment on what to do in the future.