Rocky Mountain blues
Reservations? To enter Rocky Mountain National Park? Yep. It started last year because of Covid and all the people looking for outdoor activities. But the powers that be have put it into effect again this year, from this weekend to October 11. Supposedly it’s a “pilot temporary” system, but many of us in the vicinity fear it will become permanent. It’s not an issue for those of you living far away with no plans to ever visit Rocky. But for those of us close enough to visit on the spur of the moment, it’s distressing.
I hope it goes without saying that visitors, especially locals, love the park. Otherwise, we wouldn’t care what happens as long as the park is protected from overuse. And yes, that is now a major problem. Rocky has become the fourth most visited national park in the country. It’s in danger of being loved to death.
Except, of course, overuse is not love. Harassing wildlife, parking outside designated areas, camping and/or building fires illegally, ignoring or destroying trails, trampling delicate tundra, and leaving behind trash and even human excrement are but a few of the problems. I’d gladly kick those violators out of the park and ban them permanently. But that would require a lot more staff and some unpleasant confrontations that would be anything but welcoming.
The number of admissions allowed each day is based on a percentage of the number of designated parking spaces in the park. But it’s more complicated than that. What about the many who just drive through enjoying the scenery, with no intention of staying? What if most people want to stop at a select few parking areas? People don’t just drive around looking for parking spaces. They go to specific places that they want to see. And they’ll park as close to their destination as possible, whether it’s a designated parking space or on the shoulder of the road (or even in the road). Does counting parking spaces instead of people really control overcrowding?
What about the residents of Estes Park, for whom Rocky is their backyard? Rocky is why they live in Estes, but now they are being told they need reservations to enter? What about people like me who retired to this area (and have lifetime free passes to the park) just so we could buzz up to the park on a whim? What about locals who’ve lived here all their lives, enjoying the park any time without prior consideration for reservations?
I know times change. Conditions and situations change. And no matter what, the park’s well-being is the top priority.
But can’t the authorities be a little more sensible and open-minded with their regulations? Requiring reservations for Estes residents, some of whom can actually walk into the park from their homes, is the ultimate unfairness. And I’m more than a little miffed that instead of waking up one day, deciding I feel pretty good and the weather looks great, and heading out at maybe 9 am for the 1½ hour drive to the park, I now have to make an advance reservation for a day and time that may not work at all for me when the time comes.
(In the past I might have changed my plans and gone instead to Brainard Lake. It’s closer to Denver and at an elevation of 10,300 feet, it’s always been a spectacular destination. It’s not even in a national park. But reservations are now required there, too.)
Why not require reservations just for out-of-state visitors and for campgrounds? Surely there are measures short of and more realistic than reservations for specific time slots during the day.
Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just (more) progress and change I don’t want to accept. I grew up being able to enter the park any time, paying just a small admission fee. I could buzz up to Bear Lake anytime without waiting for a shuttle. I could park at almost any turnout at any time to enjoy the view. I could park at almost any trailhead to go for a walk or hike. I could even enjoy occasional solitude on the trails. (And of course the entire time I was wishing I could put a wall around the whole park and keep the tourists out, ignoring the fact that in those days I too was a tourist).
I understand I can still enter the park without a reservation — if I enter before 9 am or after 3 pm (5 am and 6 pm for the Bear Lake Road corridor). But at my age (78) and from this distance, that’s unlikely to happen.
I’ll just have to remember the park as it once was and be grateful that I experienced it in its heyday. And I’ll keep wishing that everyone who visits it today could have seen it back then. The congestion these days is not something anyone will want to remember or experience again. And that is an incalculable loss.