Rocky Mountain blues

Bear Lake Road, Rocky Mountain National Park. Sadly, this sort of congestion is common now in most of our national parks. (Photo: RMNP)

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.

Fall River entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park
Fall River/ US 34 Entrance. This webcam scene is from Labor Day weekend 2016. You can see the problem was developing even then. I’ve known for many years to avoid the park on weekends and holidays.

20 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain blues

  1. Link copied from an Estes Park Trail Gazette article about the ROMO future planning on visitor access strategies. The link is for public comments – requested from all interested persons between May 27 & July 19. If anyone would prefer to simply write a letter – send to Superintendent Darla Sidles, Rocky Mountain National Park, 1000 US Highway 36, Estes Park, CO 80517. Opinions for/against reservations and/or ideas for ways to better regulate visitor entry to the Park are much desired.

    Your post presented a good overview of the current situation at Rocky. If the total number of visitors coming to experience RMNP seems like just another number, consider the Beaver Meadows entrance on US 36 just for today – the 1st day of reservations for 2021. The line of vehicles coming into Rocky reached back a mile or longer for most of the day. And on average, it took over an hour to get through the entrance… and that was with 3 lanes open all day. Add to that long lines of vehicles at both the Grand Lake and Fall River entrances, plus the more remote Wild Basin entrance, and it may be easier to understand the need for visitor access strategies.

    Everyone wants to experience the Park. We welcome them. But we need visitors to be good stewards of the Park. Follow the rules and regulations. Listen to the rangers. Do not litter. Respect the wildlife and remember they have the right of way…and they are Wild Animals. Protect the fragile Alpine Tundra – do not drive on it, park on it, or carelessly walk on it. Pets are not allowed to run loose or go on trails. I could continue, but won’t monopolize your blog! For more info, please check out the official Rocky Mountain National Park website – and don’t rely on Facebook or Twitter posts for factual info.

    With a lot of cooperation from visitors and a lot of brainstorming from the public on how to regulate visitors – we can all be part of reversing the damage and allowing Rocky to remain the wonderful gem of a National Park we want it to be for now and future generations.

    1. I would be first in line for public comments, but all I have to offer is complaints. I wish I could think of a good solution, one that hasn’t been considered, but I’ve got nothing. A good start, but one we can’t control, would be for park visitors to inform themselves about the rules and obey them. Instead, they live down to my very lowest expectations. Every one of them thinks “I’m only one person. It won’t matter.” Uh huh. I just hope somehow the kids get a taste of what’s there and vow to come back someday. Or at least vow to help protect such places in the future.

      Don’t worry, you are not monopolizing my blog. You’ve got an “up close and personal” view of something very close to my heart and if you want to write an entire manual on the subject, I’ll give you all the space you need. With no ads.

      Maybe the predicted rain will keep the crowds down this weekend. I hope.

      1. And complaints are also welcomed. You write so well anyway, plus being a local AND a Lifetime Passholder– not to mention having summited Longs Peak– you could present your issues logically and realistically. Afraid many will simply say it isn’t fair or they pay our salaries or something and stop.

        Come on rain!!!!!!!! (Although working with electronics in cold rain/snow/hail is a unique and rather uncomfortable experience!)

        1. This post is about all I have to say on the subject. Any more would just be details of what I’d like to do to people I see tramping across the tundra, or trying to pet the elk, or parking in the middle of the road.

          Maybe you’ll get rain with lots of lightning. That should scare most of the tourists away. No, on second thought, if they think they can pet a bull elk in the middle of the rutting season, a little lightning won’t faze them. And personally I think standing or hiking in the rain is not fun. And the view from a car isn’t great in the rain. And the clouds are likely to shroud the peaks anyway.

          Rain! Yes, that’s the solution. Tell the park department to forget the reservations and just turn on the rain.

        2. I read this when published but didn’t have time to comment.
          We always went to RMP when I was little – I remember at age 3 how cold and swift the streams we waded in and there was snow!!! on Trail Ridge. My husband’s family did the same (and we are as same age as Pied) We traveled there as parents so our kid could see dark sky and wild. The town then was delightful with local shops and a friendly magician who seemed thrilled to pass along some magic lessons to a couple of awed kids while he ate lunch by the stream. Recently the town has become a carnival. We avoided it during holidays and school’s out time. It’s gotten so bad now, we weep, but will not retire there as planned.
          I have forwarded the link for comments to family who are still in CO (and raising families there – and are furious at being locked out so much)
          Yeah, rain is good..(.but reasonable discouraging tourist rain not so much as to risk the dams). Always enjoyed rain hikes myself. (Lightning, not so much)

        3. I weep with you. And the barriers keep coming. Now it’s Mt. Evans. And Wild Basin. And they’re considering it for Golden Gate Park. I, too, once harbored dreams of retiring in Estes.

          RMNP and Estes were such a huge part of my childhood and were so instrumental in shaping my adult attitudes about the park and nature and wilderness and mountains and wildlife and the glorious night sky. Had my parents not brought me up here every summer, I’d be a totally different person.

          Most summers we actually rented a place in Allenspark. More space for us kids to run around unsupervised. There was sort of an enclave of Okla. City people there, friends of my parents.

  2. I have read a great deal of news stories that with Covid people who never went to parks, who never went out into the wilderness to camp or hike are now doing so and putting tremendous strain on resources as a lot of these people have no clue what they are doing…and often need rescued. I’m sorry.

    1. It is distressing for sure. And Covid did have a lot of people looking for outdoor activities. Sadly, the numbers at RMNP have been increasing steadily since before Covid. And the crowds have always been full of thoughtless, selfish, ignorant individuals. In time they could ruin it for everyone. I’d rather see the park closed permanently than let that happen.

      1. I love to camp, husband hates it, that’s another discussion, I love to listen to the sounds of nature but there is a subset of people who go to the mountains in large groups to party, get high and leave large amounts of trash behind. We stopped camping on holidays decades ago as on those long holiday weekends those peckerheads* brought along fireworks. Deadly stuff in your neck of the woods I’m sure.

        * Haven’t had my coffee. Hate the dregs of mankind until I’ve finished my coffee. Then I use my nicer words.

        1. No apology necessary. That’s a nicer word than I would choose for those who take fireworks into national parks. Especially given the two awful fires we had up there last fall.

          I only had one camping experience, and it was more than enough. Two-hour ride on horseback into the backcountry, in the rain, to stay in tents pitched on wet, rocky ground, while the men went off fishing for the day. But day hikes in beautiful weather — so many wonderful memories.

          1. God, I love the outdoors. The front range is so horribly dry though. It is one, big, glorious, stunning, beautiful sinus infection waiting to happen. I’d like to be forever 10 and able to climb where I want at will.

  3. I agree with you totally. For those of us who have been using the park for a long time (almost 50 years in my case) and who live nearby, it’s difficult to adjust to this new permit system. I have a cabin 2 miles from Wild Basin but now can’t get in there unless I make a reservation. In my comments to the RMNP, I suggested limiting the number of visitors only to popular areas, like the Bear Lake area, but keeping open other, less popular areas like Holowell Park or Beaver Meadows. But I agree that it’s hard to see all the crowds and all the behavior that’s disrespectful to the wildlife.

    1. I’d be more than a little upset if I had a cabin that close to the park and still couldn’t get in without a reservation. When I was young we vacationed up here (from OKC) and stayed in Allenspark. Easy to hike into Wild Basin from there, or ride a horse. I live in Thornton now and haven’t visited the park in several years. It’s just too long a day for me to drive up there, lunch in Estes, spend an hour or two in the park, and drive home. I like your idea about limiting visitors to popular areas. Maybe they could set up a different entry kiosk at the beginning of Bear Lake Road and direct those people around the current entry to the beginning of BLR. But so many spots are just stops along the main road that can’t be isolated from the through traffic.

      The last couple of times I’ve been up there were before Memorial Day or well after Labor Day. And that was a couple of years ago. I really have no desire to fight the crowds anymore. I can’t even imagine the loss I’d feel if I owned property up there.

      1. Last year I sneaked into Wild Basin along the creek (and encountered a few moose) when I didn’t have a permit, but now they have signs posting no access. I wouldn’t be surprised if they fence it off. And now there are no slow times in the park; even in winter, the parking lots are full. I’m trying to find Forest Service trails that aren’t as well used; it’s a challenge.

        1. I haven’t words for how unfair that is to you. They really need to make some kind of allowance for people who own property right along the park boundaries. At best I’m an hour away from Wild Basin. People will always defeat fences. No point in spending scarce park funds on them.

          I have yet to see a moose in the wild. I’m beginning to think I’m the only Coloradan who hasn’t. Of course, to even have a chance I need to get out of town. And I can’t remember the last time that happened.

          1. I agree that those of us who live on the boundaries of the park should be allowed some kind of access, but I know you can’t fight city hall (or the national government). And it’s pretty easy to see moose now in and around the park (or around Brainard Lake). In fact, they are reproducing almost too well. Hope you get to see one.

          1. Thanks for the suggestion. I do know about that one, but it’s not as nice as the one starting in Wild Basin. There’s also a trail to Meadow Mountain that leaves from Allenspark..

... and that's my two cents