Reservation system will return to Rocky Mountain National Park in 2022
Park continues work on long-term management plans
Rocky Mountain National Park will bring back its reservation system for a third summer as park officials begin plans to manage growing crowds for the coming years.
Rocky representatives spoke with the Estes Park town board on Tuesday, outlining the success of this year’s timed entry system. Visitor Use Management Specialist John Hannon said that the reservation system for 2022 would look pretty similar to 2021 with minor tweaks, including a slight increase in available reservations.
With 3.3 million visitors in 2020, Rocky was one of the most trafficked parks in the National Park System despite closing down due to COVID-19, the East Troublesome Fire and the implementation of a timed-entry system.
Of the 62 places designated a “national park” across the country, only the Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone and Zion saw more visitors than Rocky last year. Rocky saw more people than even the Grand Teton and Grand Canyon National Parks.
Rocky was the first national park in the country to implement park-wide timed entry permits, though Yosemite National Park added day-use reservations last year that continued through this year. A number of other national parks implement reservation systems for popular park features or close access once a certain number of visitors has been reached.
Hannon outlined the visitor management strategies Rocky has utilized in recent years on high use areas like Bear Lake Road, Wild Basin Area and the Alpine Visitor Center.
“These management strategies, they’re not necessarily that new in the park,” he said.
He explained that the first come, first served method for these areas have had limited success and typically takes a lot of staff time to implement successfully. Rocky introduced a pilot timed entry system for the whole park for the first time in 2020, requiring reservations from 6 a.m.-5 p.m. from late May through mid-October.
This summer, the park altered the reservation system with the lessons from 2020. There were two types of reservations this year, one that controlled access to Bear Lake Road from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. and another that capped access to the rest of the park from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Hannon said the park found that this system worked a lot better.
“It spread that use well throughout the day,” Hannon said. “That allows us to protect the park resources that we have, but also helps us better utilize the park infrastructure.”
The reservations were released on a monthly rolling basis, but the park also offered a number of “day before” passes. In June, park officials noted that about 30% of daily reservations were no shows. The number of reservations available in July the day before entry was increased with this in mind to better reach the park’s target level — 85% of capacity.
“That 30% no show rate stayed consistent throughout the summer,” Hannon said. “I thought we’d see some fluctuation in different months, but we didn’t. It was very consistent.”
The park found that the visitation levels worked well with the shorter reservation window, though there were consistently spikes in visits just before 9 a.m. and just after 3 p.m. Hannon said the window helped with traffic flow inside and outside the park, while still allowing for more spontaneity in visits.
“That shorter window really allowed those people who didn’t have a reservation, didn’t know about reservation system the opportunity to come back after that reservation period,” Hannon said.
Next summer, Rocky plans to target 90% of the park’s parking and transit capacity. That’s equal to about 7,200 vehicles or 20,000 visitors a day.
“We’re pretty confident that 90% is kind of going to be that sweet spot for us,” Hannon said.
He said there might be minor adjustments to the reservation windows and numbers, but that the system would look very similar to this past summer. Also, the park is going to add the option to purchase entrance passes along with the reservations on Recreation.gov, which should help speed up the entry process.
Reservations will be required from May 27 through Oct. 10 next year. They will continue to be released on a rolling monthly basis, meaning June reservations will become available May 2, July reservations will become available June 1 and so on.
With the park preparing to roll out a third summer of reservations, Rocky is also getting started on longer range visitor planning efforts to find a more permanent solution to crowd management.
Hannon said the park is currently in the pre-National Environmental Policy Act phase, gathering data, civic engagement and public comments on these strategies. A report will be coming out in January on this work, with officials planning to complete the Visitor Use Management Framework this spring.
Next year, he said the park will put out another survey and complete a socioeconomic study to evaluate the economic impacts of a management strategy for gateway communities and surrounding areas.
Hannon predicted that the formal NEPA process would take place in winter 2022-2023. Then, the park will take another round of public comments in spring 2023. The hope is to have a final decision document by the end of 2023.
Also, the park announced earlier this month that certain fees would be going up. Specifically, some campsites would see fee increases along with day use passes. The only national park with daily passes, entrance fees will go from $25 to $30 a day. Weekly and yearly entrance pass fees will not be affected.
“These fees really help us to maintain and improve our visitor services,” Park Superintendent Darla Sidles said.
The park is accepting public comments on the proposed fee increases through Jan. 7, which can be submitted to https://parkplanning.nps.gov/RMNP_FEES_2022.
The Federal Lands Recreation Enhancement Act allows the park to collect entrance and amenity fees, and parks like Rocky Mountain National Park can retain 80% of the fees collected in park for projects that directly enhance the experience. The remaining 20% is distributed throughout the National Park System.
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