Rocky Mountain National Park outlines plans for revised reservation system
Rocky Mountain National Park plans to require reservations again this summer with expectations to begin implementing a long-term crowd management plan in the near future.
In a special meeting for the Estes Park town board on Monday, officials representing Rocky explained their management plan to control crowding for the upcoming season. According to their presentation, Rocky will be requiring reservations for all areas of the park from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. beginning May 28 through Oct. 11.
To access Bear Lake, the most popular feature in the park, there will be a separate reservation system from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m. Reservations for both will be in two hour windows, but visitors can access the park and Bear Lake outside the time frames for reservations.
Similar to last year, reservations will go on sale through recreation.gov at 8 a.m. on a rolling basis. Reservations to enter the park from May 28-June 30 will be available May 1; available June 1 for all of July; July 1 for August; Aug. 1 for September; and Sept. 1 for October.
Deviating from last year, 25% of permits will be held and available for purchase the day prior at 5 p.m. through recreation.gov, which are expected to sell out quickly.
Park Superintendent Darla Sidles explained to Estes Park officials that Rocky continues to be one of the most popular national parks in the country. In 2019, the park set a record with 4.6 million visitors, a 44% increase since 2012, making it the third most popular national park in the country.
Even though Rocky was closed for more than a month due to COVID-19, restricted visitations with the reservation system over the summer and saw widespread closures due to the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires, Rocky still had the fourth-highest number of visitors in the national park system last year.
Referencing the “COVID crunch” and the increased popularity of public lands this past year, Sidles explained that the park is expecting that trend to continue.
“We’re expecting the visitation this year to increase dramatically,” Sidles said.
Rocky began implementing visitor management systems for its most congested areas in 2016, namely Bear Lake. She added that the park is looking toward a long range planning effort to start managing guest visits in a more permanent way.
The civic engagement for this effort will begin in late May, according to Sidles, with a plan for two public meetings and a stakeholder meeting on the topic. Next year, the park wants to begin the National Environmental Policy Act process to formalize changes.
Separate but related, John Hannon, management specialist and park lead for visitor use planning, also introduced this year’s temporary plan for reservations.
Hannon outlined the pros and cons of last year’s reservations and explained how those lessons were used in this year’s plan. Because park visitors tend to peak from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Rocky’s goal last year was to more evenly spread visitors throughout the day.
He said Rocky was successful in doing so with an increase of visitors entering the park after 5 p.m. and allowing existing infrastructure to be better utilized. Even so, Bear Lake and its corridor remained congested at the park with other areas seeing less use.
According to Hannon, the gateway communities of Estes Park and Grand Lake did not see significant sales tax reductions due to the reservations. However, park officials were quick to admit that last year’s reservation system did have its flaws.
“When it launched, it wasn’t perfect,” Hannon said.
The park had a goal of letting in 60% of the park’s parking capacity, but many visitors either didn’t get the reservation time they wanted or didn’t get a reservation at all.
Rocky set aside 10% of available reservations to be released 48 hours in advance. Roughly 600 tickets were released daily, but website traffic at Recreation.gov showed that 1,500-2,500 people were vying for those reservations each morning.
“It was the first time that a national park has put a timed entry system on that site, so a lot of learning curve and impacts there,” Hannon said.
Those lessons were used to plan for this year’s temporary system. By creating two types of reservations, Hannon said the park will be able to increase capacity to 75-85% of parking capacity this summer.
“This system is pretty adaptable to any changes we see in visitation trends and certainly anything in public health as well,” Hannon said.
Much of the park impacts due to the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak fires will be evaluated this summer as the snow melts. A number of trails, especially on the western side of the park hardest hit by the East Troublesome Fire, are expected to remain closed through the summer.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include additional information about when reservations will be released.
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Both the Grand County/Granby airport and the Kremmling airport are upgrading facilities this summer.