Update: In March 2021, park officials reversed course, telling the Estes Park town board they will enact a two-tiered timed-entry reservation system this summer. Read more about it here.
Rocky Mountain National Park put a timed-entry reservation system in place last year to limit park capacity and allow for social distancing. The program’s efficiency left many observers wondering if the park will continue using the system as a means to lessen congestion and crowding — especially during peak visitation periods.
The answer is no, says the park’s spokeswoman.
“At this time, we do not plan to implement the same type of timed-entry permit system as was used in 2020, but will continue restrictions when necessary and may implement other pilot visitor management techniques if congestion and crowding warrants,” Kyle Patterson, the park’s public affairs officer, told The Denver Post. “We will learn from the temporary timed-entry permit system last year and incorporate lessons learned as we move forward with our visitor use management planning efforts.”
A COVID-19 Response
Rocky Mountain National Park, like much of the country, closed last spring as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. When it reopened in June, it did so using a timed-entry reservation system to limit the park’s parking capacity to a maximum of 4,900 vehicles, with an estimated 13,500 visitors daily.
Here’s how it worked: The reservation system issued park visitors permits, which allowed them to enter the park in two-hour windows from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m. An official park statement said that the process was being put in place to “facilitate advance payment of entrance fees, minimize contact between park entrance station staff and visitors, and limit congestion in parking lots.” A permit was needed to visit all areas within the park.
“We are eager to welcome visitors back to their national park,” Superintendent Darla Sidles said at the time. “This system will more safely manage the pace and flow of visitor use, reduce crowding, and provide an improved visitor experience in alignment with the park’s safe operational capacity.”
Growing Popularity — And Crowds
For some people, the park’s limited capacity due to the reservation system was the solution to a long-growing problem: crowds, along with congested roads and full parking lots.
Indeed, visitation at Rocky Mountain National Park, which has 415 square miles of land, has been an issue for several years. Since 2012, the park has broken visitation records six times, according to the Associated Press. Visitor count jumped from 2.95 million in 2010 to 4.67 million in 2019 — a 58 percent increase.
Last year, of course, was another matter. Between the pandemic and wildfires, park visitation went down 31 percent in 2020.
Yet last year wasn’t the first time park officials worked to restrict crowding.
“Since 2016, we have put vehicle restrictions in place on the Bear Lake Road, Wild Basin area, and Alpine Visitor Center when congestion and crowding warrants,” Patterson told The Denver Post. “In 2019, these restrictions occurred every day in July, most days in August, in addition to weekends in June and September.”
Know Before You Go
Rocky Mountain National Park is open; however, it is still operating following directions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local public health departments. Be sure to check the park’s website for updates before visiting.