Rocky Mountain National Park officials are planning to implement a two-tiered, timed-entry reservation system this year, one for access to the highly popular Bear Lake Road corridor and the other for access to the rest of the park.
While there has been no official announcement, park officials briefed the Estes Park town board of trustees on their plans Monday night in a special meeting that was held virtually.
Timed-entry reservations for the Bear Lake Road corridor would be required from 5 a.m. until 6 p.m. Entry reservations for visitors wishing to visit other areas of the park would be required from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Like last year, entry reservations would be for two-hour windows.
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For years, the Bear Lake corridor has seen extreme congestion that often resulted in closures. The Bear Lake parking lot has only 200 parking spaces. It remained crowded last year despite the reservation system imposed due to COVID-19 that was intended to restrict the number of vehicles to 60% of the park’s parking capacity.
“We were finding that corridor remained near full, or near capacity, throughout the day while the rest of the park was highly underutilized,” said John Hannon, a specialist on the park’s visitor-use management planning.
Reservations would be required from May 28 (the Friday before Memorial Day) through Oct. 11.
“It certainly allows for greater numbers of reservations per day than what we did last year,” Hannon told the town board. “This year, we’re looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 to 85 percent of the park’s total parking capacity. It better utilizes the parking and trailheads by spreading the use throughout the day, but also throughout the park.”
Last year, shuttle buses were restricted to 20% of capacity, Hannon said, and this year that number will start at 50%.
Park officials call the reservation systems last year and this year “temporary” solutions, but the park began restricting access to crowded areas such as Bear Lake at peak times in 2016. The park saw record visitation in 2019 of 4.6 million, a 44% increase over 2012, and officials have been working on what they call a “long-range visitor management plan.”
Park superintendent Darla Sidles said the park will hold virtual public meetings in May to begin the process of implementing a permanent visitor-use management system. They will compile a report after those meetings and then formally begin the process of long-range planning next year to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, which would involve another round of public meetings.
Park officials have said they will use lessons from last year’s reservation system in formulating their plans for a permanent system, which they call the Long Range Day Use Visitor Access Strategy.
Members of the Estes Park board commented during the virtual meeting Monday night but offered no objections to what they heard from park officials. The public was not invited to comment, and one vocal critic of the park’s decisions found the meeting frustrating.
“To me, the big takeaway is that the superintendent outlined the process for a long-term visitor management system under NEPA guidelines,” said Estes Park resident Dan Denning. “This means they’ve already decided they want to do it and are planning to do it. The public may have token representation in such a process. But it’s window dressing and begs the question of whether limitations are necessary or desirable.”
Hannon said many trails in the park were damaged last year by the East Troublesome and Cameron Peak wildfires, and impacts will be felt this year.
“On the west side of the park, we’re expecting a lot of trails to remain closed for the season,” Hannon said. “On the east side of the park, probably, many trails are staying closed initially and opening at different times during the summer.”
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