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Outside: Camping reservations in Colorado's parks are filling fast

Many of RMNP’s campsites are booked early in advance.
Estes - Gem Lake (11 of 12)
Gem Lake Trail overlooking the Rocky Mountains

The warmer weather is here, and that means more people are heading outside and making their summer plans. If you plan on enjoying the outdoors in some of Colorado’s parks, it’s time to start working on your trip.

In recent years both state and national parks have seen increased visitors. When COVID-19 hit last year, even more people went outside once parks reopened. The increase is forcing park visitors to plan ahead to make camping reservations, book park entries and get permits for back country adventures.

Rocky Mountain National Park, or RMNP, has seen a 44% increase in visitors since 2012, which is expected to continue to rise.

“We continue to seek solutions to address what effect this level of visitation is having on visitor and staff safety, resource protection, visitor experiences and operational capacity,” said Kyle Patterson, public affairs officer at RMNP. “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 says park officials are always working on new ways to manage visitors to the park, which is the fourth most popular destination for national park visitors.

Those popular destinations saw restrictions every day in July of 2019 and most days in August, meaning some drivers had to turn around when they were heading toward popular stops like Bear Lake.

Last year, to help handle the crowds and for COVID precautions, the park put a time entry system in place to control the number of visitors. These restrictions helped cut the number of visitors year over year, but once the system ended in October, the numbers quickly bounced back. In November of 2020, visitation was up 28% and up 38% in December compared to numbers in 2019, according to RMNP. 

The park plans on bringing back a similar system this year. After meeting with both the city of Estes Park and Larimer County, Patterson said they have proposed two reservation systems for the busy summer months. The first allows visitors access to the entire park, while the second limits visitation to areas outside of the popular Bear Lake Road corridor. Reservations are expected to begin in late May. 

Many of RMNP’s campsites are booked early in advance. There are two campgrounds that allow people to stay based on a first-come, first-serve basis and that includes Longs Peak Campground and Timber Creek Campground.

While RMNP draws visitors from all over the world, even locally Colorado’s State Park has seen an uptick in visitors. CPW saw the number of visitors jump in state parks from 2.3 million in June of 2019 to 3.2 million in June of last year. 

 “We don't know what to fully expect from the coming year, but it does seem likely we may see another year with lots of people getting outdoors and visiting our state parks in Colorado,” said Travis Duncan, communication specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, or CPW. “Folks can book their camping reservations up to six months in advance and we definitely recommend people do this to ensure they can get the spot at the park they want during our always-busy summer season.”

CPW recommends people book campsites as soon as possible online, and be ready to be flexible as the dates get closer meaning people may need to look at weekdays to find more available campsites.

With the pandemic ongoing, both the NPS and CPW ask visitors to be mindful of others.

“CPW will continue encouraging folks to be mindful when traveling, especially when visiting rural areas of the state that don't have large health care facilities,” said Duncan.

An alternative to state and national parks is national forests like Arapaho and Roosevelt, just west of Boulder. Some of these areas allow dispersed camping based on a first-come, first-serve rule. Backpacking and overnight camping are available, however, a permit is required. 

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