Entrance fee hike still possible despite fewer visitors at Rocky Mountain National Park in 2017

Lance Maggart / Sky Hi News
The majestic views inside Rocky Mountain National Park weren't enough to draw in a larger number of visitors in 2017 compared to the previous year, according to data recently released by the National Park Service.
Special to the Daily

GRAND COUNTY — For the third time in a decade, total visitation to Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado’s second oldest national park, declined over the previous year’s total, according to a report released by park officials.

The decline comes as the National Park Service considers implementing a “peak season” fee schedule for Rocky Mountain National Park and 16 other national parks across the country that would see vehicle entrance fees more than double during summer months.

The intention of the fee increase is to provide additional revenue for maintenance backlogs at national parks around the nation, but with visitation figures declining, for Rocky Mountain National Park at least, the impact of doubling peak season fees could have unintended consequences.

Kyle Patterson, spokeswoman for Rocky Mountain National Park, declined to speculate on the potential impacts to visitation numbers that the park might see if the proposed fee schedule is implemented.

“Since no final determination has been made yet to the proposed fee increase, we wouldn’t want to speculate,” she told Sky-Hi News on Monday, Jan. 29.

According to Patterson, the National Park Service has received more than 100,000 comments regarding the proposed peak-season entrance fee schedule.

“The comments are being analyzed and a final recommendation is expected in the coming weeks,” Patterson confirmed.

Total visitation to Rocky Mountain National Park in 2017 amounted to 4,437,214 visitors, down roughly 1.8 percent from the park’s visitation totals in 2016, when 4,517,584 people drove into the park, according to the National Park Service.

Officials from the park noted that the figure for 2017, while a decline from 2016, still represents a 40 percent increase from visitation in 2012, which totaled 3,229,617.

Patterson highlighted the mild fall that the park experienced in 2016, compared with 2017, as a potential factor in the larger visitation numbers in 2016.

“Trail Ridge Road stayed open until mid-November in 2016 and closed in mid-October in 2017,” she said. Visitation in December 2017, however, was up 22 percent from December 2016, as she noted.

The decline in 2017 marks the third time in a decade that the park has seen fewer visitors year-to-year, with the other instances in 2008 and 2013.

In 2013, an early September rain deluge caused historic flooding along the eastern side of the Continental Divide and caused significant damage to the major roads leading to the park from the east. It was a big factor for the decline in visitation, according to Patterson. Patterson attributed the slight decline in 2008, less than 1 percent, to several potential factors.

“Rocky Mountain National Park’s visitation has increased in the past and then leveled out and then increased again,” she explained. “It was a slight decrease again in 2007 and 2008 so that may also be tied to weather in spring or fall or the economy during that time.”

Park officials highlighted that visitation statistics for the park are “reliably accurate estimates” and that gathering visitation numbers is a difficult and “imprecise effort.”

The busiest day for the park in 2017 was July 3. Three of the top five busiest days of the year at the park occurred within the first three days of July while six of the 10 busiest days of the year came during the month of July.

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