Rocky Mountain National Park outlines plans for revised reservation system |

Rocky Mountain National Park outlines plans for revised reservation system

Amy Golden
SkyHi News
The entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park is pictured. The park will continue to have a reservation system this summer.
Photo by Robert Mendoza / Sky-Hi News

GRANBY — 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 of the Estes Park Town Board on Monday, officials representing the national park explained their management plan to control crowding for the upcoming season. According to their presentation, the park will be requiring reservations for all areas from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. beginning May 28 and lasting 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. Both types of reservations will be in two-hour windows, but visitors can access the park and Bear Lake before and after the reservation time frame begins and ends each day.

Similar to last year, reservations will go on sale at at 8 a.m. on a rolling basis. Reservations to enter the park from May 28 to June 30 will be available May 1, and all other reservations will open on the first day of the month for reservations in the following month. July reservations will open June 1, for example.

Deviating from last year, 25% of permits will be held and available for purchase the day prior at 5 p.m. through

Park Superintendent Darla Sidles explained to Estes Park officials that Rocky Mountain 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 the park was closed for more than a month last year due to COVID-19, restricted visitation over the summer and widespread closures during the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires, it still had the fourth-highest number of visitors in the national park system in 2020.

Referencing the “COVID crunch” and the increased popularity of public lands this past year, Sidles said park officials are planning for that trend to continue.

“We’re expecting the visitation this year to increase dramatically,” Sidles said.

The park 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., the goal last year was to more evenly spread visitors throughout the day.

He said the park was successful in doing so with an increase of visitors entering the park after 5 p.m., allowing existing infrastructure to be better used. 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.

The park set aside 10% of available reservations to be released 48 hours in advance. Roughly 600 tickets were released daily, but website traffic at showed that 1,500 to 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 to 75% to 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.

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.

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