Apr 9, 2021 - News

Colorado parks prepare for another pandemic-boosted outdoor boom

A campfire glows in a fire ring with campers in a tent nearby on Kebler Pass outside of Crested Butte.

A campfire glows in a fire ring with campers in a tent nearby on Kebler Pass outside of Crested Butte. Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

If you can't find an open campsite reservation for the summer, you're not alone. The pandemic-driven mass migration to public lands in Colorado is expected to continue this year.

The state of play: Numerous park officials and outdoor retailers tell Axios the huge interest in camping, hiking and biking is the new normal.

What they're saying: "The outdoors provides that safe space where you can socially distance and you can still work on your physical or mental health," said Jonathan McFarland, Mountainsmith's general manager.

  • "A lot of these newcomers or people who have re-engaged are going to stick with it, which bodes well for us ... after the pandemic dust settles."

The elevated interest is apparent in park visitation and gear sales numbers so far this year.

  • Colorado state parks saw about 23% more people in January compared to that time last year, an official tells Axios. February levels were also high, with about 11% more visitors than 2020.
  • Overwhelming demand for backcountry campsites in Rocky Mountain National Park repeatedly crashed the reservation system in March.

Two companies supplying the outdoor crowd — Golden-based Mountainsmith and Niwot-based RovR — continue to report high demand, record sales and lingering product shortages.

  • "We've had the best January, February and March that we've ever had, and that's just continuing to increase," says Tom DeFrancia, owner and founder of RovR, which sells a popular $400 cooler for car campers.

Why it matters: The question is whether the lands — and the agencies that manage them — can handle a sequel to the pandemic summer in which record traffic led to overflowing trailhead bathrooms, scattered human waste at campsites, parking on sensitive alpine tundra and burning fires despite bans.

  • In 2020, the federal Bureau of Land Management reported a 30% increase in visitors to the 8.3 million acres it manages in Colorado during the pandemic summer, officials say.
  • The number of Denver-area hikers using AllTrails, a navigation app, spiked last year by 180% compared to 2019, a company spokesperson tells us.

What's happening: This year, new restrictions designed to limit crowds may help.

  • Rocky Mountain National Park is implementing a reservation system again this summer — despite initially suggesting otherwise — that will limit capacity to about 75% and spread out visitors.
  • The national Forest Service is limiting dispersed camping this summer to designated sites in the South Platte Ranger district and charging fees as part of a first-in-Colorado pilot project to manage the increased use.
  • And reservations are once again required for popular hiking spots like Maroon Bells, Conundrum Hot Springs and Hanging Lake.

The bottom line: The limitations are likely to get extended to other heavily trafficked areas in Colorado in the coming years to limit our environmental impact.

This story first appeared in the Axios Denver newsletter, designed to help readers get smarter, faster on the most consequential news unfolding in their own backyard.


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