By Russ and Tiña De Maris
Come May 28, you’ll no longer be able to motor up to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park and get in at any old time. From that day forward, you’ll need to have made reservations to visit the park. Park officials are describing it as a “pilot program,” meaning, this won’t be forever. Theoretically. But it does raise the question: Are reservations just to get into one of the national treasures the wave of the future?
What’s behind this extra layer of travel planning? Park staff say they’re afraid the 2021 tourist season will see big crowds. If campground and RV park reservations around the U.S. are any indicator, it’s pretty likely more and more folks will head to the nation’s parks.
But there are other factors creating the “don’t just drop in” policy. COVID-19 is still a concern, and limiting the number of visitors in the park at any one time decreases viral transmission. And other factors are having an impact: Staff shortages, limitations on shuttle bus capacity, and impacts from last year’s wildfires. All these weighed in the decision to force these national park entry reservations, says a park news release.
How it works
So if you want to visit Rocky Mountain National Park, how will the permit system work? The park has divided itself into two pieces for reservation purposes. Bear Lake Road Corridor is hugely popular with hikers, as it gives access to many alpine and subalpine lakes. The Bear Lake Road Corridor permit will give holders access to the corridor itself, and the rest of the park as well. Permits will be available for access from five in the morning until six in the evening. The other permit allows access to the balance of the park, but NOT allowing access to the Bear Lake Road Corridor. Permits will allow access from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon.
Regardless of the permit you choose, you’ll be allowed access in a two-hour window. Nope, they aren’t free. You’ll be charged $2 for any permit; that’s the fee charged for processing permits by recreation.gov. On top of the fees charged for national park entry reservations, you’ll also need the normal park entry pass. The fees for those vary.
For some, there may be a further crimp in travel spontaneity. National park entry reservations are allowed in clumps. That is to say, if you want to get into the park the first day entry passes are required, you can’t just go online today and get one. Reservations for Rocky Mountain National Park entry “will go on sale” May 1, promptly at 8:00 a.m. At that time you’ll be able to vie for entry passes for entry from May 28 to June 30. Want to come in July? You’ll need to wait until June 1, when the system will open to July reservations.
The Park Service says that as the system opens in each new month, “any remaining days that have not been booked” for the previous month will also be available. Here’s the sticker: Folks in Canada trying to get reservations for provincial campgrounds are finding that when they try to log onto reservation systems, even when doing so promptly on opening day and minute, they often find popular days are already “booked out.” Some suspect that computer “bots,” or automated systems, are acing them out. Will the same situation be true when attempting to get an entry reservation? Time will tell. The Service says 25% of the permits will be held and not released for sale until 5:00 p.m. for use the very next day. How fast are your fingers on the keyboard?
Creative keypunching for campers?
A pilot plan for national park entry reservations: How will it affect your travel plans? While Rocky Mountain National Park may not be on your travel agenda, what happens when other parks get into the system? And what if you want to camp at a national park that puts entry reservations in place? Lest your imagination runs wild thinking about creative keypunching (read “frustration”), when one attempts to reserve an entry day, and somehow manages to get the same date to do the first night in a park’s campground, fear not.
We asked Rocky Mountain National Park’s public information folk about how someone can mesh entry reservations with camping reservations. Kyle Patterson tells us, “Visitors with campground reservations and wilderness camping permits will use those permits as their timed entry reservations. You may enter the park on the first day of your camping reservation. Entrance fees apply and can be paid at the entrance station. Visitors must have these camping permits in advance.”
That’s a bit of a relief. But there are plenty of unhappy folk who say it’s next to impossible to reserve a campsite in a popular national park campground. If you’re fortunate enough to land one, good on you – your entrance is secure. If not, join the line of those trying to get an entry pass for their chosen day.
Perhaps the nation’s parks could be thought of as a renewable resource. But like a lot of precious resources, there’s only so much to go around. If visitors are forced to make national park reservations, it may be an unfortunate – and likely unwelcome – bit of fallout.
Photo: Base image, Billy Hathorn on wikimedia.org