As lovers of Rocky Mountain National Park eagerly await this week’s expiration of the timed-entry reservation system that was imposed to restrict visitation in response to the coronavirus, officials in the gateway town of Estes Park say the system has helped them make the best of a bad situation.
Reservations to enter the park will not be required as of Tuesday, but critics remain concerned that park officials may bring it back in some form later at America’s third-busiest national park, where they have been grappling with a 44% increase in annual visitation since 2012.
Dan Denning, an Estes Park native, staged anti-reservation rallies with four of his brothers at a town park on the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
“We didn’t want to get to next spring and have the park superintendent say, ‘We’re bringing back the timed-entry reservation system because it worked so well,’ ” Denning said. “There may be many people who disagree with us, but we got a lot of support. The park has been such a valuable part of our lives growing up, and we want to make sure people from all over the world can benefit the same way we’ve benefited from it our whole lives.”
Denning said he feared the reservation system was a “Trojan Horse.” Kyle Patterson, the park’s public affairs officer, insists it wasn’t, but she does concede a system like the one imposed this summer could be considered in the future. Park officials have been brainstorming for solutions to mitigate crowding for years.
“This was solely intended to be a temporary system for us to spread use out (due to COVID-19), to decrease congestion,” Patterson said. “We are not in any way trying to do anything covertly. Anything we would do for a permanent reservations system, we would be going out to the public first with public meetings, getting their input, their feedback, sharing with them some of our plans. It’s unfortunate that the rumors are out there that we’re going to do this behind a curtain.”
Patterson said the park likely will present potential solutions for mitigating crowding to the public in a year or two. That would have happened this fall, she said, if not for the disruption caused by the pandemic. Denning was relieved to hear public input will be encouraged.
“The ultimate goal is to not have permanent restrictions on access to the park,” Denning said.
The day after Estes Park recorded its first coronavirus case, then-Mayor Todd Jirsa wrote a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt asking him to close the park because he believed the presence of visitors posed a “grave public health concern” to a small town with limited medical facilities. A closure was already in the works, though, and the park closed that night. It reopened on May 27, and the reservation system with two-hour entry windows went into effect a week later.
The system was designed to limit vehicle entry to 60% of the park’s maximum parking capacity between the hours of 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. Because of visitors who entered outside of those hours, actual visitation figures in June, July and August ran 26% to 30% below the same months last year. September figures will be available next week.
For Estes Park, the issue was how to shield the town from the coronavirus outbreak without devastating an economy so dependent on tourism.
“I think it has worked out very well,” said Estes Park Mayor Wendy Koenig, who succeeded Jirsa in April. “It was a good response and it showed concern for our community, our residents, the people in the park, and I thought it was a very thoughtful plan. Sometimes you need to be willing to make adjustments, or you’ve made the choice to be unhappy. And happiness is often a choice in life.”
Koenig said sales tax revenues in the town are down only 16%, less than town officials had feared.
“I walked around town in May, talked to businesses, and then I walked around to many of the same businesses to do the follow-up and see how their summer went,” Koenig said. “Several of the businesses said by August, they had more people in the store than they could handle sometimes, so people were shopping. Everybody has been complying with masks and trying to do the social distancing.”
Donna Carlson, executive director of the Estes Chamber of Commerce, believes the town may have benefited because so many vacationers this year opted to travel by car instead of airplane.
“We consider it a good summer,” Carlson said. “A lot of businesses were really pleased that their sales year-over-year, considering that it was a pandemic year, were darn near close to last year, and some businesses exceeded last year. It was very busy. People were very willing to eat and very willing to shop.”
Denning maintains the system was unfair to park users.
“A lot of people liked it because they said it improved their experience in the park, because it was less crowded, but that doesn’t include the people who never got to go in the park in the first place,” Denning said. “The park belongs to the American people, and access should be fair to all of them.”
In the long-term, limiting congestion in the park remains a challenge. From 2001 to 2010, the park averaged 2.9 million visitors annually. A then-record 3.23 million people visited in 2012, and that record has been broken in five of the seven years since. In 2019, the park drew more than 4.67 million. Through August, visitation for this year was down 33%.
“This has been a very difficult year for lots of reasons,” Patterson said. “Because we kept so much data prior to this year, and we have taken a lot of data this year, we have kept people’s comments. People are saying, ‘Do this forevermore.’ Others are saying the opposite. Some locals love it, some locals hate it.”
Carlson, the chamber of commerce head, says the town has been fortunate in a year when so many businesses around the country have taken devastating hits due to pandemic restrictions.
“The reality in Estes has been very different than it has been with some of my sister chambers,” Carlson said. “There are towns where restaurants can’t survive and the lodging industry is suffering. In Estes, we’ve stayed busy.”
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