Colorado’s State Parks Have Been A Pandemic Hit — And They’re Free On Friday

Walking dogs at Chatfield State Park
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A Chatfield State Park, a pair of people and their dogs walk in the spring sunshine on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.

Colorado’s 42 state parks will again waive entrance fees the day after Thanksgiving.

The event, known as Fresh Air Friday, has become a popular alternative to Black Friday shopping sprees. After six years, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials said the day is now a tradition for many families, who’d prefer to work off their turkey hangovers with a short hike or a bike ride.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has made things more complicated.

As families seek the relative safety of the outdoors, the state has also designated Nov. 27 a furlough day to make up for lost revenue. Bridget Kochel, a CPW spokesperson, said enforcement personnel will patrol the parks, but visitor centers may not be open or fully staffed.

“CPW also requires state park visitors to follow COVID-19 community health guidelines and Leave No Trace principles,”  Kochel said. “Recreate with your household only, spread out on trails, wear a face mask indoors and outdoors where social distancing is difficult to maintain, bring hand sanitizer, and pack out all your trash.”

The event comes as state parks have become far more popular during the pandemic. Overall park visitation for 2020 is up 30 percent compared to the same point last year, officials said.

Hilary Hernandez, the senior ranger at Chatfield State Park, said people are often surprised by the recent attendance numbers. The park has seen more than 2 million people visits already this year, compared to 1.7 million visits over the entirety of 2019.

“In the past, we would maybe hit park-wide capacity maybe once or twice a year. This year, we were hitting park capacity almost weekly over the summer,” Hernandez said.

The surge has forced some adjustments at Chatfield. Hernandez said her park struggled with toilet paper thieves at the start of the pandemic. Since then, the staff has had to double the frequency of trash pickups to keep up with demand.

Hernandez added it’s been exciting to see so many new visitors to the park. She recalled one set of parents who bought fancy fishing poles along with their first state fishing license. Their kids had cheap Batman fishing poles to join in.

“Of course the kids kept catching the fish on their Batman fishing poles,” she said. “ And the parents were like, ‘Well, why did I get this expensive thing?’”

Hernandez hopes to see more first-time visitors this Friday.

“Skip the traffic and headache and hassle and craziness of the stores. Come on out. Get a nice, rejuvenating day in our park,” she said.