State And National Parks Are Going to Be Busy This Year. Here’s How You Can Plan Ahead

Courtesy National Park Service
The Timber Creek Campground at Rocky Mountain National Park. Timber Creek is the only campground located on the west side of the park.

Last summer, people flooded into National and State Parks as a safe way to get out of their homes during the pandemic. But for many, getting reservations into Colorado’s most popular destinations was a challenge, if not outright impossible. 

“Last August, my husband and I had our 10th wedding anniversary. And so we booked this real fancy place in Estes Park. Everything was pretty cheap,” said Laura Snider who lives in Lafayette. “We tried to get a timed entry into Rocky Mountain National Park and we couldn't.”

They ended up hiking on National Forest Service land. But Snider said that lately she’s noticed the uptick in visitors and that it’s getting harder to make reservations. She says it’s not only frustrating but complicated to get right.

“I'm at this point where I have kids, so I'm kind of a planner,” she said. “I can do that, but you have to think about the equity of the reservation system. 

Reservations at popular spots, like Maroon Bells, might fill up months in advance, or as soon as the system opens for the season. For people who deal with barriers like not knowing if they’ll get time off work or not having access to a computer the moment reservations open, they’ll likely miss out on getting a spot. 

The problem was exacerbated by the pandemic, but it’s been building for years, and parks have had to contend with short staffs and not enough funds to keep up with growing demand. 

“If you're planning on going out to a national park this year, or really any public lands, the first and most important thing right now is to plan ahead,” said Courtney Whiteman, spokeswoman with the National Park Service. 

Calling the park you want to visit and chatting with a ranger is one way to get the lay of the land and to figure out places to visit that may be less busy, Whiteman said. She also urged people to educate themselves about park rules. 

Some places, like the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests have started to require reservations this year after a 200 percent spike in visitors last year.

Whiteman is confident this year will be even busier than last year.

The timed entry system is in use again this year

Last year, Rocky Mountain National Park  started a pilot timed entry system. This year, the reservation system went online May 1 for reservations starting May 28 through June 30. There were still lots of spots available for June and some in May, as of mid-May. Reservations for the coming months will open one month prior.

More people are allowed to visit this year than in 2020 —  between 75 and 85 percent of the park’s total parking capacity. The park closed for two months during the COVID-19 pandemic. When it reopened in late May 2020, it was the first national park in the country to institute an entry permit system. 

RMNP was the fourth most-visited park in the country, and saw a 38 percent increase in visitors in December 2020 compared to the year prior.

Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park , Mesa Verde National Park and the Great Sand Dunes National Park are all open and do not require a reservation.

State parks require reservations

All Colorado state parks require a reservation for camping, as of January of last year. Reservations can be made online or by phone. There are more than 4,000 camping sites and 58 cabins and yurts throughout the state.

Some parks, like Eldorado Canyon State Park, have started making plans for a parking reservation system and a shuttle service. Others in the area, like Brainard Lake and Mount Evans, will soon have a timed-entry reservation system like RMNP. 

“There may be a number of people who are about to be disappointed,” said Snider, the Lafayette resident. “People might've been like, ‘Oh, I can't go to Rocky, I'll go to (Eldorado). But you can't. Oh, go to Brainard, but you can't, you know?’” 

To look at all of the state parks, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has a handy map

“They're going to have tips there for great places to see, especially now, maybe less visited places so you're not caught up in crowds or waiting in lines,” said Whiteman from the National Park Service. “Know your limits and know what you're comfortable with: how long of a hike, what type of camping or lodging, how long do you want to be out, things like that.”