Eldorado Canyon State Park’s timed reservations program may be extended

Matt Bloom/CPR News
A sign outside Eldorado Canyon State Park displays the state park’s timed reservation rules.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials are weighing extending a program that requires Eldorado Canyon State Park visitors to pay for a timed, paid reservation for weekend and state holiday access.

The state approved a pilot program that mirrors Rocky Mountain National Park’s reservation system last year. Park officials said visits have nearly doubled over the last five years, leading to unsustainable traffic in and around the park. Annual visitation rose 90 percent since 2016, with over half a million recreators visiting the park in 2021. The canyon only has 205 parking spaces for visitors. 

Through the reservation system, visitors are required to reserve a day pass for their vehicle ahead of time, as well as buy a valid Colorado State Parks Pass to enter. A daily pass costs $10, but that fee can be waived if a Keep Colorado Wild Pass was purchased when visitors registered their vehicle. Visitors can enter the park anytime during the two-hour entry window they reserve, and reservations are only required on weekends and state holidays. 

Reservations are not required for people who enter the park via the “Eldo Shuttle,” which is free and makes stops in Boulder and nearby RTD Park-n-Rides. 

Martha Isaacson, a retiree from South Padre Island, Texas, looked at hiking routes on a trailhead sign with her grandson, Jared Rowecamp, Wednesday afternoon. They decided to visit the park after a college tour of the University of Colorado Boulder. 

She said she read about timed entry reservations online and decided a weekday would be their best bet for a peaceful day outdoors. 

“I support a system like that, especially for folks who don’t have flexibility about when they have free time to visit parks,” she said. “We can’t love our parks to death.” 

Rowekamp compared it to reserving tee time at a golf course. 

“Sunday mornings, when everyone wants to golf, it’s a little more difficult,” he said. “I don’t see a reservation system being much more different than that.”

During a Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission meeting in July, park officials said the reservation system has been a huge success since its implementation last year. An average of 275 reservations have been made per day, with an average no-show rate of 17 percent. 

The pilot program runs through September.

Supporters praise the lack of traffic congestion, while some detractors say the online reservation system is hard to navigate

So far, visitors have reported positive feedback about guaranteed access to the park, parking lot availability and lower traffic congestion, according to the staff presentation on timed entry.

“Eldorado seeks to be a leader in the rollout of this program to other state parks by sharing what we learned during the first years of implementation,” Lisa Gill, a park ranger at Eldorado, told commissioners. “2022 was a short year and we need more time to fine tune the system, educate the public and further evaluate timed entry as an effective visitation management tool.”

Negative feedback from users, according to CPW, mostly focused on difficulty navigating the online reservation system. Some visitors also reported a lack of awareness of the timed entry system at Eldorado ahead of visits or a shortage of spaces available during a desired timeslot. There was also frustration about no-shows and a lack of clarity about reserving permits for large groups.

Some recent visitors to the park said they wished the reservation system was better advertised. 

William Carter sprayed sunscreen on his arm in the parking lot of Eldorado’s visitor’s busy center on Wednesday. The 62-year-old was on a road trip from the Washington D.C. area to visit family and came to the park on a whim.

He was surprised at the number of people around on a weekday but had no trouble finding a parking spot. 

He said he wasn’t aware that the park was piloting a time entry reservation system. The brochure he picked up at his hotel about visiting the state park didn’t mention it. 

“I’m lucky I came here on a weekday,” he said. “Otherwise, I might not have made it in. I’m older, and worry about retirees who don’t do everything through their phone first or computer first.” 

The program is popular among Eldorado Springs residents

During the July presentation, Commissioner Karen Bailey asked Gill how she plans to address no-shows on busy days. 

“We’re going to develop a policy around that,” Gill said. “That’s what the pilot program is for.” 

CPW commissioners will vote on extending the program, but they have yet to set a date. The proposal appears likely to pass with ease, as the initial plan did when it was introduced in 2022. Commissioners did not have many questions for Gill and other park staff. 

The reservation system has been well received by some residents of Eldorado Springs, the gateway town adjacent to the park. The 300-person town’s infrastructure has struggled to absorb the influx of traffic to the park. 

An expansion of the Eldorado Springs Drive thoroughfare is underway but isn’t expected to be done until at least 2024. 

John Burke watched cars pull through town from his front porch on Wednesday. The 30-year resident is a huge proponent of timed entry, because it helps cut down on “suffocating” weekend traffic, he said. 

“It used to be this road would be bumper to bumper on weekends,” he said. “With timed entries, it’s not like that. It helps a lot.” 

“I would protest if they didn’t expand it,” he added.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated Lisa Gill's title at Eldorado.