As the summer weather brings out hikers, campers and climbers alike, their cars tend to come along for the adventure. At Garden of the Gods, those cars are a problem, says Jan Martin, a trustee with the Garden of the Gods Foundation in Colorado Springs.
“The community is really loving our Garden of the Gods park to death,” she says.
Officials expect to see 3-4 million visitors to the park this year, Martin says, a notable jump from its yearly average of 2-3 million. On a busy day, it can take about two hours to drive from one side of the park to another. And good luck finding a place to park before you hit the trails — the park only has a little more than 300 parking spaces.
The foundation, working with the city of Colorado Springs and the Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation Department, is in the early stages of a transportation study conducted by Volpe National Transportation Systems Center out of Washington state.
Volpe will look at the current state of the park and present stakeholders with recommendations, which could include anything from shuttle busses to restricted vehicle access.
Garden of the Gods is hardly alone as a popular spot plagued with overcrowding woes. Many of the state’s other natural treasures have also been dealing with unprecedented numbers of visitors in recent years. Including all the problems that come along with it.
Rocky Mountain National Park continues to set records for visitors, and thousands have already thronged to the park this year. In April alone, 21 percent more people visited the park than April 2016.
With that steady tide of people comes more litter, more wildlife interference and more traffic. Park officials have had to issue friendly reminders for visitors to park only in parking lots, obey fire restrictions and clean up after themselves.
Hanging Lake, a gem of the White River National Forest in Glenwood Canyon has almost become a poster child for bad behavior on public lands. Medical emergencies, a small number of deaths, vandalism and repeated ventures into restricted territory have taxed the U.S. Forest Service Rangers who work in that area.
Conundrum Hot Springs, outside of Aspen, also faces many problems. More than 6 miles from the nearest trail head, it never the less can see upward of 300 campers on a summer night. Those kinds of numbers mean permanent damage to the landscape, piles of human waste, and hundreds of pounds of trash left behind by campers.
Public interest keeps open spaces alive. But crowds wear away at the fragile ecosystems these parks protect. That creates tension for agencies like the National Park Service, which was founded on the idea of allowing all Americans to enjoy the great outdoors, while also keeping them "unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." Horace Albright, one of the fathers of the National Parks service, wrote at the time that he and others believed "with rational, careful, and loving thought, it could be done."
Public lands managers thus have to adapt:
- Changes at Hanging Lake are expected, including possible shuttles and trail access fees aimed at cutting down on the number of people.
- Conundrum Hot Springs may similarly see new fees for permits, along with a mandatory online reservation system for campers.
- Rocky Mountain National Park plans to hire someone this fall whose whole job will be tackling the overcrowding problem.
As for Garden of the Gods, the Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation Department expects to receive recommendations from Volpe by early 2017, leaving plenty of time to implement them by summer.