It's not easy being popular.
Colorado hotspots offering stunning rock formations, secluded turquoise lakes and natural hot springs draw visitors in droves. But as vandalism and grafitti run rampant and rangers have to shovel out more and more beer cans and human waste, parks and city officials are starting to push back against the crush.
Representatives from Conundrum Hot Springs, Hanging Lake and Gardens of the Gods told Colorado Matters about the greatest challenges facing their parks, and the measures they're taking to stop them.
Conundrum Hot Springs
The hot springs have a poop problem. As Conundrum becomes a more popular party destination, the springs and the 8.5-mile hiking trail into the Maroon Bells–Snowmass Wilderness are showing their wear. District ranger Karen Schroyer said she deals with "absurd amounts" of human waste and beer cans left behind when the party's over.
Conundrum Hot Springs started distributing wag bags to unprepared hikers so they can pack out their poo. And the Forest Service rolled out a permit program in April targeting overnight visitors, who can camp in droves of more than 300 people per night. The $10, first-come, first-serve permits require campers to bring in their own wag bags and bear-resistant containers.
Rare mineral deposits give Hanging Lake the crystal clear, turquoise water that can draw more than 1,200 hikers a day. But those minerals are also put the most at risk by the antics of visitors. People damage the protected ecosystem when they dive down from the surrounding rocks. And climbing up those rocks in turn can strip the hanging gardens growing around the waterfalls.
"There are signs forbidding all of this behavior, people just ignore the signs," district ranger Aaron Mayville said.
Easing traffic is the biggest concern for the Forest Service, Mayville said. Right now cars can back up the I-70 and fights can break out in the parking lot. A draft plan unveiled last year aim would cap the number of daily visitors to 615. Fees collected from those limited reservations would help fund trail maintenance, a concern after a high-profile graffiti incident. The plan would also implement shuttles during peak months between May and October.
Garden of the Gods
Those iconic red rock formations may appear formidable and eternal, but they're actually quite soft and easy to carve up. That means some are littered with vandalism: signatures, initials and arrow-poked hearts.
When Garden of the Gods visitors aren't carving their way into formations, they're trying to climb up them, said Matt Mayberry, Colorado Spring's cultural services manager. A handful of would-be climbers will show up with no permits or gear, and the staff will have to call an elite fire department rescue team when they're inevitably stranded.
While the city regularly changes rock climbing routes to prevent overuse, Mayberry said there were no plans to cap climbing permits. Officials also keep an eye out for new "social trails" -- paths visitors will carve out on their own -- and close them. A transportation study looking to crack down on traffic jams in the park is underway.