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Is spontaneity over for Colorado's outdoors? Enthusiasts have mixed feelings

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Posted at 10:26 PM, May 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-20 15:51:14-04

DENVER — From the waterfalls and lakes to the aspen-covered mountains, Colorado has helped provide an escape from pandemic restrictions.

"Being outside is a great way for me to just reset — process things," said Peter Ammons, a mountain biker.

But all of that getting away is getting destructive. The pandemic brought out an additional four million people to state parks last year.

"I think more people are getting out, seeing how great Colorado is," Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesperson Travis Duncan said.

City and county trails and parks also saw record numbers and record damage.

"What the Fourth of July used to look like, a Memorial Day used to look like — when everybody went out for the weekend outside — that was every weekend and almost every day during the pandemic," said Ann Baker Easley, former Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado CEO.

Overuse comes with a cost, like less spontaneity, using tools like reservation systems, plus special passes and added costs.

Let's take a 360 hike around Colorado through the eyes of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the tourism industry and some of Colorado's millions of outdoor enthusiasts.

New passes for state wildlife areas

Lon Hagler Reservoir in Loveland is one of about 350 state wildlife areas, which are places with critical wildlife habitats.

"A lot of people in the area love to come out here and go fish," Duncan said.

It's calm waters and the sounds of nature help bring Noah Turnbeaugh peace, plus a trout or two.

"It's usually pretty relaxing and quiet," he said.

He has a fishing license, which CPW began requiring July 2020 to access these state wildlife areas. A hunting license can get you in, too.

"We're just seeing a lot more recreation activities on our state wildlife areas that these areas weren't intended for," Duncan said.

The license requirements were put in place to prevent just anyone from showing up and damaging these delicate spaces.

"A lot of our state wildlife areas weren't really intended to have those activities occurring there," Duncan said.

At the beginning of May 2021, CPW introduced its state wildlife area pass. For just under $50, guests can access any of the state wildlife areas all year round without a fishing or hunting license. The money made from these passes helps maintain these areas.

Turnbeaugh thinks the passes are a good idea.

"I think it's fair because I think if people have it, they'll be able to care for these places better," he said.

Can reservation systems actually make state parks more accessible?

Over at Eldorado Canyon State Park in Boulder County, a popular spot for rock climbing, bouldering, hiking and picnicking, CPW is considering taking things a step further because of how busy it gets there.

"Every weekend we are near capacity or at capacity, and it's usually from about 10:30 in the morning till about 3:30-4 in the afternoon," said John Carson, the park manager.

The park's draft management plan talks about testing out a reservation system "as soon as it is feasible to do so."

"The ticketed entry, if they did it here, I think it would work out," said Jacob Whorrall, a park visitor.

It would help with parking, which is almost impossible to find on the weekend, and managing the long lines at the entry gate.

"We want people to be safe. We want the natural resources to be protected, and we want people to have a good time," Carson said.

But some park visitors have mixed feelings.

"I think having a reservation system would just make everything booked out," said Ryan Walsh, a rock climber.

He's a bit sour about reservation systems because of the difficulty he's had booking campground sites. CPW put the reservation system in place at the beginning of 2020 to make it easier to book a site, but Walsh disagrees.

"It's impossible to get a good campsite now because everyone books it like Jan. 1," he said.

He worries a reservation system at Eldorado Canyon State Park will make it difficult to visit.

Why reservation systems are necessary at some locations

At Hanging Lake in Glenwood Canyon, officials say the reservation system is absolutely necessary.

"We hear about over-tourism, and this was a problem," said Lisa Langer, director of tourism with Visit Glenwood Springs.

She believes this hidden gem was being loved to death.

"There were too many people on the trail. People were bringing dogs, which aren't allowed on the trail. They were bringing garbage, leaving it up there," she said.

At the end of April, about one-third of its 75,000 spots had been reserved. But Langer disagrees that spontaneity has worn out its welcome in Colorado.

"There's still the spontaneity, and we saw that a lot during COVID. People would last minute, you know, ‘Let's take off and go up to the mountains,'" she said.

Plenty of parks, trails and open spaces will always be reservation-free. However, that doesn't mean a little preplanning won't still be necessary.

As the most popular outdoor spots become even more popular, remember: it's the early bird that gets the worm or, in this case, the parking space.

Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.