Opinion: Rocky Mountain National Park is a role model for managing access in crowded parks

The success of the timed entry pilot programs shows it’s not only feasible but also necessary for the long-term protection of the park

Opinion: Rocky Mountain National Park is a role model for managing access in crowded parks

As the former superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park, I was fortunate to witness its transformation over the past eight years. From its stunning mountain vistas to magnificent wildlife, the park is an iconic gem of the Rockies. It’s an important place for wilderness and resource protection that also holds a special place in the hearts of visitors and locals alike.  

  Rocky Mountain is one of the busiest parks in the national park system, experiencing a 42% increase in visitors over the last decade; the park’s less than 3 million visitors in 2010 grew to 4.6 million in 2019.  From a visitor and park management perspective, it became very clear that this burgeoning visitation was unsustainable for the visitors, park resources, staff and infrastructure. With the soaring popularity came a need for a little creative thinking.   

  After four years of timed entry pilots, the success of the strategy demonstrated that it is not only feasible but also necessary for the long-term protection of the park. Fortunately, the recent long-term plan decision finally makes this strategy permanent, running from mid-May to mid-October annually.

  In 2021, a Utah State University study conducted at Rocky Mountain found that more than three-quarters (78%) of respondents shared a favorable view of their park experience with timed-entry reservations. Most respondents agreed that managed access was an acceptable strategy at Rocky Mountain. 

Specifically, limiting the number of cars was the most popular choice among the various strategies mentioned. This broad support was also noted in a Utah State study of Arches National Park visitors in 2022, where 84% of respondents reported they wanted a reservation system for future visits.  

  The benefits are clear: Seasonal timed entry helps reduce traffic during peak hours, which provides an improved, less stressful experience on roadways, parking lots and trails. Wildlife has more breathing room, leading to fewer negative encounters with people. Park rangers can focus more on leading interpretive talks, helping visitors stay safe and keeping facilities clean, and less on managing crowded parking lots and turning tourists around. 

Visitors and locals also have the flexibility either to secure a timed-entry permit weeks in advance, the day before, or visit the park outside of timed-entry reservation hours (after 6 p.m. or before 5 a.m. for the Bear Lake Road Corridor and rest of the park and after 2 p.m. or before 9 a.m. for the rest of the park but not the Bear Lake Road Corridor).

When we initiated the pilot program in 2020, we were unsure how well the system would work, because it was such a new concept for the staff, gateway communities and visitors. It meant giving up some spontaneity in exchange for a known entry-window and a less crowded experience. 

By the end of that summer, though, people were already becoming accustomed to it and praising its benefits. Many commented that it was more peaceful and less crowded, with better hiking and wildlife viewing opportunities, and less damage to the tundra. 

The day after we ended the first timed-entry pilot in early autumn, however, the park immediately returned to unsustainable, overcrowded chaos. We had discovered a potential long-term solution. With some modifications and adaptations, we could honor our commitment to protect the park and provide outstanding experiences for the people who love it. 

It has been a long and complex journey, but I am particularly proud that Rocky was able to experiment with various managed access strategies over the past four years, ensuring transparency and public engagement throughout the process. The park used an impressive amount of data and research, coupled with community and staff input, continually adapting, and improving to arrive at the best strategy.   

Rocky Mountain’s visitation increase is far from an anomaly; parks like Arches, Mount Rainier, Shenandoah and Yosemite have taken on these challenges with experimental timed-entry and permit systems for park entrances or popular trailheads. As parks continue to experiment with managed access systems, I am grateful that Rocky Mountain can help serve as a role model of success.  

  The success of the timed-entry system demonstrates that it is not only feasible but also necessary for the long-term protection of the park. 

With a long-term plan, we can prepare for the future and ensure that Rocky Mountain remains a world-class park.  

Darla Sidles currently lives in Tucson and spent seven years (2016-23) as the superintendent of Rocky Mountain National Park. Her career includes over three decades in the National Park Service.

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