The line extended as far as the eye could see.
“How much farther do you think the entrance gate is?” Bryon asked.
“It’s got to be at least a mile.” I replied.
“How many gates do they normally have at this entrance?”
“At least three. But usually seasonals are laid off the end of September. Maybe they’re not staffing all the entrance gates.”
This was the only plausible explanation I could come up with. How could there be this many people waiting to get into Rocky Mountain National Park on a week day in October? When I worked at the park a mere five years ago, I never saw a line this long the entire summer and fall.
My dad is visiting us from St. Louis. Since Bryon and I both had the day off, we thought it would be fun to take him over to the park.
As we waited a good 40 minutes to finally make it through the entrance, I wondered if it had been such a good idea after all.
The truth is I rarely visit Rocky Mountain National Park anymore, despite living a mere 45 minutes away. I’d spent more than my fair share of time there when I worked there for four summers as a seasonal Park Ranger. Each succeeding summer, more and more people visited the park.
When I would open the doors to Beaver Meadow Visitor Center, people would flood in the doors, peppering me with questions.
“How far is it to Grand Lake?”
“Would you recommend an easy hike?”
“I only have two hours, what should I do?”
By the time, we reached lunch time, none of these questions mattered. Only one question mattered.
“Where can I find a place to park?”
We reached a point that I would have to tell people:
“You can drive through the park, but at this point, there is no parking available until you reach the Kawunechee Valley on the west side.”
And since my last summer I worked there in 2014, it has only gotten worse. We were getting 3.5 million visitors per year. In the last five years, visitation has skyrocketed to 4.6 million. It is now the third most visited national park in the country.
While I always applaud people getting out in nature, I wonder about what kind of experience they are having. And what effect all these people were having on the natural environment of the park.
When you spend 40 minutes waiting in line, those emissions have an impact. I can only wonder if we spent 40 minutes waiting on a Friday in October, what is happening all summer?
What about fighting to find a parking space? That’s something I equate to the mall parking lot at Christmas.
And all those people impact the landscape, trampling the tundra, producing copious amounts of trash. Meanwhile National Park Service budgets either remain stagnant or drop.
The thought of dealing with all of this on what is supposed to be relaxing day off, just doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t want to have to get up at 5 a.m. and fight traffic to go on a hike shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other people.
Not when there are so many other options.
Options that include 41 wilderness areas and 3.5 million acres of designated wilderness in the state of Colorado. Most of which receive far fewer visitors and yet are still have breathtaking alpine scenery.
Rocky Mountain National Park is being loved to death. And the Park Service does not have the budget to keep up with the impacts of millions of visitors.
I would encourage people seeking a wilderness experience to take the road less traveled. Go explore some wilderness that perhaps you never heard of.
You might be surprised by how much you’ll enjoy the experience of solitude and wonder.