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Chautauqua Park in Boulder. Photo by Jenny McCoy

Increased Visitation is Leading to Damage on Front Range Hiking Trails

With more people flocking to the outdoors, our public lands are paying the price. Here's how you can be responsible while hiking in the Front Range.

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Our public lands have been getting a lot of love in the COVID-19 era. Multiple parks and trail systems on the Front Range are seeing higher-than-usual visitation this year as cooped-up Coloradans spend more time outside. And while it’s great that so many people are enjoying our beautiful parks and trails—especially since many of our favorite gathering hubs are still shuttered under the “Safer at Home” order—all that increased volume, coupled with social distancing, is putting wear and tear on nature.

Recent visitation to Denver parks is “way higher” than previous years, says Scott Gilmore, deputy executive director of parks at Denver Parks & Recreation. This surge is causing some trails to widen, which can damage plants, spread noxious weeds, and encroach on sensitive areas. When combined with rainstorms, trail widening can also worsen erosion and require more ongoing maintenance. That’s not a great outcome at any time, but especially not now in the wake of department budget cuts that reduced the number of staff who help maintain trails. On top of that, volunteer groups that have historically done a lot of work in Denver parks, like Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, can’t labor in as large of numbers as usual due to social distancing precautions. The result? “We’re just not able to get as much work done in our parks,” says Gilmore. Typically, volunteers provide about $1 million of labor a year for Denver Parks—this year, it will be about $250,000, he says.

In Jefferson County Open Space and parks, which have seen at least a 20 percent spike in visitation since COVID-19 started, social distancing is both widening trails, which happens when people step a few feet off trail, and creating entirely new trails, which occurs when folks step a significant distance off trail, says Michael Foster, stewardship manager at Jefferson County Open Space. The creation of entirely new trails, also known as “undesignated trails” or “social trails,” can fragment wildlife habitat, trample native plants, and spread harmful weeds into grasslands or wildflower areas, he says.

Of course it’s great that more folks are visiting local parks and social distancing while they’re there, but it’s also important to protect our public lands. So if you need to step off trail to stay a safe distance from others, step onto a rock or a bare spot if possible, advises Phillip Yates, spokesperson for City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. Then, get back on trail quickly—don’t take an extra wide berth, says Eric Lane, director of Boulder County Parks & Open Space. And if there’s not a rock or bare spot to hop onto? It’s OK to momentarily step onto grass. Just keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, warns Foster—it’s rattler season and they’re known to hang out near trails.

Also, a PSA for all Boulder County residents and visitors: You must wear a face covering over your nose and mouth whenever you come within six feet of others, per a local public health order. Wherever you choose to adventure, it’s a good idea to do a little research beforehand. Check the width of the trails, says Lane, and try to pick a route that’s wider than six feet so you can more easily social distance without going off-trail. If possible, plan your visit for an off-peak time—like a weekday evening instead of a weekend morning—so that you can avoid crowds. Also, understand the terrain and difficulty of your route so that you don’t put yourself in risky scenarios that would demand a search and rescue effort; Boulder County has already seen a rise in such calls. Prepare for hot weather by bringing extra water, and wear sunscreen and a hat.

Oh, and don’t forget to pick up your trash. This one may seem obvious, but lately, Lane says there’s been an increase of litter on Boulder County trails. “We think it might be newer trail users who are simply not familiar with the expectations of what it means to be a good open space visitor,” he says.

Adds Yates: “The more we can practice responsible recreation now and into the future, we can enjoy these public lands and our children can enjoy these remarkable lands.”

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