Even before the pandemic drove more people outdoors, park managers at Eldorado Canyon State Park knew they had a problem. Over the past 10 years, the number of hikers, bikers, climbers, anglers, and picknickers who visit the area annually has doubled, jumping from 243,924 in 2010 to 529,579 in 2020.
“We were just getting really overwhelmed,” says Scott Roush, a deputy regional manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). “We were having to turn visitors away because we had nowhere to put them.”
The influx of visitors became especially frustrating for the roughly 500 residents of Eldorado Springs. The tiny community straddles the only road into the park. Residents say traffic is constant, and when the area hits capacity (it only has 214 parking spaces), people often park illegally in town or speed away frustrated after driving the bumpy stretch to the entrance station only to find there is no room for them.
“A lot of people do get really grumpy when they have to drive a quarter-mile on the worst potholes that ever ate your SUV, and then they have to turn around and drive back,” says Catherine Proenza, who has lived in Eldorado Springs for eight years and climbs or hikes there almost daily. “This town has no businesses. It’s not like we’re making money at the ice cream shop. We just have dust, people wandering around, and people parking illegally.”
To figure out how to deal with the skyrocketing visitation, park managers went about revising Eldorado Canyon’s management plan beginning in 2019. CPW released a draft of a new plan in early May that proposed several solutions, some of which are already in motion.
One is a free shuttle, which began running on May 29 this summer. Park surveys show traffic, parking, and the 10 picnic shelters are where visitors feel most crowded. Once people hit the trails, however, the crowds seem to disperse: Only one in 10 survey respondents complained of congested trails. A pilot shuttle ran in summer 2020, and the sheriff’s department reported decreased complaints from residents about people parking along the road while it was running. This summer, the shuttle will stop at multiple locations in Boulder, as well as on the way up to Eldorado, and is welcoming of bouldering crash pads, leashed dogs, and bikes.
Another change: In early June, Boulder County began staffing a checkpoint to let people know miles ahead of the entrance gate if the park is full and redirect them to shuttle lots.
Park staff are also working to install a monitoring system called “Lot Spot” that displays parking capacity online. Some critics have wondered, though, what happens if eight cars depart Denver at the same time aiming for a single opening? “What we’re really trying to push is check it out before you go,” Roush says.
The most controversial part of the plan, however, is something that park managers haven’t officially decided on yet: adding a reservation or timed-entry system. “As busy as Eldo was and is, it’s a good possibility,” Roush says.
Not everyone is a fan of having a more rigid system. Kate Beezley, executive director of the Boulder Climbing Community, says rock climbers often look to snag a good weather window to hit some of the park’s world-class routes. “We don’t want people to feel that they need to go for broke because they have this reservation,” she adds. “The flexibility helps people not go when they’re tired or not go when there is a thunderstorm.”
CPW will review public comments on the proposed changes this summer and publish a final operating plan for Eldorado Canyon by fall, Roush says. Ultimately, how well the shuttle or other systems manage to cut traffic this year will likely determine whether the future includes reservations.
But Eldorado Springs residents, like Janet Robinson, have been heartened by changes that have already been implemented, as well as the promise of a new plan. “I think 2020 was a real turning point,” she says. “I feel so much more optimistic.”
The situation has gotten so heated her neighbors scream at people driving by, she says, and she’s even seen punches thrown. But she worries reservations will skew access toward those with privilege and practice navigating these systems, when the outdoors should be for everyone. “If a little kid never has that joy in seeing a hummingbird or thinking it’s a real snake on the rock, they don’t have this awe from these beautiful places, and they’re not going to vote for open space or national parks,” she says.
And that may cut to the heart of the matter—with more people recreating on a finite number of public lands, everywhere is feeling the strain. “I think part of the solution,” Proenza says, “is to give people more places to go, given that there’s more demand.”