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It’s a late summer Sunday in Colorado, an ideal time for a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. So you cruise up to Estes Park, getting excited for a hike among the wildflowers—and then, the waiting starts. You creep through a line of vehicles to the entrance station, join the queue for a spot on the Bear Lake shuttle, and linger until it’s your turn in the pit toilet. When you finally hit the trail, you stand in bottlenecks behind selfie-stick-wielding hikers until you have to turn around and do it all in reverse. All told, your waiting-around time may exceed your actual hiking time four to one. That was during the best of times. The congestion clogging Rocky and other national parks had already reached critical levels before COVID-19, but now controlling the hordes is literally a matter of life or death.
In 2019, 4,670,053 people entered Rocky, a visitation record that continues to make it the third-most-visited national park in the country (behind only Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Grand Canyon National Park). That number represents a 58 percent increase in the past decade, with a 21 percent jump between 2014 and 2015 alone. Similar situations are playing out in parks across the country: The national parks collectively hosted more than 327 million visitors in 2019, a 13 percent increase since 2009.
Those statistics portend more than just packed trails, though. Frustrated parkgoers have been driving over fragile vegetation to create their own parking spots, leaving granola bar wrappers among the wildflowers, and pooping directly on the trails. (Yes, you read that right.) Put simply, many of the national parks have a big problem: too many of us.
The national parks closed during the initial wave of pandemic shutdowns this past spring, but throngs of shack-happy Americans descended upon them as soon as they began reopening. In fact, recreation areas across northern Colorado (including county and state open space and national forest lands) reported a 200 percent increase in recreation visits in the spring and early summer, says Kyle Patterson, Rocky’s public affairs officer. That high demand butts up against COVID-19-related staff shortages and access limitations.
Since its inception, the National Park Service (NPS) has struggled to balance its mission of maintaining access for all while protecting natural resources. A global public health crisis only exacerbates that challenge. But there is hope. A number of national parks and other public lands across the West are exploring new congestion-control measures, and the pandemic has presented an unexpected opportunity to experiment with tactics that felt unthinkable just a few months ago. Deploying the right combination of them could once again deliver an outing that’s less standing in line and more hiking through natural splendor, both now and after the virus subsides.
Stay Safe Out There
Outdoor spaces in the era of COVID-19 are better but not risk-free.
- Maintain six feet between parties and mask up, especially at choke points like visitors centers (many of which posted rangers outdoors this past summer), shuttle stops, and trailheads.
- If the parking lot is full at your desired trailhead, you might consider hiking elsewhere to make on-trail social distancing easier.
- Pack out your granola bar wrappers and water bottles. Like other services, trash service has been reduced in many parks because of understaffing.
Solution 1: Shut the Gates
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This notion sets off alarms for those who are dogmatic about access. And, let’s face it, restricting passage to public lands, to any degree, does feel un-American. More parks are facing the tough truth, though, that natural areas have a carrying capacity. “Having access when anybody wants to go is fine, until you get to a point where safety becomes an issue or people aren’t able to enjoy their time because it’s so congested,” says Mary Riddle, chief of planning and environmental compliance at Montana’s Glacier National Park. Some parks are already there.
The Big Idea
In response to the miles-long entrance station lines and overflowing parking lots of recent years, several parks have floated the idea of requiring visitors to make advance reservations. But none had committed—until COVID-19. Rocky introduced a timed-entry permit system in June: Would-be visitors during the park’s busiest hours had to secure a permit online (available starting about a month in advance), with the park allowing in only 60 percent of the previous year’s tourists. Yosemite National Park also implemented a daily reservation system (keeping visitation to 50 percent of the usual crowds), and although it ultimately decided against it, Glacier was considering one that would’ve begun last month.
The parks were only a few weeks into their remade pandemic-era systems at press time, but early signs were promising. Though rangers dealt with some angry visitors who didn’t know about or disagreed with the reservation systems, many guests embraced the change. “I hated it when you started the timed entry,” one visitor wrote in an email to Rocky officials. “I love to go to the park on the spur of the moment. But I’ve done timed entry [three times] now and have changed my mind. I love it. The park was so overused the past several years and it has been a pleasure to be back up there with a lot less people.” Another emailed, “We hope the newly implemented reservation system becomes permanent…it was fantastic to be able to find a parking spot and not have to hike with hordes of other visitors. It made the park experience SO much better!!”
The new arrangements—which vary park to park—are officially temporary, but managers also say they’re considering this year a grand experiment for potential future crowd control. “We’ve been talking about a day-use system for 30 years,” says Scott Gediman, public affairs officer at Yosemite. The pandemic has finally granted overstressed parks a chance to see it in action.
Even if reservation systems don’t stick, parks will continue to limit access to their most congested destinations. Earlier this year, Zion was strongly considering a lottery permit system for the iconic Angels Landing hike, says Jack Burns, Zion’s chief of commercial services and partnerships. After a 2019 pilot program that released hikers in waves to spread out the crowds, the park received mostly positive feedback. “Visitors may not initially like the idea of having to wait,” he says, “but what we hear from many is that their experience is much better. They felt safer and appreciated not being up there with hordes of people.” If Zion were to move forward with entry reservations as well, Burns adds, visitors “will know they’ll be able to get into the park, get a campsite, get into the backcountry. We can’t guarantee that today.”
What About…Long Waits?
Exactly how far ahead would you have to plan the national park trip of your dreams under a reservation system? That’s uncertain. It would depend on details like how far in advance the park would accept bookings and how many would-be visitors might be dissuaded from trying (or enticed by the prospect of more solitude). Yosemite and Rocky reported high demand for advance tickets this past summer, especially for weekends and holidays.
What About…the Economic Impact?
The same uncertainty applies to the economic hit gateway towns could take due to reservations. An NPS-commissioned study estimated such a system at Arches National Park could cost Moab up to $22 million in the first year as visitors might not try for entry because of doubts about the changes. But it also noted that fewer crowds could make a park trip more desirable, increasing the value of the visit (and how much money travelers might spend in town) within a year or so.
Parks could keep spontaneity alive by reserving a percentage of entry spots for walk-ins each day. This past summer, Rocky reserved 10 percent of each day’s permits for people booking 48 hours in advance. Note: They tended to sell out within three minutes of being released.
Solution 2: Ditch the Cars
The crush of visitors also means a crush of vehicles—and not enough places to put them. Parking congestion is tops among crowding-related concerns, says Linda MacIntyre of the National Park Service Transportation Program; vehicles lead to pollution, resource damage, and frustration. Glacier officials recall one incident in which a fed-up driver at Logan Pass actually ran into a pedestrian who was attempting to save a parking spot for a friend by standing in it. Limit private vehicles, though—either by banning them altogether or by providing a way for people to leave them behind when lots are full—and those specific problems vanish. Unfortunately, they are often replaced by new dilemmas.
The Big Idea
Go beyond the short-term solution, which in many places is closing parts of the park when the lots are full and only letting new cars down the road when someone else leaves, as do Mount Rainier National Park, Glacier, and Rocky (at Bear Lake, Wild Basin, and the Alpine Visitor Center). On a typical summer day, the Bear Lake parking lot fills by 7:30 a.m. And even with the park at 60 percent capacity this past summer, rangers still had to shut down the road periodically to clear congestion.
Parks that can play the long game—meaning they have the funding, relationships with gateway towns, and space for parking lots on park-adjacent property—are better off implementing transportation systems, like free shuttles. Traffic inside the parks shrinks, visitors get guaranteed access to places like Yosemite’s Mist Trail and Grand Canyon’s Bright Angel Trail without the parking hassles, and emissions are reduced. Free public shuttles are already an integral part of many parks across the country: Pre-pandemic, Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Rocky, and Glacier offered the choice, and you couldn’t get into Zion’s main canyon in high season without using a shuttle.
But they’re not a cure-all, either. “Zion’s shuttle system was built for a capacity of 2.5 million,” Burns says. “Now we’re hovering at 4.5 million.” That translates to long waits for seats on the bus—at its worst, 75 minutes at Zion, and that’s with shuttles running every four to six minutes—and surges of visitors being deposited at trailheads and overlooks. The pandemic isn’t helping: There were long queues at Rocky as shuttles were at 50 percent capacity to allow for social distancing.
There are ways to make shuttle systems run more smoothly: Officials at Glacier are considering a reduction in the number of times the shuttle stops at certain trailheads, reducing overall hiking use on popular trails. At Hanging Lake in Colorado’s White River National Forest, visitors in pre-pandemic times had to book a seat on a specific shuttle ahead of time, guaranteeing themselves seats on the bus of their choice. At Colorado’s Maroon Bells, summer 2020 visitors had to select a time on the public shuttle in advance during the busiest hours (during off-hours, tourists could drive, but they needed a reservation).
Ultimately, though, restricting private vehicles will likely work best hand-in-hand with visitation caps to ensure sheer numbers don’t overwhelm public shuttles. “Shuttle systems are the way to go,” Burns says. “There’s no way we could ever accommodate the amount of parking that would be needed. If we didn’t have it, it would be nothing but chaos every day.”
What About…Adding Parking Lots?
Not so fast. Not only would we literally be paving paradise, but it could make the congestion problem worse. “If you build it, they will come,” says the NPS’ Linda MacIntyre. “If you already have crowding, then adding more visitors to that location may not be the best approach.”
What About…Parking Reservations?
Yosemite did just this in a pilot program in the Yosemite Valley in 2017. Visitors could go online and guarantee themselves a spot for a few bucks. But it resulted in fewer places to park because people with reservations were nabbing the first spots they saw, including those in first-come, first-served zones, not their designated spots. “We had to honor those reserved spaces, so we had a fair amount of empty spots,” says Yosemite’s Gediman.
Integrate broader public transportation, as Yosemite does with the YARTS regional system. Visitors can catch a YARTS bus from as far away as Fresno, Mammoth Lakes, or Merced for a lift to Yosemite Valley, no car necessary. The park also targets visitors staying in gateway communities as well as at local RV parks. (Note: Some routes have been altered and buses are running at reduced capacities during the pandemic.)
Solution 3: Alter Pricing
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Groups outside the NPS have suggested this supply-and-demand-style idea: Charge more for access when demand is highest, thereby encouraging people with flexible schedules to travel during quieter periods. You’ve probably heard of this model in the context of city highway tolls during rush hour or Uber surge pricing; the same principle could incentivize park visitors to try a winter or shoulder-season trip.
The Big Idea
A week at most of the top-tier parks costs $35 per car—a screaming deal—and doubling or tripling that fee could, in theory, dissuade a significant percentage of visitors. But putting a higher price on access to land that belongs to everybody raises all kinds of issues surrounding fairness and equity. And, if history is any indication, it’d be tremendously unpopular: When then Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke tried to hike some national park fees in 2017, public outcry against the move forced him to abandon the plan. There could be another option. “You can structure [entry fees] so there’s a discount,” suggests Tate Watkins, research fellow at the free market environmentalism think tank Property and Environment Research Center in Montana. “Rather than raising prices when you have a lot of people, you can lower them during less-desirable seasons to nudge people a certain way.” The same strategy could apply to weekdays versus weekends.
Solution 4: Point Out the Road Less Traveled
Yellowstone has Old Faithful, Yosemite its famed valley. Both are marquee destinations that attract the mountain lion’s share of tourists. But those people magnets represent a mere fraction of the natural wonders any given park offers. It’s not a bait-and-switch situation for park staff to instead suggest places like Shoshone Geyser Basin or Hetch Hetchy, respectively, which are spectacular in their own rights.
The Big Idea
Notify visitors in real time when A-list destinations fill up and point them toward equally stunning yet less-crowded alternatives. In 2019, Glacier introduced its online Recreation Access Display, a frequently updated tool on its website that reports which parking lots and campgrounds have filled up each day and which still have openings (visitors centers in the park and in gateway towns also use the display’s information so guests can check it without Wi-Fi).
But redistribution strategies work best in tandem with other crowd-control measures, notes Rocky’s Patterson: “There’s no magical utopia to send people to where we know they’re going to find a parking place. We need to look holistically and parkwide, or we’ll just be pushing impacts to other areas.” Patterson knows of what she speaks. Relatively recent parking problems and private-property trespassing issues at previously off-the-beaten-path spots like Lily Lake and Lumpy Ridge have required officials at Rocky to put up new no-parking signs, block illegal parking spots with boulders, and ramp up law enforcement citations.
What About…Pushing Off-Hours Visits?
“Show up early or late” was once solid advice for dodging the mobs at even the most crowded destinations. About 10 years ago, Glacier rangers began urging travelers to visit Logan Pass outside of the midday hours, but “what we didn’t take into account was the increase in visitation,” Riddle says. “Redistributing works to a certain degree…until you’re full all the time.”
Introduce geofencing—location-based services that use GPS, Wi-Fi, or other tech to trigger messages when someone accesses a specific area—to the parks. “When people enter a part of a park, you could have a pop-up message on your phone or in your car,” the NPS’ MacIntyre says. “It might say, ‘Welcome!’ or it might say that parking lots in the area are already full, or that this other lot is still open.”
Solution 5: Manage the Ick
More people, more poop. It’s gross but true. At best, that translates to long lines at trailhead vault toilets (and in the COVID-19 era, closer contact with others and potentially contaminated surfaces; BYO hand sanitizer). At worst, it means human waste piling up in the backcountry. Dodging soiled TP swatches and sidestepping poorly covered catholes is not what anyone envisions for a walk along the Pacific beaches of Olympic National Park or a hike in Rocky, but it’s the unfortunate reality of overcrowded parks.
The Big Idea
Build more toilets, but be smart about it. Parks’ remote destinations and lack of infrastructure often preclude plumbing, but simply digging more pit latrines isn’t ideal, either. Not only are such toilets high-maintenance and expensive to pump, but, “if you continue to put up toilets with a maximum capacity, they simply fill up within a few years and pose yet another maintenance problem to solve,” says Thor Retzlaff, co-founder of nonprofit Do Good Shit, which works to improve waste management in wild places worldwide. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Instead, parks could implement new-school, urine-diverting toilets that drastically reduce waste volume, maintenance costs, and overall stink. These models redirect pee to on-site septic fields, tanks, or the ground’s surface, thereby preventing the gag-inducing ammonia buildup that comes from mixing solid and liquid waste. That diversion also makes it easier for soil microbes to break down the remaining TP and poop, greatly shrinking the overall load parks have to deal with in the backcountry.
Several parks have already installed these modernized toilets in crowded, fragile backcountry environments, such as Zion’s Angels Landing and the Boulderfield just below Rocky’s Longs Peak. Not only have Rocky’s new-in-2018 latrines reduced waste buildup by 40 percent—a big deal when llamas are your chief means of packing out crap—but their natural stone meets sleek modern design is also stylish enough to have earned an American Institute of Architects Award in 2019.
In particularly pristine and/or high-impact sites, encourage hikers to pack it all out by providing WAG bags (bags you do your business in and then haul out), as White River National Forest rangers do at Conundrum Hot Springs, where unchecked human waste was soiling, well, everything.
Solution 6: Ask People Not To Do It for the ’Gram
It’s tough to say with certainty that a once under-the-radar campsite or backcountry lake is now overrun with selfie-hungry hordes because of Instagram hashtags. But land managers across the region anecdotally blame the social media platform for outing certain spots, from Grand Teton National Park’s Delta Lake to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area’s Horseshoe Bend vista, with geotagged glamour shots.
The Big Idea
While there’s nothing wrong with taking pictures, asking visitors not to share the exact coordinates of every landscape photo they post could help. Boulder’s Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics made social media restraint part of its philosophy with 2018 guidelines that ask adventurers to “think before you geotag,” consider omitting specific location details, and promote Leave No Trace ethics. “We’ve been called out in terms of being gatekeepers,” says Ben Lawhon, the center’s education director, who adds the goal isn’t to keep people off public lands, but rather to encourage good behavior when they go. “If every social media post had a Leave No Trace or stewardship message, we’d be in a better place.”
Also leery of the social media spotlight and perturbed by congestion on local trails, the Aspen Chamber Resort Association launched its Tag Responsibly, Take the Aspen Pledge campaign in July 2019. Inspired by a similar push in Jackson, Wyoming, Tag Responsibly asks visitors to use a generic tag location instead of pinpointing specific trails, like Lost Man Trail or Cathedral Lake. “We technically can’t prove it, but we’ve seen [visitor] numbers increasing” at the Maroon Bells along with the social media posts, notes Melissa Wisenbaker, public relations manager for the Aspen chamber. “We’ve noticed that as soon as the fall colors hit and people start posting on social media, we’ll have crowds the next weekend,” adds White River National Forest’s Shelly Grail. Thus far, the Tag Responsibly geotag has been used more than 200 times, perhaps mitigating the Instagram effect on Aspen’s backcountry gems by spreading out visitation. Asking national park visitors for similar restraint might relieve pressure on the system’s most-tagged locales.
Solution 7: Spread the Love
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Social media platforms aren’t all bad, of course. Remember the Find Your Park campaign? The park service launched its media juggernaut of ads, events, and social media hashtags in the runup to the NPS’ centennial celebration in 2016. Meant to get a younger and more diverse crowd excited about national parks, Find Your Park was hugely successful at encouraging the next generation to discover public lands. In fact, the campaign reached a third of American millennials, according to the NPS. Jonathan Jarvis, NPS director from 2009 to 2017, sees a clear link between that marketing push and the record-breaking visitation that followed: “It piqued people’s interest, and I believe it did translate to a higher level of visitation.” It stands to reason, then, that cleverly concepted campaigns deployed via Instagram and the like could be tools to combat crowds too.
The Big Idea
The park service could unleash a new PR campaign, this one aimed at attracting travelers to lesser-known parks instead of the ones overrun with visitors. Rocky is Colorado’s all-star destination, but only a few hours away, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park offers a plunging gorge, adventurous hiking, and trout-teeming waters yet ranks 45th out of the 62 national park units in recreation visits. Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve sits only a little higher, at number 40, while Mesa Verde National Park’s 556,203 annual visitors earn it spot 38.
Outside of Colorado (but not too far outside), Capitol Reef National Park delivers all the classic Utah red-rock glamour of Zion with 27 percent of its visitors. Washington State’s North Cascades National Park ranks 58th on the list with 38,000 annual visitors, a fraction of the people Rainier and Olympic national parks pull in. Nevada’s Great Basin National Park hosted about 130,000 visitors in 2019, about the same number of parkgoers that explored Rocky in March alone.
And why stop with national parks? The gamut of public land options could get in on the campaign: national monuments, historic sites, and lesser-traveled national forests and Bureau of Land Management tracts. “Certain other [types of] public lands are often underutilized,” Jarvis says.
Bottom line: There’s plenty of epic beauty beyond Rocky, Yellowstone, and Yosemite. Highlighting it could deliver much-needed elbow room around the biggies.
Solution 8: Do Your Part
You know that saying, “You’re not in traffic—you are traffic”? As Westerners, we understandably feel ownership over “our” parks and maybe more than a little annoyance at the tourists in flip-flops standing in “our” way on the trails. Let’s face it, though: By expecting to waltz into a parking spot at Bear Lake on the Fourth of July, we’re part of the problem.
The Big Idea
Front Rangers can fairly easily head up to Rocky on a Wednesday in April. Or leave the car in Estes Park and bike through the gates in July. Or head for Roosevelt National Forest or Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area or Eagles Nest Wilderness—spectacular places not on the bucket lists of your average tourists from New Jersey—during high season. And we should. Even with its national park crowding problems, the West remains a largely wild and empty place. And as Westerners, we have access to all that wide-open splendor. So act like a local—because, hey, you are one—and leave Dream Lake in July to the Texans. It’s arguably prettier in the winter anyway.