In 2020, Rocky Mountain National Park became the first national park to require a reservation, establishing a model that has been proliferating ever since. Eldorado Canyon became the first state park in Colorado to do so last year. And now, Boulder County is considering timed entry for the first time as well, at its booming Hessie Trailhead.
Hessie Trailhead, five miles west of Nederland just past the unincorporated community of Eldora, is a key access point into a buffet of high-ranking destinations in the Indian Peaks Wilderness — including Lost Lake, King Lake and Devil’s Thumb. As such, the visitor profile is remarkable during prime hiking season. Almost 14,000 people passed through last July alone, according to the county, peaking at over 800 people on Saturday July 2, 2022.
“The way we are managing Hessie right now takes a lot of staff resources,” said Alex Hyde-Wright, a transportation manager with Boulder County, “and ultimately is not sustainable.”
The county has approved more than $400,000 in its budget to cover shuttle and timed-entry costs through private contractors, in addition to staff resources, Hyde-Wright said.
According to Hyde-Wright, hundreds of parking tickets have been issued over the past two years, even with a free shuttle running every 15 minutes from the parking checkpoint at Nederland High School. (The county launched the shuttle more than a decade ago to manage parking.) Once the trailhead parking is full, cars are stopped at the checkpoint and no more can enter until a spot opens up. But rather than wait, many decide to make new plans. The trailhead is about four miles from the checkpoint.
Last summer, the county conducted a survey to get public feedback on the idea of a timed-entry system, which, in the case of Eldorado Canyon State Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, open reservations a month in advance and fill up quickly. Timed entry helps spread traffic more evenly throughout the day, but can kill the buzz for spur-of-the-moment outings.
Hyde-Wright noted that opposition outweighed support, but most of that opposition was against a program that required reservations on weekdays as well as weekends. More people visit the trailhead on Saturday and Sunday than the rest of the week combined.
Boulder County’s commissioners will decide whether and how to move forward with a timed-entry program sometime this year, and could implement it next summer.
Meanwhile, reluctant support from community organizations has been building.
Residents of Eldora, Eldorans as they call themselves, who want to preserve the area and have a voice in local policy launched an official nonprofit, the Eldora Civic Association, in the early ‘80s. In a letter to the group in 2021, its president, Doug Hart, called for a timed-entry solution.
“The sad fact of life for those that love the wilderness is that it has become a commodity for which there is an ever-increasing demand,” Hart wrote. “And it may be that the use of timed entries and permits, a policy that some find unpleasant, may be the best approach for balancing demand and a quality wilderness experience.”
While the shuttle has provided a decent solution for the trailhead parking issues, Hart said, there has been rapid growth in visitation with no end in sight.
“For Eldora’s residents, the shuttle has proven to be a great success by reducing traffic passing through town. But even if hundreds of hikers can be transported into a wilderness area on a single day, it doesn’t mean that the problem is solved,” Hart said.
According to shuttle data, Hart noted, ridership went from around 16,000 in 2020 to almost 34,000 riders in 2021. Some of that accounts for pandemic restrictions in 2020 that kept numbers low, but shuttle use nonetheless has skyrocketed in recent years. According to Hart, in 2021, over 400 cars were turned around at the checkpoint on an average day.
If the system were to get implemented in 2024, it’s unclear whether there would be a processing fee. Hyde-Wright pointed to the various systems being used by other agencies, and some are free while others are not. Eldorado Canyon uses an app run by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, while Rocky Mountain National Park uses a website run by a contractor that charges a $2 fee for each reservation. The latter has recently been fighting lawsuits alleging those timed-entry charges are illegal “junk fees” that a private contractor is profiting from.
In an op-ed from January 2023, former Rocky Mountain National Park Superintendent Vaughn Baker talked about the success of the park’s timed-entry program for bringing about a better experience for visitors.
“Several people have commented to me that the park feels more like the less-crowded days of the early 2000s,” he wrote.
For now, the Hessie Trailhead is the only hotspot being considered for a reservation system by Boulder County. But as with RMNP and Eldorado Canyon, this local trailhead could be the model for more to come.
The Hessie shuttle begins operating for the season on May 26. The county has said RTD’s NB bus from downtown Boulder will be free and drop people off at the high school parking lot on days the shuttle is operating (Friday through Sunday). Timed entry begins at Eldorado Canyon on May 20 and at Rocky Mountain National Park on May 25. The City of Boulder’s shuttle to Chautauqua will begin operating Memorial Day weekend.
Of course, they could build a bigger parking lot at the trailhead. The old townsite of Hessie is large and flat and could accommodate at least 100 more cars if they built a lot there. But right now the short connecting road to the townsite is a difficult four wheel drive route through a creek. The norms of the National Park Service are to never build more parking, even as visitor numbers skyrocket. That norm seems to be shared by our county commissioners. However, I think they should seek more of a balance between environmental preservation and user accommodation in this case.
While I understand the problem, I have serious misgivings about the typical timed-entry system because these systems operate to the benefit of a leisure class and the detriment of average folk and communities of color. Moreover, they typically exclude many people needlessly. The problem is that a leisure class will book timed-entry for a whole range of dates and times with the intent to actually use only one or two of their entry permits (usually for the dates/times when the weather turns out to be the best). This results, for example, in the nearly empty parking lots that you’ll see at the trailheads in the Brainard Lake area these days. The folks excluded are the ones who struggle to make reservations online (because English is their second language, they don’t have a computer, or, more commonly, they don’t have a printer to print their entry permit), those who can’t afford to make lots of just-in-case reservations, gig workers who don’t know if they’ll be working that weekend until the 11th hour, and the many who want to pursue activities in the area that are dependent on reasonably good weather. Timed entry is particularly senseless for a place like Hessie, where shuttles are a better solution. Yes, the trail to Lost Lake is often a conga line on weekends, but it’s lots of feet not wheels, so the resource implications are minimal, and the crowds are confined to a relatively small area. But timed-entry for the entire trailhead binds up all of Indian Peaks in the same flawed system. A better approach is to eliminate trailhead parking entirely for anyone who doesn’t have a backcountry permit. Then charge for shuttles that run to Hessie and 4th of July. The shuttle fees should be capped for families and waived for nonprofits and schools. Fees can help pay for the shuttles, parking enforcement, and trail improvement on the most heavily used stretches of trail. Fees should be payable in cash or using an app. The app should be configurable to a variety of different languages, including Spanish. And, if you just gotta have a timed-entry permit because of resource damage, limit that system to Lost Lake.
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