Social distancing is working some places better than others in Boulder County, and one of the spots where the concept appears to be a failure is the popular Hessie trailhead just west of Eldora.
Nederland Mayor Kristopher Larsen said that the past weekend saw overflowing parking, crowds of people vying for space on the out-and-back trail, and a situation that did not conform in any way to the stay-at-home directive under which all Coloradans are asked to follow through April 26 due to the new coronavirus.
Larsen said he has been pressing the U.S. Forest Service to close down the Hessie Trail until the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, but it does not appear that’s going to happen. Not only does it raise distancing concerns at the trail, he said, but many of those people, from all over the metro area, are then coming into town.
In an email, Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests spokesperson Reid Armstrong stated, “We have been in close communication with the Sheriff, county and town about trailhead crowding concerns.
“Potential actions that could be considered are a county road closure or to enforce a parking restriction on the county roads, for example when trailhead parking fills up. For that reason, I would like to refer you to the Sheriff’s Office for more information.”
Acting Regional Forester Jennifer Eberlien on Tuesday had issued an order to temporarily close developed recreation sites and an order to implement fire restrictions within the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region, but that left trails and parking areas open to public use.
Boulder County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Lance Enholm said the Hessie Trailhead situation is somewhat challenging, in that it actually includes land owned by both the U.S. Forest Service and Boulder County Parks and Open Space.
“It’s a complicated area. The ownership doesn’t belong to just one,” Enholm said. “I’m looking at a picture right now of a line of cars that parked up above Eldora (on the weekend of April 4-5), near Hessie. They’re illegally blocking a lane of traffic.”
The sheriff’s office in recent days engaged in talks with Boulder County Parks And Open Space, the Forest Service and Boulder County Transportation, to see what could be done to better manage the number of people going to the Hessie Trail area.
However, Enholm added, “This isn’t an issue just limited to Hessie. We’ve got it on Flagstaff, and Walker Ranch and Rabbit Mountain, and some of the other areas to the north, like Brainard Lake, for example.”
A solution, he said, was needed for all the areas where people are heading to get in their exercise, despite having been told by Gov. Jared Polis to do so as close as possible to home.
County officials decided on Thursday that that they will use added sheriff’s deputies to closely monitor parking this weekend at Hessie trailhead, the Ron Stewart Preserve at Rabbit Mountain and Brainard Lake, and that those who are parked illegally will be ticketed.
The option would be to simply close them down — a step officials are trying to avoid.
“There are around 44 (parking spots at Hessie (on-road, parallel-parked), and that’s an estimate,” said Vivienne Jannatpour, spokesperson for Boulder County Parks and Open Space. “The plan is for this weekend, the deputies and/or rangers are going to keep it open and allow those parking spots to get filled. And once they’re filled, obviously there would be ticketing” of excess cars — or, cars will be turned around before they even park.
“I’ve heard that some people who are ticketed are asking to be relieved of their tickets. And I am being told, they will be paid.”
Deputies or rangers will also be monitoring the nearby Mud Lake recreation area north of Nederland off Colo. 72, concerned that it could see heavy overflow traffic from the Hessie area and elsewhere.
“We’re asking people to recreate closer to home. The town of Eldora is definitely getting impacted,” Jannatpour said.
Jannatpour acknowledged that, ideally, during a time of a statewide stay-at-home order and strongly encouraged social distancing, it might seem to be presenting a mixed message, to even be making plans for how to handle crowds at some of the area’s more popular recreation areas.
“That’s been the needle we’ve been trying to thread the whole time, right?” Jannatpour said. “We do think that being able to get outdoors to get exercise and get fresh air is critical to people’s mental health and well-being and that’s a big reason we’re trying to keep everything open.
“The task is to stay healthy. And so that includes getting some outdoor activities — but within that, staying as close to home as possible, not driving too far away. That’s all part of the messaging.”
The weekend weather may make the issue somewhat moot for the short term. After a partly cloudy Saturday with a high of 66, Sunday is forecast by the National Weather Service to offer a 90% chance of accumulating snow, with a high of 29.
That should keep some people at home.