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The entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park on Saturday, May 30, 2020. Starting on June 04, visiting the park will require a permit.
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The family from Oklahoma in front of me at the Fall River entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park was in for a big letdown.

After arriving without a reservation, a patient young ranger at the gate explained the timed entry system implemented this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, which meant that the family wouldn’t be allowed able to drive through the park over Trail Ridge Road on the Fourth of July.

After the ranger politely suggested other scenic drives near the park, the family turned around and left, presumably headed for the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway.

The reservations system is designed to spread out and restrict visitation to 60% of the park’s capacity between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m., equating to 4,800 vehicles (13,500 visitors), with reservations not required outside of those hours. Some park lovers have complained that the procedure is confusing, and people are upset on both sides of the issue.

I didn’t have a reservation that day, by the way, and I didn’t need one because I arrived via bicycle. Cyclists aren’t required to have entry reservations, and it’s worth noting that cycling is a really great way to experience the park.

MORE FOR CYCLISTS: If you’ve never ridden Mount Evans, this is the summer to do it

As the pandemic wears on, Colorado’s biggest outdoor tourist destinations are attempting to find a balance between tourism and safety. Last month in Estes Park, someone left notes on cars with out-of-state plates, citing the pandemic and saying, “with all due respect, please GO THE HELL BACK TO WHEREVER YOUR OUT OF STATE LICENSE IS FROM.” When I visited on July 4, a handful of protesters at a busy intersection in Estes Park were dressed in red, white and blue with signs calling for an end to the reservation system.

Park officials believe they’re making the best of a difficult situation.

“We’ve heard from visitors that they did not want this system and now they’re saying, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s a very different experience, I feel safer compared to the crowds I’ve seen in the past,’” said Kyle Patterson, the park’s public information officer. “We’re also hearing from people that are very frustrated because they don’t plan ahead or they don’t want to plan ahead. That’s the group we’re continuing to try to encourage that, in order for them to have a more positive experience, planning ahead is really key.”

To make reservations for two-hour entry windows, visitors must create an account on the website recreation.gov. Reservations cost $2, and entry permits ($25 for cars, $15 for bicycles) are purchased at that time as well. There is a list of frequently asked questions on the park website.

“There’s a lot of people who are getting online and figuring it out,” Patterson said. “We’ve been trying to help people over the phone. We do realize some people are frustrated by the system. We’re also hearing from some visitors that are just frustrated with COVID in general and don’t think it’s real, they think it’s a hoax. We just need to acknowledge that we’re making the decisions that we are based on what science is telling us.”

The system is designed to spread out visitation using models of how people used the park before COVID-19, with special attention to when peak periods typically occurred.

“In an uncontrolled environment, we saw people arriving between 10 and 2,” said John Hannon, who helped develop and manage the reservations system. “If everybody comes between 10 and 2, and they all stay three to four hours, that puts a lot of pressure on our infrastructure and our parking lots, then out from that, the trail systems and the bathrooms. Under the timed entry, we pushed that peak. I hate to use the term ‘flatten the curve,’ but it applies. We’ve flattened the curve with that distribution and pushed some use to earlier in the morning and to later in the day. That’s why each of those time spots has a certain amount of vehicles. It’s all based on the average length of stay. Generally, those people that are in that 6-8 (a.m.) time slot, they will start leaving the park around noon. That way that next wave, that 12-2 time slot, when they arrive, there should be a good chance of parking.”

A third of the reservation slots for July currently remain available, but all of them are for afternoon entry. Reservations are being taken now for August, and on Aug. 1, reservations will be available for September. While 10% of the reservations for a given date are set aside and made available two days in advance at 8 a.m, park officials say your chances aren’t good of getting them that way.

“Those sell out within two to five minutes of when they go on sale,” Hannon said. “There’s only 384, and the last week there was about 750 people each morning vying for those 384 reservations, so I wouldn’t count on it by any means. It’s like counting on winning the lottery.”

Campers with reservations who use developed campgrounds or backpack with wilderness permits don’t need timed entry reservations. Two of the park’s five campgrounds — Moraine Park and Glacier Basin — are open at about 50% capacity.

Visitors are not allowed to enter the park before the beginning of their two-hour window, but they may get a little grace at the gate if they arrive a few minutes after the end of their time slot, Patterson said. When I rode into the park shortly before noon, several cars were parked on the shoulder waiting for the 12-2 slot to open. Only a few cars were in line at the gate.

Users should be advised that when you get into the park, it’s no guarantee you will be able to visit the area you came to see, such as Bear Lake.

“Even if we’re bringing down our overall numbers, Bear Lake Road and the Bear Lake trail system continues to be extremely popular,” Patterson said. “Some people were disappointed because they got here at noon or at 1 on a Saturday or Sunday and we didn’t allow them up the road.”

Some users have expressed concerns that the system this summer will continue when COVID restrictions are no longer necessary. Park officials acknowledge that they may employ something similar as part of ongoing efforts to mitigate crowding in the park, but it wouldn’t be at the current 60% of capacity.

“Since 2016, we have put vehicle restrictions in place on the Bear Lake Road, Wild Basin area and Alpine Visitor Center when congestion and crowding warrants,” Patterson said. “We will learn from the temporary timed entry permit system this year and incorporate lessons learned as we move forward with our visitor use management planning efforts.”

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