Winter had ended more than two months earlier, and temperatures in Summit County would climb into the 60s the Wednesday after Memorial Day. And yet, for 600 skiers and snowboarders at Arapahoe Basin who had endured a 10-week shutdown of the state’s ski industry due to the coronavirus, it was high time to get out and shred.
On that warm day in late May, they found a catharsis with the illusion of normalcy, if only for a few hours.
“I got a tad emotional on the chairlift,” snowboarder Sarah May said after her first run on soft snow the day A-Basin reopened under a strict public health variance, conceding the experience made her teary-eyed. “We’ve really been working for our turns, hiking for them, but the privilege of being able to ride a chair is amazing, and I am very thankful.”
Two days before, a reservations system set up to limit numbers on reopening day crashed the server. Less than two weeks later, Arapahoe Basin had to close again, this time for lack of snow.
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But what happened there was just one manifestation of a reality that played out across Colorado in a year when we needed outdoor recreation more than ever.
In 2020, Colorado Parks and Wildlife reported a 30% increase in visitation over 2019 through November, and in CPW’s northeast region — basically areas east of the Continental Divide and north of Colorado Springs — the increase was more than 40%.
National forest officials estimate a 50% increase in usage on the Colorado lands they manage. And based on the amount of toilet paper used in Jeffco Open Space restrooms — What could be a more reliable metric of visitation in a system that charges no admission? — visits this year were up 130% over 2017. Not 30%, but more than double, and then some.
Meanwhile, the national Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a walking and biking advocacy organization, said trail use where it has monitors is up 51% for the year. And they say there were weeks in the spring, as the nation was shutting down, that saw 200% increases over the comparable week in 2019.
Some of the increase in Front Range public lands resulted from the closure of Rocky Mountain National Park from March 20 to May 27 that dispersed demand elsewhere. When the park reopened, it instituted a timed-entry reservation system intended to keep parking lots in the park at 60% of capacity as a means of promoting social distancing. Visitation in the park was down 32% from 2019 numbers through October, the most recent numbers park officials made available. The park also saw shutdowns due to the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires.
But there is no doubt the pandemic drove people outdoors in overwhelming numbers. And that created problems.
After Gov. Jared Polis shut down the ski industry on March 15 — 10 days before he issued a stay-at-home order — ski shops that sell backcountry gear saw surges in sales. Search and rescue groups openly worried about inexperienced backcountry users getting into trouble, endangering first responders. Clear Creek County made county roads off-limits to non-residents in hopes of keeping visitors from recreating in the backcountry there. The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement urging residents to practice social distancing in county open space parking lots.
Four Front Range open space systems — Jeffco, Denver, Boulder County and the City of Boulder — issued a joint statement pleading with visitors to stop damaging the land they were using. One day in May, hundreds of cars were parked along the road at the Maxwell Falls trailhead near Evergreen after the small parking lot there filled up. Residents nearby complained about an ongoing problem of people leaving trash and bags filed with dog waste in their wake.
“If you could see the bags of trash we’re picking up, you’d be disgusted,” said Mindy Hanson, who lives near the trailhead.
Related: Hikers at Ice Lake left behind feces, trash and damaged historic structures
Mary Ann Bonnell, visitor services manager for Jeffco Open Space, attributes much of the surge to the prevailing Colorado lifestyle and population growth that is bringing new residents with the same mindset, compounded by the pandemic.
“It’s almost embarrassing to let a nice day go by where you don’t enjoy Colorado for what Colorado is,” said Bonnell, who oversees a system that attracts more than seven million visitors annually. “That’s the lifestyle. People have decided. ‘This is fun, I’m going to do this, this feels good, it’s good for my mental health, I’m getting healthy doing it, it’s safer because I’m outdoors.’ ”
Bonnell says what happened in 2020 came as no surprise because trend lines in recent years suggested crowding would soon become a problem. Jeffco Open Space rangers noticed parking lots were being filled seven or eight days a year, mostly on holidays.
“COVID made every day like Fourth of July, like Mother’s Day, like Father’s Day, where you’re dealing with those numbers on a daily basis instead of a holiday basis,” Bonnell said. “We knew this was coming, we could see on those holidays that things were congested and our parking wasn’t working. When you throw that at us every day, we needed to make some serious adjustments to how we dealt with things to accommodate that. So one of the big lessons was, we no longer can look at this as a down-the-road problem. This is a now problem.”
Related: Maxwell Falls, another Colorado trail being loved to death
With crowding comes conflicts. One day in November, a mountain biker on a trail at North Table Mountain cut off a trail runner with an aerial maneuver, squeezing between him and two young women who were hiking the same trail, coming within inches of them. One of the women screamed in fear and the trail runner shouted obscenities, but the mountain biker never looked back.
“We had a video of two grown men throwing rocks and shouting names at each other,” Bonnell said, adding that real trouble was rare. “When you have seven million visitors, you’re talking about a one-off or two-off or three-off. I don’t know that we had anyone physically hit that was reported to us.”
Bonnell apologizes for using the term “new normal” in case it sounds cliched. But that’s what public lands managers in Colorado are facing, because even after the COVID threat ends, the Front Range population is bound to drive high visitation rates.
“If anybody had told me two years ago, ‘You’ll be on the front line of a pandemic,’ I would have said, ‘I’m sorry, what do you mean?’ ” Bonnell said. “I am so proud of our team and any person who has been on the front line of public lands, providing a safe experience for visitors and protecting the resource, and doing it in the face of a pandemic. These are people with grit, with resilience. We didn’t close. We stayed open, our restrooms stayed open. We didn’t have all the answers and we did it anyway. It was really to the benefit of everybody, because (outdoor recreation) was the only thing left to do.
“I told my team a hundred times, if you ever doubted what we do is important, 2020 should remove all doubt.”
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