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Timed-entry helps national park manage fall crowds and keep visitors safe

Rocky Mountain National Park requires reservations during COVID-19 precautions

Our first instincts told us to skip Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. The park draws 4.6 million visitors a year, many in early fall for the annual elk rut and aspen color burst. The throngs of tourists can get a little testy waiting in line at the entrance stations and circling for a coveted parking space.

Then we read the words “timed entry permits” on the park’s website and changed our plans when we scored the permits for the first week of September.

I’m not sure how many other national parks have installed a similar system, but this summer Rocky Mountain outside of Estes Park began requiring reservations to simply enter the park, in addition to the normal fees and passes. The number of permits given out? The equivalent of 40% fewer visitors compared to similar time periods in past years. The goals seemed obvious – reduce the crowds during the pandemic to a reasonable capacity while also trying to provide people with a quality national park experience. And moving forward, the park service plans to adjust the numbers based upon its ability to operate safely.

I thought the new entry system accomplished both objectives. But as I watched some visitors turn around at the entrance gates because they had not secured timed entry permits in advance, I figured not everyone would agree with my assessment. But no one should attempt to visit a national or state park during our current health crisis without first checking their destination’s website.

bighorn sheep best place see rocky mountain
Nearby forest fires dulled the scenic views but didn’t interfere with bighorn sheep sightings.
rocky mountain national park avoid crowds
We could tell crowds were smaller because we easily found parking spaces at scenic vistas.

Smaller crowds made our visit more relaxing

We still deployed our number one strategy for enjoying a national park: start the day early, which coincided with our timed entry passes for 6-8 a.m. The visitor centers were closed but each one had park staff and rangers stationed outside, masked and distanced by tables or rope barriers, to answer tourist questions. Restrooms were also open in addition to one park gift shop that tried very hard to direct customers in an orderly fashion through the merchandise aisles. And of course masks were required inside, not only in the park but throughout Colorado while we visited.

Even mid-day, the park seemed less hectic than in past years. The Bear Lake area, the most popular hiking spot in the park, still overflowed with cars and people. But we found an early parking space and enjoyed the series of alpine lakes connected by the trail system. We hiked first around Bear Lake, then Nymph, Dream and Emerald lakes, a total about five miles, seeing turkey and ptarmigan. We also added on a two-mile round-trip hike to Alberta Falls, but I wouldn’t recommend that destination unless you haven’t seen a lot of waterfalls or you simply want to burn off a few more calories. Views are obstructed, unlike at Ouzel Falls.

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We saw marmots during our hikes at higher elevations.
pika peril global warming
We love spotting pika, an alpine rabbit living at high elevations. Their populations are in peril due to global warming.

Drive the unpaved Old Falls Road

Most people use the park’s main east-west byway, Trail Ridge Road, a paved drive over the mountain pass with a number of scenic pullouts. We walked the Tundra Trail near the top where we encountered rams, pikas, mink and an ecosystem rare in the continental United States. This road winds 48 miles through the park with trailheads and vistas along the route and crosses the Continental divide at over 12,000 feet.

On this vacation in the park, we also drove Old Falls Road, a one-way, 12-mile dirt route, open only several months each year and full of switchbacks and great scenery. The road connects at the mountain pass with the park’s main drive. We stopped at Chasm Falls and hiked several short trails along the way, including Chapin Creek and Marmot Point. A grazing bull elk delayed us for 30 minutes during one of our hikes because we had no safe route to pass by. So we just enjoyed watching him graze until he moved into the forest.

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Bull elk watched over their females while tourists watched in awe.

Elk sightings still create traffic jams

Despite the smaller crowds, Rocky Mountain National Park elk sightings still whipped visitors into a sightseeing frenzy, especially near dawn and dusk. In the evening we’d see herds with 30 or more females and a few bulls protecting their harem. Stuck behind an elk jam of 50 or so cars, we summoned our patience and enjoyed the majestic chaos.

My favorite elk sighting occurred within the city of Estes Park as we watched a group of eight stroll into a bank drive-thru and start eating decorative shrubs. Customers were patient but when it became obvious that the elk weren’t in a hurry, a bank employee in suit and tie shooed them away as humanely as possible.

During the autumn rut, listening to bull elk bugling with aspen coloring the landscape may be unmatched in outdoor tranquility.

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