Despite ongoing efforts to manage congestion fueled by Front Range population growth, Rocky Mountain National Park saw a record number of visitors last year.
The 104-year-old park drew 4,590,492 visitors in 2018, a 3.5 percent increase over 2017. The National Park Service’s annual ranking of the top 10 national parks has been delayed by the partial government shutdown, but Rocky Mountain National Park was ranked fourth in 2017, slightly ahead of Yosemite National Park and slightly behind Zion National Park.
Rocky Mountain National Park has seen explosive growth in its numbers since 2012. Since then, visitation has increased 42 percent, including a 20-percent spurt in 2015 — the park’s centennial year — as compared to 2014.
“The population growth along the Front Range is probably the main reason we’re seeing this increase, because it’s not just Rocky that’s seeing this love affair with outdoor recreation,” said park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson. “It’s places all along the Front Range and in Colorado.”
After the big jump in visitation in 2015, park managers began to look at ways to restrict access on busy days. Beginning in 2016, vehicle restrictions were put in place on high-traffic days at three of the most popular areas in the park: the Bear Lake corridor, the Wild Basin area and the Alpine Visitor Center atop Trail Ridge Road.
“When parking lots fill and congestion warrants, when people start to park illegally, when they start to block our shuttle buses, then our rangers put in restrictions in those areas,” Patterson said. “Since 2016, we’ve seen more and more days when we’ve had to put restrictions in place. It’s a vehicle restriction. We still have the shuttle bus running in the Bear Lake corridor from the Estes Park Visitors Center. There can be long lines there as people are waiting to get on the bus.”
Patterson said vehicle restrictions were put in place most days in July and August last summer and on most weekend days in June and September. Seven of the park’s 10 busiest days last year happened in September, including the top three.
Park officials continue to study ways to address congestion and will report their concepts to the public later this year.
If you’re hoping to visit the park yourself, the next free day will be Saturday, April 20. See the rest of the free days here.