Public lands attendance in Colorado is at all-time highs

Data Desk

Wind and snow on the West Ridge of Quandary Peak. Meteorologist Chris Tomer.

DENVER (KDVR) — Outdoorsy people may not like the Rocky Mountain National Park’s new reservation system, but public lands data is clear: hikers and campers now use public lands more than any point in history.

The last decade brought massive changes to Colorado. Between 2010 and 2020, three-quarters of a million people moved into the state, bringing with the population boom everything from political changes to increased housing prices to traffic hazard.

State and national parks and forests use rates skyrocketed as well during this time.

The COVID year of 2020 did not continue some of these trends, as hiker attendance and public lands availability varied. Visitor numbers had been booming through 2019 however, and cooped-up post-COVID Coloradans have already come out in droves. National parks officials are saying 2021 is one of the busiest on record.

Local trail use gives snapshot of the kind of volume wildland managers see so far in 2021.

Boulder County Transportation officials say the most recent ridership for the Hessie Trailhead was 1,153 in a single day, beating last Labor Day by 400 riders. Annually, the Hessie Trailhead’s ridership has tripled since 2012.

Rocky Mountain National Park alone is a perfect example of not only post-COVID crowds but of pre-COVID peak public lands use.

Rocky Mountain National Park is the most popular national park, and one of the four national parks located in Colorado along with Mesa Verde, Great Sand Dunes and Black Canyon of the Gunnison national parks.

The park had twice as many people visit during the first half of 2021 as the first half of 2020.

With the exception of Mesa Verde, each of these parks saw the most visitations in their history in 2019. Great Sand Dunes National Park visitations increased 184% from 1979 to 2019. The Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park saw visitations increase by 85% over the same time period.

From 1979 to 2019, the annual visits to Rocky Mountain National Park increased by 82%.

For most of the last 40 years, there have been a stable number of yearly visitors to the park, hovering below 3 million on average.

Beginning in 2013, rates went up significantly every year, peaking at 4,670,053 in 2019 – the largest year on record and more than twice the lowest year on record. Just under 1 million visited RMNP in July 2019 alone.

Colorado state parks saw similar increases in use over the past decade, except unlike the national parks visits continued to increase during the pandemic.

Annual visits to Colorado state parks nearly doubled from 2013 to 2020, from 11.6 million to 19.5 million.

National forest lands, on the other hand, have had a steady level of visits since 2014, but that number jumped in 2020. Visits increased from 28.8 million in 2019 to 32.4 million in 2020.

Even the more difficult hikes of Colorado’s popular 14,000-foot peaks are prone to increased use in recent years.

Historical use rates for specific mountains are less detailed than state and national public lands data, but volunteer organization Colorado Fourteeners Initiative has estimates.

There were 42,000 more hikers on 14ers in 2018 than just two years prior – roughly 115 more hikers every day. A late freeze in the 2019 pushed hiking trends back a few months. Colorado Fourteeners Initiative representatives said that year didn’t follow the general upward trend as a result.

Some of the more popular 14ers illustrate the point. Quandary Peak added an estimated 20,000 more annual hikers from 2016 to 2018. In the same timeframe, Mt. Bierstadt added 15,000 yearly hikers.

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