Summer on Hold

COVID-19 shut down the ski season and limited outdoor recreation this spring. Will things be back to normal on public lands this summer?

photo by Liam Doran

Summer recreation in Colorado will be abnormal. Between the lingering trauma of indoor isolation and a litany of restrictions and closures implemented by local, state, and national authorities, outdoor enthusiasts are facing a new normal as the days grow longer, the sun stronger, and the landscapes lush with wildflowers and emerald forests.

Since Governor Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 26, which ran through April 26, residents have adjusted the way they embark on outdoor adventure. The order was updated to a “safe-at-home” plan beginning April 27. The new order maintains 60-to-65-percent social distancing, restricted gatherings to 10 people, and could open recreational facilities where adequate social distancing controls can be implemented.

While outdoor recreation for the purpose of exercise was deemed an essential activity, in conjunction with Center for Disease Control guidelines (CDC), the order urged people to limit travel and recreate close to home, avoid crowded trailheads, maintain six feet of separation from non-related parties, wear non-medical face masks, and refrain from high-risk activities. 

To mitigate crowding, county open space and mountain parks rangers and local sheriffs’ offices implemented temporary and rolling closures for parks that were at capacity. Trails within Colorado State Parks (CPW) and National Forest (FS) jurisdiction remained open, however, developed recreation sites like campgrounds, picnic areas, and trailhead facilities were closed indefinitely for CPW and through May 31 for FS. Dispersed camping is banned on CPW land, and while it’s allowed on FS areas, it’s discouraged. Four rural counties in Colorado’s mountains, San Juan, Hinsdale, Gunnison, and Chaffee, went so far as to close to non-residents altogether. River permits are null. And the National Park Service closed Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde, and Great Sand Dunes national parks, as well as Dinosaur National Monument. 

The mandates have hand-cuffed Coloradans, especially those in the Front Range Urban Corridor looking to recreate farther into the mountains or engage in higher-risk activities like climbing, ski mountaineering, or mountain biking. As the curve flattens with ongoing social distancing measures, there’s optimism that these restrictions will ease as summer approaches, but outdoor recreationists have to be prepared for the new guidelines and restrictions to linger in some capacity, and should be flexible when planning their outdoor adventures. Data released on April 20 indicated that the population must maintain at least a 55-percent social distancing program to stay under peak ICU needs through November.

“We really need the community  to buy-in to all of these trail safety guidelines,” says Bridget Kochel, public information officer at CPW. “These are still going to apply through May and it could be into the summer before we get confirmation from the CDC or Governor’s office that some of these guidelines can be loosened.”

There Will Be Crowds… and Shutdowns

Despite a relatively snowy start to spring, Coloradans have already taken advantage of additional “free time” afforded by the stay-at-home measures, heading to local trails and open space in huge numbers, which is an indication that traffic could be above average this summer. “We have noticed about a 30-percent higher visitation to parks in April compared to [previous] years,” says Kochel. “It could stay that way. Usually people don’t really get out until the summer, but people are now, despite it being cold, because they want out of their house.”

This spring, CPW increased staffing at places that have seen a surge in visitation in order to more strictly enforce the social distancing guidelines as well as turn people away from parks that are too crowded. We can expect those social distancing strategies to continue into June and July.

“Based on the feedback we get from the regional park managers, we might have to close narrow trails, boat launches, or fishing piers, where social distancing is impossible; if visitors aren’t doing their part, we’ll have to close those trails off,” Kochel says.

The ability to meet CDC guidelines is the biggest factor in rescinding closures and restrictions as the weather gets warmer. The crowding issue was one of the main concerns taken into account when shutting down Rocky Mountain National Park in late March. It’s the third most visited national park in the country, and offers little breathing room for successful adherence to the social distancing guidelines. “As we start to see a shift in terms of what the state mandates and CDC guidelines are, we’ll follow suit. If the CDC guidance says we can have crowds of 50, for example, we’ll be mirroring that to see where we can achieve those numbers,” says Vanessa Lacayo, public affairs specialist for the intermountain region, National Park Service.

Regardless of how the restrictions evolve moving into summer, Colorado’s outdoor community should prepare for a quickly changing landscape. Popular recreation points, like many of the state’s 14ers, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Chautauqua Park could all see heavy restrictions, closures, or user metering. Education about local restrictions should be the first step in recreation planning this summer. According to Barbara Khan, USFS regional press officer for the Rocky Mountain Region, “the most recent Forest Service direction is to align with local health and safety guidance, such as local curfews or shelter-in-place guidelines.”

These guidances will vary from town to town and county to county. Eagle County, for example, requested an exemption from provisions under the stay-at-home order in an April 16 letter to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. After seeing a flattening of the curve locally, the county sought to allow for gatherings of 10 people, non-essential travel, and “permit the opening of outdoor recreation facilities,” where adequate social distancing measures can be maintained. The governor was expected to grant this exemption prior to the April 27 lifting of the stay-at-home order. Other Colorado counties will act individually to ease these health ordinances.

There’s an App for That

To further improve the “Know Before You Go” mentality, both the National Park Service and CPW recommend using the Colorado Trail Explorer (COTREX) app to plan adventures and execute swift changes to those plans when needed. COTREX is a collaborative project between CPW and the Department of Natural Resources to provide a comprehensive trail map of Colorado’s trail systems using data from more than 230 trail managers. COTREX has implemented real-time COVID-19 trail, campground, and visitor center closures, alerts, and restrictions in order to better inform trail users before they head out.

“There are so many accessible trailheads all over, so we’ve really worked with state parks, and county and federal partners to try and ramp up this app,” says Kochel. “Because of COVID-19, we’re actively putting the park closure information into the app, so people can plan their outdoor recreation before they go. If social distancing is not followed and the trailhead is closed for a weekend, then our community knows ahead of time not to head that way, but to test out a different area.”

The COVID-19 pandemic puts an indefinite restriction on where and how Colorado residents will be able to get outside this summer. And while it reduces the freedom to experience many of the state’s unique natural treasures, it also opens up opportunities to find adventure in places you’ve never thought of before. Tools like COTREX provide intel on trails all over the state, allowing users to seek out the road-less-traveled in their own backyards. 

Though the CDC and local agency guidelines urge people to recreate close to home, many camping, backpacking, and hiking objectives don’t allow for that, and people will still travel into the mountains under the guise that they can achieve their goals responsibly. A deep knowledge of local, state, and federal restrictions and closures, as well as the understanding that emergency personnel and services will be limited to non-existent, are both needed if you should feel the urge to set out far from home. Self-reliance will be key and adapting to ongoing fire bans, overpacking food and water supplies, careful consideration of where to refuel on the road, bringing your own fuel sources, and individual first aid preparedness should all be taken into account more than normal.

As the world and greater outdoor community continues to navigate the impact of the pandemic, take it as a chance to adapt. Improve your self-reliance skills, avoid the crowds, and catch a few sunrises and sunsets, improve your local trail knowledge, or explore a part of your town or the state you’ve never seen before. Our behavior will evolve as a result of the pandemic, but evolution in the outdoors is a constant, and will continue to be long after COVID-19 goes away. 

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