Last summer Jed Botsford was camping in a lesser-known canyon in Colorado’s lesser-explored San Luis Valley when he was surprised to see a group drive over to him.
You were from Denver. Wow, thought Botsford, a Bayfield resident, about two hours away.
“Isn’t that drive from Denver like five hours?” he remembered asking.
Indeed, they said.
“They said they were so tired of the crowds near the Front Range that they would be willing to drive five hours away,” said Botsford.
So goes the new reality of an old tradition in the increasingly saturated nature of the state.
Memorial Day weekend is the official start of the camping season. For the usual crowds filling the tank and packing their tents, another look is from land managers still recovering from last year’s record crowds – known nationwide as the pandemic that froze city life and drove city dwellers to To seek solace in the city mountains.
Observers say a new camping region has formed, occupying spaces long cherished by regulars.
“People are passionate about the tradition of bringing their families to a specific location,” said Crystal Young, a public affairs specialist for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. “This is an opportunity to have various memories. Check out other areas and find out where there is a better place to get the same experiences you had in the past. “
If you weren’t at your “secret” location last year, don’t expect it to be available this summer, said Scott Fitzwilliams, director of the White River National Forest. All over the wilderness that frames Intestate 70, these spots have been spotted widely, he said.
“There are tens of million acres in Colorado, so there is space,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of planning ahead and realizing that there will be some areas that are just not possible.”
Some pushed the possibilities in 2020. Rangers noticed burly, supercharged vehicles huddling across borders. One picture showed an ATV stuck sideways in a thicket.
An ATV is stuck in the woods – a disturbing sight seen by the Pike and San Isabel Rangers last summer. Photo courtesy of the US Forest Service
“Where there were boulders preventing people from going on, they would drag them out of the way and camp where they wanted,” said Botsford, a recreation manager in the San Juan National Forest.
“We had people camped literally 10 feet behind a sign that said there was no camping or motor vehicle here. … It blew us all away. “
Rangers everywhere reported this proliferation of scattered campsites – locations outside of developed campsites. They discovered piles of rubbish that were left behind. Tents and vehicles trampled on the vegetation where it was supposed to grow for plants, beetles, birds and living things. Rogue trails were marked and roads widened, which further deteriorated the habitat.
The communities have sounded the alarm when it comes to litter-polluting waterways. Equally worrying, too often were abandoned and still smoldering bonfires found – threats of starting the kind of historic, devastating forest fires that were fought last summer.
All of this contributed to the sad conclusion of Julie Mach, the conservation director of the Colorado Mountain Club.
“The way we camp has changed,” she said.
Piles of rubbish left by scattered campers in the woods of Summit County’s Dillon Ranger District. Photo courtesy of the US Forest Service
Where spontaneity was always part of the thrill, it is now a danger. Go on Friday after work at your own risk, said Mach. Have a backup plan, she said – and a backup to the backup plan.
People “really need to do their homework,” said Erich Roeber, manager of the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests recovery program, in a press release. “Otherwise, they could show up somewhere and find that they need to buy a pass in advance or book a reservation, or that they can’t camp in the exact location they camped last year.”
Officials recently announced the closure of entire areas where distributed camping began last year, including drainage near Evergreen, Nederland and Winter Park. The bold changes come a year after the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests burned 25% of their cropland in forest fires believed to have been caused by humans.
Land managers on the Northern Front Range spent the off-season considering the concept of “scattered designated” campsites. The idea is to limit visitors to websites that are deemed appropriate, that are clearly labeled and have rings of fire. Camping outside of them can result in heavy fines.
The South Platte Ranger District – comprised of Park, Jefferson, Douglas, Clear Creek, and Teller counties – will serve as the pilot for the Pike and San Isabel National Forests. Some websites are dedicated to online reservations only, while others are labeled “first come, first served”.
To curb inappropriate camping, designated parking spaces with signs and fire pits are being developed around Crested Butte. Photo courtesy Travel Crested Butte
The Crested Butte Valley also adopted the model this summer. The US Forest Service has partnered with local groups to close down sites and establish others in popular areas, including those along the Kebler Pass. The plan is to switch to a paid online reservation system by 2022.
Another collaboration focuses on Chaffee County. Federal, state and local partners are expected to fund additional officials to patrol “hot spots” in the mountains east of Buena Vista, said city mayor Duff Lacy.
“We dodged a bullet with no fire last year,” he said. “Forests are forests. You can only abuse them until they turn around. “
There it was for Ice Lake in the San Juan Mountains. Botsford said a busy day on the backcountry trail used to be about 200 people. Last year, he said, it was closer to 600 – before the wildfire that closed the trail and base campground.
The closure will last until this summer. In the longer term, reservations or permits may be required for the lake, such as those introduced for other natural destinations in Colorado.
But Botsford hesitated to discuss possible strategies. Like all public land administrators, he puts a fine line between mandates: access and conservation.
“And the third aspect of that is the recreational experience, isn’t it?” he said. “If there are a lot of people everywhere, this is not the experience you’re looking for.”