In the midst of a global pandemic that’s been hitting the United States particularly hard, it seems like our National Parks are among the only safe havens for travelers and adventurers to escape to. I’d visited Rocky Mountain National Park a few times in the past, both in the peak of the busy summer season. Rocky Mountain is the third most-visited national park in the United States, and the one I’ve personally been to most often.
It’s the first national park most people hit if they’re driving from the east. For those of us in the flyover states, it is the closest one to us. From Missouri, it’s a clean 10-hour drive from where I live, and serves as a gateway to adventure for the rest of the Western United States. This time was no different. Eager for an escape after four months without traveling, I set off on a road trip. Of course, I couldn’t be as spontaneous this time. Being prepared and responsible is the most important thing while traveling during a pandemic, and I absolutely did not want to have any part in spreading the virus.
The first few nights of the trip were spent camping in Pawnee National Grasslands and Roosevelt National Forest. We had a hotel in Estes Park that took every measure to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, and as far as I knew, stepping out into the secluded nature of the National Parks was as responsible of an activity as one could hope for.
Like I said earlier, Rocky Mountain National Park is the third most-visited national park in the United Sates, behind only Grand Canyon and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. Because of this, they have implemented a timed-entry system.
The Rocky Mountain National Park Timed Entry System
This requires park visitors to reserve a time in advance if they wish to enter between 6 AM and 5 PM. I found out about this a few weeks prior, and even then, could only reserve slots for 2 PM and later. An additional round of 65-75 tickets are released 48 hours before each specific date. For example, on Wednesday, I was able to book a 6 AM entry slot for Friday. The tickets are released at 8 AM, and with one bar of signal in the mountains, I was just able to secure a spot. They sell out fast, usually within five minutes. My friend tried to reserve for a Saturday and they sold out within two minutes.
If you plan on visiting the park between 6 AM and 5 PM, you have to have a reservation. You can screenshot the ticket on your phone and show it to the park ranger as you drive in. There is a $2 fee for each timed entry reservation, regardless of if you have the annual pass or not. If you plan on visiting for the day, you pay the $25 entry fee online with your reservation. Other options include buying the annual pass at the gates. They only accept credit card and it costs $70 for just Rocky Mountain, or $80 for the all-inclusive America the Beautiful pass. That pass includes entry to all national parks, national monuments, and national recreation areas in the United States.
Some people bypass the fees and reservations altogether by going outside of operating hours. If you’re an early riser, it is possible to sneak into the park before the gates are staffed. There are also a number of short hikes you can do with the limited daylight after 5 PM.
Rocky Mountain National Park Rules and Guidelines During the Coronavirus Pandemic
With how popular Rocky Mountain is, it is a given that there will be crowds. This is especially true for the more popular hikes, such as Emerald Lake and Sky Pond. While RMNP is massive, it is inevitable that you’ll find yourself in close quarters with other hikers at some point. For example, huddling under trees and rocks during a rainstorm, waiting for the shuttle bus at the bus stop, and in the bus themselves.
When I visited in mid-July, I’d estimate about 60% of hikers were wearing masks, or had masks available. It was common courtesy to put on the mask as you passed a fellow hiker. They were mandatory on the bus. In the lines at the bus stop, most people had them on and were distanced a few feet apart while waiting. The National Park recommends social distancing of at least six feet, but with narrow and often busy trails, it’s next to impossible in some places. With the size of national parks, park rangers can only do so much to enforce these guidelines.
It’s up to each individual to be respectful, responsible, and do their part in minimizing the spread of the virus. I was pleasantly surprised at how many hikers wore face masks, especially with the high altitude already making it difficult to breathe. I had some uphill stretches where I struggled to breathe with the mask on, and would just step aside for any passing hikers.
I can’t imagine just how much masks help along the trails. With everyone huffing and puffing in close proximity to each other, it is crucial to wear masks when appropriate.
Other Things to Note
So far, Rocky Mountain National Park is the only National Park in the U.S. to implement a timed-entry system. (Update: Yosemite National Park now also has a reservation system for visitors to the park). With summer nearing its tail-end, it seems like it will be the only one to do so. With the size of the park, it might be one of the best socially-distanced adventures you could go on. Of course, there are the must-do trails that many first-timers to RMNP will flock to. Emerald Lake, Sky Pond, Alberta Falls, to name a few, will always have dozens of people in the area. However, that is such a tiny portion of the massive park that there are adventures unbound to be discovered elsewhere.
Consider lesser-known alternatives to minimize human contact and keep you and others safe. The National Parks are an incredible adventure, and through the ups-and-downs of the United States, one of the things we can consistently be proud of. So by all means, go on the grand adventure that you deserve, but please do so responsibly.
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