Last summer, Jed Botsford was camping in a lesser-known canyon in Colorado’s less-explored San Luis Valley, when he was surprised to see a group entering to join him.
They were from Denver. Wow, thought Botsford, a resident of Bayfield, about two hours away.
“Isn’t that a five hour drive from Denver?” he remembers asking.
Indeed, they said.
“They said they were so tired of the crowds closer to the Front Range that they were ready to drive five hours away,” Botsford said.
So goes the new reality of an old tradition in the increasingly saturated outdoors 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, looking further is a recommendation from land managers, who are still recovering from last year’s record crowds – noted across the country as the pandemic has frozen city life and urged the townspeople to seek solace in the land. mountains.
A new camping legion has formed, observers say, occupying spaces long cherished by regulars.
“People are getting addicted to the tradition of taking their families to a specific place,” said Crystal Young, public affairs specialist for Pike and San Isabel National Forests. “It’s an opportunity to make different memories. To look at other areas and figure out where there might be a better place to have the same kind of experiences that you have had in the past. “
If you were away from your “secret” place last year, don’t count on its availability this summer, said Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest. Across the wilderness bordering Intestate 70, these places have been widely discovered, he said.
“There are tens of millions of acres in Colorado, so there is space,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of planning ahead and recognizing that there will be areas that just won’t be possible.”
Some pushed the possibilities into 2020. The Rangers noticed rugged, super-laden vehicles making their way across borders. One photo showed an ATV stuck sideways in a thicket.
“Where there were rocks in place to prevent people from driving, they would pull them out of the way and camp where they wanted,” said Botsford, a district recreation manager in the San Juan National Forest.
“We had people camping literally 10 feet behind a sign that said there was no camping here or no motor vehicle here. … It blew our minds away.
Rangers everywhere have reported this proliferation of scattered campsites – sites outside of serviced campgrounds. They discovered piles of garbage left behind. Tents and vehicles trampled the vegetation where it was supposed to grow for the benefit of plants, insects, birds and critters. Dishonest paths have been drawn and roads widened, further degrading the habitat.
Municipalities have sounded the alarm bells on waste-polluting waterways. And equally ominous, abandoned and still smoldering campfires have been found too often – threats to start the kind of historic and devastating wildfires that were fought last summer.
All of this contributed to the sad conclusion in the mind of Julie Mach, director of conservation for Colorado Mountain Club.
“The nature of camping has changed,” she says.
Where spontaneity has always been part of the thrill, now it’s a risk. Leave after work on Friday at your own risk, Mach said. Have a backup plan, she says – and a backup of the backup plan.
People “really need to do their homework,” Erich Roeber, recreation program director for Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, said in a press release. “Otherwise, they might show up somewhere and find that they had to buy a pass in advance, or book a reservation, or that they can’t camp in the exact same spot where they camped the last year.”
Officials recently announced the closure of entire areas where scattered camping took off last year, including watersheds near Evergreen, Nederland and Winter Park. The bold changes come a year after the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests reported that 25% of their area had been burned by suspected human-caused wildfires.
Land managers in the northern Front Range have spent the off-season thinking about the concept of “designated scattered” campsites. The idea is to limit visitors to sites deemed suitable, sites clearly marked and equipped with rings of fire. Camping outside of them could lead to heavy fines.
The South Platte Ranger District – comprising the counties of Park, Jefferson, Douglas, Clear Creek and Teller – will serve as the pilot for the Great Pike and San Isabel National Forests. Some sites are for online bookings only, while others are marked as first come, first served.
The Crested Butte Valley also adopted the model this summer. The US Forest Service has partnered with local groups to shut down sites and establish more in popular areas, including those along Kebler Pass. By 2022, the goal is to switch to a paid online reservation system.
Another collaborative effort centers around Chaffee County. Federal, state and local partners are ready to fund additional officers to patrol “hot spots” in the mountains east of Buena Vista, said city mayor Duff Lacy.
“We dodged a bullet last year without fires,” he said. “Forests are forests. You can only abuse them for so long before they spin. “
As for Ice Lake in the San Juan Mountains. Botsford said a busy day on the backcountry trail was about 200 people. Last year, he said, it was closer to 600 – before the wildfire that closed the trail and the base campground.
The closure continues this summer. Longer term, reservations or permits may be required for the lake, as has been initiated for other Colorado natural destinations.
But Botsford was hesitant to talk about potential strategies. Like all managers of public lands, he toe a fine line between mandates: access and conservation.
“And the third aspect of that is the leisure experience, isn’t it?” he said. “If there is a group of people all around, this is not the experience you are looking for.”