Loved to Death

Besieged by crowds and Front Range pollution, Colorado's premier national park is a vanishing wilderness.

Many of them are back at the bus stop ninety minutes later, after an unusually vigorous and prolonged cloudburst has turned the trails into gushing streams and thoroughly soaked those who forgot to pack a poncho. They huddle under the bus canopies, waiting for the next shuttle to a nice, dry place.

Yet on the bus I ride, there are no complaints about the weather. Aside from a couple of young men shivering in T-shirts, most seem to have expected the rain, or at least accepted it as part of the excitement of a brush with the backcountry. Across the aisle, a college student from Texas tells a woman from Louisiana about the youth group he brought to the park and what fun they had, and how he came up in late May on his own and had to stumble down a trail in a whiteout. He serves up the details with relish, savoring the element of raw risk. My seatmate, an elderly woman from Michigan whose bulky, hooded poncho lends her a monkish air, tells me she's been coming to the park every summer since 1948 and has a cabin nearby.

"I knew it was going to rain," she says, "but I only have a few days left before I go back. I want to spend as much time as I can out here."

Patrick Merewether
Lone ranger: Gregg Burgess patrols Rocky Mountain's 
front country.
Anthony Camera
Lone ranger: Gregg Burgess patrols Rocky Mountain's front country.

Uncertainty about weather and crowds is part of the great unscripted experience of visiting a park like Rocky Mountain. Some people hope to lose the crowds a mile or two down the trail; others may not mind them. The hiking purists tend to avoid Bear Lake altogether in favor of the park's less populous west side. Regulars know that Rocky Mountain is actually two parks. Its east end, anchored by Estes Park, has more roads, more amenities, more ponderosa pine -- and more people. On the west, reached through Grand Lake, one finds more lodgepole pine, a web of trails that snake along the Colorado River and offer views of the Never Summer Range, and at least the possibility of solitude.

On a recent hike to Cascade Falls, which started at a trailhead on the edge of Grand Lake itself, I met up with seven people in three hours -- too many, no doubt, for true Waldenites, but a lonesome morning by east-side standards. Several of the other hikers were park volunteers, hauling sledgehammers to remove rocks that were choking a creek bed. The grumpiest encounter was with a radio-collared mule deer, who studied me for long moments, then moved, grudgingly, from the middle of the trail.

When he became a district ranger four years ago, Mark Magnuson came across a file folder stuffed with staff memos about Longs Peak dating back to the 1960s. The oldest one noted, with some alarm, that the parking lot at the trailhead was filling to capacity on weekends and that rangers were seeing more trash on the trail and problems with human waste.

The next memo was from the 1970s. It stated that the parking lot was now full all the time, with vehicles parking down the road on weekends.

The third memo was a 1980s update: parking and trash problems increasing, summer overflow becoming unmanageable.

And so it went. The folder was a capsule history of the growing craze for climbing Colorado's favorite fourteener -- and the growing dilemma faced by the rangers, who are supposed to protect the mountain and manage it for recreational use at the same time.

These days, Longs Peak, like Vegas, is a 24-hour operation. "We have hikers and climbers coming and going at all hours of the night," says Magnuson, now the park's chief ranger. "Sometimes we have cars parked along the road all the way down to the highway."

Magnuson and his predecessors have tried to address the more obvious impacts of the rush-hour atmosphere on Longs. They've erected four solar dehydrating toilets along the most popular route to the summit, a painful tradeoff between natural scenery and the call of nature. But park management is reluctant to take stringent measures to control the number of people on the mountain, even though the sheer volume of use may be making an often-underestimated climb even more hazardous.

"Longs' popularity makes people feel like they are safer, but the opposite is the case," writes Gerry Roach in his climbing guide, Colorado's Fourteeners. "Many people believe the greatest climbing hazard today is being below other people." Roach likens late-summer ascents of the Keyhole Route to "walking on a crowded city sidewalk through a construction zone."

The park has been able to manage overnight use by limiting the number of camping permits it issues, but day hikers -- including peak-baggers who set out at one in the morning -- are another story. Magnuson doesn't believe the park is at the point yet where more drastic caps on climbers are needed; wet weather and gas prices this summer, and drought and fires the previous two years, have given the staff a little breathing room for considering options. But the debate over what to do about Longs and other inundated areas -- build more parking lots? hand out numbers? put a limit on group size? -- is far from settled.

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