Even during a 100-degree heat wave, Barr Lake attracts a variety of outdoor enthusiasts. Not far from Interstate 76, just twenty minutes northeast of downtown Denver, Colorado’s tenth-largest state park comprises 3,097 acres of land wedged between sprawling farms in an agricultural community in Adams County.
The park’s namesake “lake” anchors the open space. Technically, Barr Lake is an irrigation reservoir with a recreational easement; at 2,000 surface acres in the wet season, it’s bigger than either of the reservoirs at Chatfield and Cherry Creek state parks. And yet Barr Lake saw little traffic during its first 43 years as a protected tract, after being designated as a state park in 1977.
That all changed in 2020, when outdoor recreation surged across Colorado and under-the-radar spots like Barr Lake experienced an explosion of visitation. “We’ve been discovered,” says park manager Michelle Seubert. But the real mystery is why this park wasn’t discovered sooner.
The lake itself offers a couple of noteworthy amenities. The southern half, for example, is a wildlife refuge closed to water recreation and pets, edged by a nationally recognized trail from which hikers can spot both resident and migratory birds. Of Colorado’s approximately 400 bird species, 371 have been sighted at Barr Lake. “We’re a bed-and-breakfast for birds,” Seubert says. “We have everything they need: food, water and habitat.”
The rest of Barr Lake is “10-horsepower and under,” so while some smaller motorboats can launch, big boats with noisy motors and jet skis aren’t permitted on the water.
“We’re really good for canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards,” says Seubert, describing the kind of peaceful outdoor experiences that many Denver residents desired as the pandemic peaked in 2020 and lockdowns pushed people into the only place still open for business: the outdoors.
As a result, Barr Lake’s previously tranquil shore lost a lot of its natural appeal last summer, when flocks of first-time users descended on the water with their inflatable paddleboards from Costco.
“They weren’t always prepared for their new adventure,” Seubert notes. But for a ranger who loves welcoming people to experience nature, she says, “it was great seeing so many people recreate.”
“Our parks and open spaces have been loved to death,” says Ben Lawhon, director of education and research for the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, a Boulder-based nonprofit dedicated to teaching people how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. One of its primary rules: Know Before You Go.
“Know Before You Go is about understanding local regulations, knowing where to park and hike,” Seubert explains. “You’ve really got to know site-specific rules and regulations in order to recreate responsibly.”
While some parks and open spaces can accommodate responsible off-trail usage, Barr Lake isn’t a good spot to wander from the beaten path. When too many people traveled off the park’s main hiking trail — usually to get a closer look at animals — they formed unintended “social trails,” which can harm the park’s natural resources.
“We have nesting bald eagles, and when people go off our main trail, they could potentially destroy the raptors,” Seubert says, adding that wildlife viewers should use binoculars and camera lenses to observe animals from afar. Educational efforts at Barr Lake were preemptive: No wildlife was harmed inside the refuge last year, and Seubert intends to keep it that way.
But even though animals weren’t adversely impacted, social trails did create erosion that land managers and volunteers had to spend time repairing. It was extra work for rangers who were already stretched paper-thin.
And Barr Lake wasn’t alone in suffering growing pains.
“Things that seemed minor in previous years suddenly became exponentially bigger issues with more people coming out,” notes Travis Duncan, Colorado Parks and Wildlife public information officer.
Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (Boulder OSMP) and Denver Parks and Recreation have always had trouble with visitors leaving their pet’s waste behind. Bears poop in the woods, so your dog’s feces might not seem like such a huge deal, right?
But most dogs eat processed food from a factory, not trout, insects and wild berries. “Dogs don’t have a diet that’s native to the environment, and their food contains all sorts of additives,” Lawhon points out. For those reasons, visitors should always pack out pet waste or dig a proper cat hole.
To address the problem at Barr Lake, Seubert and volunteers put up temporary A-frame signs in areas where high concentrations of visitors were leaving pet waste.
Deposits of human waste also became much more prevalent in the front country over the past fifteen months, according to Lawhon and other local land managers. Under the Know Before You Go preparedness principle, Lawhon advises recreationists to always check park and open space websites ahead of time to see if there will be restrooms. Consider bringing your own TP, hand sanitizer and a small trowel, too, he suggests. Since many newbies to outdoor adventures think it’s too gross to carry out human waste in a plastic bag, Lawhon recommends watching a couple of YouTube videos on digging cat holes.
More visitors also meant a rise in litter throughout local trail systems. “There’s been more trash than our staff could handle,” Duncan observes.
“If a bin is full, visitors should pack trash out with them, just as you would in the backcountry,” says Lawhon.
Even biodegradable items are problematic, and before tossing so much as a banana peel, he advises, people should ask themselves: “Would this have been here if I weren’t?”
While Barr Lake hasn’t grappled with the level of trash that some other Colorado parks experienced, Seubert notes, “We’ve seen the masks in the parking lot, and all those single-use products, like ketchup and salt packets.” Dumpsters servicing the state park got so full that they had to be emptied twice a week rather than once a week, which had been standard.
But Seubert didn’t add any extra garbage receptacles for a very simple reason: “We’d have to have more staff to empty them.”
But Colorado trails were in high demand long before COVID, their use rising along with the state’s population.
“We’ve seen increasing visitation ever since 2005,” says Phil Yates, spokesperson for Boulder OSMP, who cites a 17 percent increase in use of OSMP trails between 2007 and 2017. “The numbers may end up being even higher this year.”
Across Colorado’s 42 state parks, there were at least 4 million more recorded visitors in 2020 than there had been in 2019, Duncan says. In July 2020 alone, Colorado Parks and Wildlife hosted 3,393,403 visitors, up nearly a million from the same month the previous year.
And so far, 2021 is shaping up to be another busy year. “We’re not experiencing the exponential growth we had in 2020, but it’s looking like we’ll have about the same numbers we had last year,” Duncan adds. “We’re not back down to our 2019 numbers, by any means.”
In May 2021, Colorado state parks saw a total of 1,770,738 visitors, down a bit from May 2020, when land managers tracked 2,326,638.
In June 2007, Barr Lake welcomed an estimated 81,189 visitors. During the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2020, rangers and volunteers counted 246,577 guests.
Managers at Barr Lake employ several methods to track visitation. In addition to counting vehicles at the entrance station, rangers and volunteers use a click-counter to keep track of the number of people who come into the park’s visitor center. Seubert likes to use Barr Lake’s parking lots to gauge patronage.
The park has 155 single car spaces spread across three lots, and Barr Lake had never reached parking capacity until last summer, when those spots filled to the max almost every weekend in May and June, at the height of quarantine.
For the first time ever, rangers dealt with waits at the park’s entrance station. They had no choice but to operate on a one-in-one-out entry system, and some park-goers had to wait an hour in line to get inside.
Traffic got so bad at Rocky Mountain National Park that land managers implemented a timed-entry reservation system on Memorial Day weekend; the pilot program will continue through October 11.
Taking cues from the National Park Service, one of Colorado’s more congested state parks, Eldorado Canyon, is testing a variety of visitor-management strategies, leaving timed-entry and reservations as a last resort.
In 2020, Eldorado Canyon partnered with Boulder County Transportation to offer shuttle service into the park on weekends and holidays. The shuttle runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day and has stops in Golden, Superior and several Boulder locations. The shuttle is free to ride, but park-goers still have to pay to enter Eldorado Canyon — a walk-in fee of $4, as opposed to the $10 day-use vehicle fee.
Visitation to Eldorado Canyon had been on the rise for years, so the shuttle launching during the pandemic was just a coincidence. “We didn’t see a lot of ridership last year, probably because of COVID,” says park ranger Lisa Gill. But the shuttle might have been the only place that wasn’t crowded.
The park typically hits capacity every weekend throughout the year. But with the pandemic, Gill notes, “we’ve definitely noticed a lot more visitation during the weekdays, too.”
The goal of the shuttle isn’t to increase visitation to the park, but rather to decrease congestion in Eldorado Springs, the town located at the base. Land managers at Eldorado Canyon are also experimenting with a checkpoint along State Highway 170, near the Doudy Draw and South Mesa trailheads. “There’s a deputy there, and once our park is full, they’re not letting additional vehicles through,” Gill explains.
Eldorado Canyon also hopes to offer real-time parking updates through a free app, Lot Spot, that’s been a success story for land managers in Jefferson County.
Since 2019, Jeffco Open Space has used Lot Spot to provide trail users with information on parking availability. The app was designed by students at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and after launching it pre-pandemic at seven trailheads, Jeffco Open Space is now using the app at fifteen trailheads within the agency’s extremely popular 28-park system.
“It’s been a really powerful tool for us to help people ‘know before they go,’” says Jeffco Open Space community connections manager Matt Robbins. “We’ve found it very successful at relieving congestion.”
Water rescues have been another way to measure visitation at Barr Lake and other parks throughout the state.
Until 2020, Barr Lake performed about twenty rescues annually. “We had a hundred rescues in 2020,” says Seubert, adding that none involved injuries. “It was mostly paddleboarders and kayakers getting caught in wind.”
Other recreation areas weren’t so lucky. “Last year we had a record number of drownings in Colorado,” says Duncan.
“If you’re going to go out on Colorado waters, you need to have a life jacket on, period,” he adds, explaining that many of the state’s lakes and rivers seem harmless until you fall in and realize that high-altitude water is really, really cold. “It’ll shock your system,” Duncan says.
And even at modest elevations, anyone who’s recreating on the water should wear a flotation device. At Barr Lake, rangers recently teamed up with a local Allstate insurance agent, Melissa Rippy, to hand out “good citations” to visitors who remember to wear a life jacket while on the water.
Good citations come with a coupon for a free scoop at Cold Stone Creamery, and Barr Lake visitors can add to their cone by following other Leave No Trace principles.
Rewarding good behavior is one way land managers have helped control crowds. But it’s not enough.
“COVID made every day feel like the Fourth of July,” says Jeffco’s Robbins. “On weekends, we were deploying teams to clean restrooms up to three times a day to stay on top of all the foot traffic.”
Based on the amount of toilet paper used in Jeffco Open Space bathrooms, visits in 2020 were up 130 percent over 2017.
Denver Parks and Recreation quantified park use in its southwest district, which includes Washington Park and Ruby Hill Park, by tallying trash bags.
“We’re using 45 percent more trash bags than in previous years,” says Scott Gilmore, deputy director of Denver Parks and Recreation.
In 2020, Denver Parks, which maintains 270 urban parks that cover about 6,700 acres as well as 14,000 acres of parklands in the mountains and foothills, had to cut back its full-time and seasonal staff. The agency has made do by cutting back on trash services, spreading out mowing and irrigation, and delaying repairs.
“When COVID hit, we’d hired about 100 on-call, or seasonal, workers,” Gilmore says. But by late March 2020, Denver Parks and Rec realized that city revenue was tanking and that some serious budget reductions were on the horizon.
The department stopped hiring seasonal employees, and then, as the lockdowns hit, Gilmore says, “we shut down our rec centers and redeployed those employees into the parks.” In addition to helping Denver Parks with maintenance needs, rec center employees took on such tasks as moving COVID patients from shelters to the ICU, for example.
“So technically,” Gilmore says, “we weren’t really short-staffed in 2020, because Rec came to our rescue when their centers closed.”
City revenue has increased since the stay-at-home orders were lifted, but that didn’t lift budget concerns. “We start planning our budget mid-year, so last year, when we were planning the 2021 budget, we were in the midst of shutdowns and had no idea what would happen,” Gilmore explains. Denver Parks and Recreation had to plan for a reduced budget in 2021, and reduced staff and services.
The department usually employs around 130 full-time workers, and “we were down to 100,” Gilmore says. But he started rehiring full-time employees in May, and the year-round staff is almost back to its pre-COVID numbers.
Those seasonal positions pay a starting hourly wage of $15 to $17. “Now everybody is short-staffed,” Gilmore says. “We’re competing with McDonald’s hiring at $20 an hour.”
As a result of staffing shortages, “you’ll see more weeds in local parks this year,” Gilmore warns, and fewer colorful flowers, since the department has had to cut back on planting flower beds by about 50 percent.
But Parks and Rec planned these cutbacks in advance, and there should be no long-term consequences. “The parks are not falling apart,” says Gilmore. “They’re still beautiful.”
Barr Lake has suffered similar staffing pains. With just three full-time employees, it has always had a small staff; like all Colorado state parks, it depends on seasonal summer employees, usually hired from mid-April through September.
“The funding was there, but we had a hard time finding seasonal employees last year,” Seubert says. “And we’re seeing that again this year.”
In addition to seasonal workers, Barr Lake also leans heavily on volunteers to cover shifts at its nature center, man the entrance station, perform on-site maintenance, and do pretty much everything else that needs to be done.
Barr Lake usually has around 15,000 volunteers annually. Traditionally, many have been retirees, and they weren’t comfortable taking in-person shifts during a pandemic that disproportionately impacted their demographic, Seubert says.
With less than half the normal number of volunteers and few seasonal hires, Barr Lake’s full-time staff worked long hours in 2020. “We had to be strategic,” Seubert says, both in scheduling and accommodating rules for social distancing.
During 2020, for example, Seubert established an on-site bike patrol, which allowed volunteers to educate visitors outdoors while maintaining a safe distance.
Historically, Denver Parks and Recreation has been funded through the city’s general fund, operating on about a $100 million budget for both divisions. But since Ballot Measure 2A passed in 2018, Denver Parks has seen an additional $35 million to $40 million a year in “Legacy funding,” collected through a 0.25 percent sales tax.
So while urban parks have had to temporarily scale back on certain services, Denver Parks has simultaneously been able to acquire new land.
Recently, Denver Parks purchased about five acres of land in University Hills, after Groundcovers Greenhouse went out of business, for $5.5 million. Now land managers are beginning to develop a master plan for a new park there, which should open to the public in the next three years.
“We’re identifying parcels across the city,” Gilmore says. “Looking for neighborhoods that have been left out of the park equation.”
Money for new acquisitions is kept separate from the department’s general-fund dollars, but managed in a similar way. Denver Parks has a five-year plan posted on its website, which includes a bucket for acquisition dollars. “We currently have over $20 million to acquire land,” Gilmore says, adding that the department intends to grow its acquisition fund by adding at least $5 million annually.
“When we build — when we purchase something with Legacy dollars, maintenance funds will be tied to that new space,” Gilmore continues. “We’ll use Legacy dollars to design, build and maintain new spaces.”
South of Trinidad Lake, near the New Mexico border, Fishers Peak opened to users in October 2020. “We used a different model to open this state park,” CPW’s Duncan notes. With previous additions to the system, the department took years to develop and implement a master plan before opening the park to public use. This time around, CPW decided to “open as quickly as possible and build as we go,” he adds.
Biologists are currently exploring the new parcel, documenting everything on it so that CPW can develop the land in a way that promotes recreation while protecting the local wildlife. Just a small portion of the 19,200-acre tract is currently accessible, and only a couple of short trails are open; dogs and bikes aren’t permitted on the property yet. “Fishers Peak will start to look more like a state park in a few years,” Duncan promises.
Denver and the state are fortunate to have the cash for new acquisitions. A recent analysis by Headwaters Economics, an independent research group, showed that visitation to U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land has risen by about 15 percent over the past decade, while budgets for these agencies to support recreational programs have fallen by a similar amount.
Funding mechanisms for other park systems in the state vary widely.
Boulder OSMP, for example, is “88 to 90 percent funded through sales taxes,” Yates explains. “And then the other 10 percent comes from state grants and additional revenue through the city’s general fund.”
When trail users shop in Boulder, they support land managed by Boulder OSMP. In normal years, this structure works fine — but during the height of the pandemic, when restaurants and shops closed, OSMP’s funding suffered.
“COVID led to a decrease in revenue across the city, and we did see some challenges during quarantine,” Yates says. “We had to cut back then on maintenance needs.”
For Colorado Parks and Wildlife, on the other hand, more use equals more capital.
CPW is a division of a state agency, Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources, but that doesn’t mean the State of Colorado foots the bill. Even though CPW was absorbed by Natural Resources in 2011, state statute and federal regulations require that the budgets for parks and wildlife remain separate.
“A lot of folks assume we’re tax-funded,” says Duncan. Instead, hunters and anglers primarily fund fish and wildlife conservation programs, while park visitors support the management of recreational lands through the purchase of day-use and seasonal passes. Fifty-five percent of CPW’s annual budget comes from licenses and park passes alone.
The Colorado Lottery contributes another 16 percent of the agency’s annual revenue, through its Great Outdoors Colorado program, and federal grants account for 12 percent. CPW gets a small percentage of its budget from state and local grants, as well as donations and general-fund contributions.
The confusion over how CPW is funded cropped up in 2020, when cooped-up Coloradans realized that, in addition to its 42 state parks, the agency also manages more than 350 state wildlife areas.
“State wildlife areas are different from state parks,” Duncan says. “These were lands bought and maintained through hunter and angler dollars.” And it was mostly hunters and anglers who used state wildlife areas — until 2020, when hikers, bikers and paddlers discovered them.
Unlike state parks, which are specifically designed for recreational use, most state wildlife areas are critical wildlife habitats created for conservation as well as seasonal hunting and fishing. For example, says Duncan, “Many SWAs shut down at certain times of the year for eagle nesting,” or when wildlife are reproducing and nurturing their young.
“Each SWA is different,” he adds. “That’s why birding or hiking might work just fine at some places and not others.”
CPW actually tried a non-pass option for the SWAs years ago, Duncan recalls, allowing outdoors enthusiasts to recreate inside state wildlife areas with the purchase of an annual Colorado Wildlife Habitat Stamp. The stamp costs $10.40 this year, and is tacked onto yearly hunting and fishing licenses to support conservation.
“The problem was that, based on how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service categorized funding, we weren’t allowed to receive matching funds for the purchase of Habitat Stamps,” Duncan says. CPW was actually losing money by selling stamps to users who weren’t paying to hunt and fish.
While hikers on the SWAs weren’t a big concern pre-pandemic, illegal camping had been problematic for some time. So even before COVID, CPW was looking for ways to deal with unintended forms of recreation on these parcels.
The agency put together the State Wildlife Area Working Group to discuss concerns. And then came the pandemic, which “exacerbated all of the existing problems,” Duncan says. Mountain bikers started shredding through quiet hunting zones, and stand-up paddleboarders scared away fish at SWA watering holes. Conflicts arose among the various recreation groups.
Now the State Wildlife Area Working Group has morphed to include members of the external public and multiple stakeholders from outdoors groups across Colorado — over thirty members in all. “We’re all trying to find that balance between recreation and wildlife needs,” Duncan says, and that includes coming up with a way to track the total number of SWA users.
The State Wildlife Area Working Group came up with a stopgap idea to deal with increased use, and last year the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission voted to require everyone who entered an SWA to possess a valid license to hunt or fish in Colorado starting on July 1, 2020. Everyone from hikers to birdwatchers protested.
Even so, CPW sold more hunting and fishing licenses in 2020 than ever before. “We had more applicants in our primary draw, which is the big hunting draw every year, where folks try to get their dream hunt,” Duncan says. “We sold more fishing licenses than before, too, and that will help us protect wildlife habitats in Colorado.”
Just a few months after instituting the new licensing requirement, CPW caught a break when the federal government changed the way funds could be categorized. “I don’t believe it was in direct response to our situation, just coincidental,” Duncan says.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife suddenly had the option to create an SWA pass, essentially a new permit for recreational use, one that anyone can purchase to access state wildlife areas.
SWA passes have been available since May 1. They cost $36.08 annually — the same as a fishing license — and recreationists are also required to purchase a Habitat Stamp. But they don’t have to buy a license named for a sport they may not support.
Now all people accessing state wildlife areas are helping to fund the places they use. But that doesn’t solve the whole problem. Critical wildlife habitats are still being adversely impacted by increased visitation.
“More use can definitely be positive,” Duncan says, since his agency is primarily funded through visitation. But there’s a downside, too, he notes: “There’s an additional impact with more use. Folks might still be engaging in activities on SWAs that they weren’t intended for.”
At Barr Lake, things didn’t exactly slow down this past winter. “Our wintering bald eagles show up in December and stay through February,” Seubert notes, and visitors came out to see them.
Now the park’s experiencing another abnormally crowded summer. “It’s not as busy as last year, but it’s still busy,” Seubert reports. “We went to capacity on June 6 during a fishing tournament, but we aren’t going to capacity every single weekend like we did in 2020.”
The pressure on Colorado’s outdoor spaces was so substantial in 2020 that Governor Jared Polis declared August 31 to September 7 “Colorado Recreates Responsibly Week.” Multiple agencies participated, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife ran its own “Care for Colorado” campaign, spreading the word about the importance of practicing Leave No Trace principles.
On May 15, as part of Colorado Public Lands Day, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Colorado Tourism Office and the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics reignited the campaign with the #CareForColorado hashtag. “We heard that the messages we spread last year were resonating with folks, and we decided to run another campaign using social media, encouraging folks to tag with that hashtag,” Duncan says.
At Barr Lake, Seubert is making responsible recreation a park-wide priority.
On May 15, the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics presented Barr Lake with a plaque honoring its new designation as a Leave No Trace Gold Standard Site.
Two other Colorado state parks — Roxborough and Castlewood Canyon — have also reached Gold Standard status, making Colorado the only state in the country with three Leave No Trace Gold Standard sites.
There are just ten other Gold Standard sites nationally, and they’re not all state parks. “Colorado Parks and Wildlife got really excited about [the Gold Standard program] and went for it,” Lawhon says, noting that eight more CPW sites have plans to achieve the designation, too.
“It’s a testament to the volunteers at those areas and the commitment of CPW staff,” says Duncan.
Although individual sites might incur some costs on the way to achieving the designation — paying for additional staff training, for example — “it’s not pay to play,” Lawhon says.
Then again, while Barr Lake’s new Gold Standard status might bolster a few strategic partnerships, it won’t bring in any additional funding. But there are other advantages to being a designated site.
They’re seen as national leaders in the Leave No Trace movement. And in many cases, Lawhon says, “Gold Standard sites are better suited to manage increased visitation.”
For some beloved national parks that get a lot of repeat visitors, and also for state parks, Gold Standard designation “is actually changing the culture of visitors,” Lawhon says. “Based on anecdotal evidence, visitors treat Gold Standard parks better.”
Seubert had been interested in going for Gold Standard status at Barr Lake since January 2020, when volunteers from Roxborough came out to talk about their experience becoming a Gold Standard Site. She started the process the next month, just before COVID hit.
Achieving Gold Standard designation generally involves conducting an assessment of the park or protected space, then working on areas where Leave No Trace standards aren’t yet met. This could involve boosting staff and volunteer trainings, adding a Leave No Trace component to on-site youth programming, or providing visitors with clearer information, on site and/or online, about how to effectively practice Leave No Trace.
Being a wildlife refuge, Seubert says, “we felt like [Gold Standard designation] was the next step in educating our visitors.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. As statewide lockdowns halted Barr Lake’s usual on-site programming, Seubert and a core group of four volunteers used the time to “take a hard look at the park’s goals,” she explains.
Over the next fifteen months, weekly virtual meetings provided an opportunity to troubleshoot everything from volunteer trainings to on-site signage and the park’s social media presence. The goal of those meetings was to devise practical ways to implement the seven principles of Leave No Trace, especially concepts such as Know Before You Go and Trash the Trash.
Seubert talks about “finding a balance,” adding that “COVID will really help us figure out what that means.”
Perhaps the rush to the great outdoors in 2020 was an anomaly, or maybe 2020 was a sign of what’s to come. According to local land managers, that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.
Concludes Duncan: “People won’t care about the outdoors unless they’re outside using them.”