ESTES PARK — The last time Rocky Mountain National Park was open to the public on a weekend, the coronavirus caseload in Colorado was little more than 100 and the first death from the highly contagious disease had been reported just two days earlier.
It was Sunday, March 15, and the 415-square-mile park would close just five days later under federal government order. It reopened Wednesday for the first time since the pandemic struck but wouldn’t get its true test of crowds until Saturday.
For Vijay Dodda of Colorado Springs, those 10 weeks disconnected from the elk, bighorn sheep and yellow-bellied marmots that call the park’s high peaks and alpine meadows home had him feeling antsy.
“I’ve been checking the (Rocky Mountain National Park) website every day for the last three or four weeks,” Dodda said Saturday, as he, his wife and two children navigated over deep snowbanks lining the trail around Bear Lake. “It gets you out of the daily madness. It’s, in a way, very meditative and spiritual.”
The mental benefits of setting eyes on Rocky Mountain National Park’s expansive acreage and stunning views were cited by several visitors as reasons they made the trip to Larimer County to take in the park, which attracted 4.6 million people in 2019. Rebecca Birdwell was in town from Tennessee, where she had been sheltering at home for weeks.
“I think it was good to lay low for two months,” she said, casting a line into Sprague Lake as a moose snacked in the water less than 50 feet away. “But I think there’s a lot of mental health issues from staying in a house too long.”
Even so, Rocky Mountain National Park was far from overrun Saturday, despite a mostly sunny day with temperatures in the 60s. Even though the parking areas for Bear Lake and Glacier Gorge were full by late morning, one parking attendant said it took far longer than a typical weekend day for the last spaces to disappear.
Lacy Henry of Gunnison said she had no trouble practicing social distancing while fly-fishing in Sprague Lake on Saturday.
“As far as Rocky Mountain National Park in May — almost June — this is the calmest it’s been since I was a kid,” she said. “We’ve been able to avoid people on the path and have been able to social distance.”
Stephen Brewer, who arrived at the park Saturday as part of a cross-country road trip from his home in Florida, said he was surprised at how calm it was. The 77-year-old retiree, who was descending Deer Mountain, even sailed down Trail Ridge Road for 5 miles on his bike, barely passing a vehicle.
“I thought it would be chock full of people,” he said. “People are scared, aren’t they?”
Park officials said 2,775 vehicles had entered the park as of 5 p.m. Saturday but did not provide a reference to the same date in prior years.
Starting Thursday, visitors will need to obtain a timed entry permit to gain access to the park so crowding can be minimized through the summer high season. Reservations can be made at recreation.gov. Not everything will be operational in the park — visitor centers remain closed, the Hiker Shuttle from Estes Park is not running, and masks are required for anyone riding on shuttle buses inside the park.
Trail Ridge Road is open only to Rainbow Curve from the east and the Colorado River Trailhead on the west.
Colorado’s COVID-19 numbers now have the state approaching 26,000 cases, with about 1,200 deaths directly attributable to the virus, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Even though Estes Park’s elected leaders last week discontinued a requirement that people wear masks anywhere in their busy downtown retail district, including outdoors, many people wore face coverings while out and about on East Elkhorn Avenue on Saturday. This tourist-dependent town, in the shadow of Rocky Mountain National Park, was quickly getting back to life, with lines forming outside of some restaurants and shorts-wearing visitors strolling along shopfronts, enjoying ice cream or a drink.
Sales tax revenues in Estes Park plummeted nearly 30% in March, compared with March 2019 — $852,000 vs. $612,000 — as the impact of forced closures of restaurants and retail shops began to take its toll.
For Robert Dobson, who hails from near Wellington, the return of visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park was a step back to normalcy. There were the rushed pull-overs, as people with cellphones held aloft took in herds of elk, or the gathering of hikers near a moose that stood knee-deep in a lake.
Dobson had done two laps around Bear Lake, photographing the scenery and getting in some exercise Saturday morning.
“It’s a step toward life getting back to what it should be,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons I live here — that and skiing.”
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