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Publish Date: 8/29/2005

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Kato Dee of Fort Collins walks up Longs Peak Road to the Longs Peak trailhead Sunday morning. Federal officials are considering closing the Longs Peak Campground to turn it into a parking lot so cars won’t have to park on both sides of the road. Times-Call/Lewis Geyer

Hiking hitch
Longs Peak crowds may force campsite to become parking lot


Federal officials are considering closing the busy campground at the base of Longs Peak to accommodate the cars of hikers who want to climb the strenuous 14er that looms over the Front Range.

Officials would replace the lost campsites by expanding the nearby 29-site Meeker Park campground, which could also begin serving more visitors to Brainard Lake.

The plans, which are in the early discussion phase, would require coordination between Rocky Mountain National Park, which manages Longs Peak, and the U.S. Forest Service, which runs Brainard.

“It’s still very preliminary,” said Christine Walsh, the Boulder District Ranger for the Forest Service. “The campground is going to be an expensive investment.”

RMNP spokesman Scott Stitcha said the proposal to change the Longs Peak campground is still very new, and further discussions will start in earnest this spring.

“There will be a whole series of Colo. Highway 7 improvements that are being looked at,” he said. “Longs Peak parking issues will be part of that planning.”

Changes are coming because so many people are using the 3,500-acre area, which is technically a wilderness and must be managed as such.

However, anyone who has tried to camp or hike there knows competition for parking and tenting sites is fierce, particularly on summer and fall weekends. The dozens of cars circling for scarce parking show it isn’t truly a remote area.

The Brainard Lake road offers easy access to Mount Audubon and several other popular wilderness hikes. But it also offers fishing and picnicking and has become what recreation planners call a “drive-through” wilderness.

Under the Brainard Lake proposal, the Forest Service would:

Build a year-round parking lot near the Red Rock/Sourdough trailhead to accommodate up to 235 vehicles. Today, winter users park along the road outside the gate, which is locked when summer ends.

Rebuild the Pawnee picnic area to accommodate up to 220 vehicles, and reconstruct the nearby campground while retaining the existing 45 sites.

Create eight picnic sites in the Red Rock Lake area, along with a handicap-accessible trail and a connection to the existing snowshoeing trail.

Build a new campground near the current recreation area entrance. Because that would be expensive, Walsh is seeking to expand the existing Meeker Park campground in partnership with RMNP.

Close the northern portion of the road around Brainard Lake, but create two-way vehicle access to the Niwot picnic area and the wilderness hiking trailheads. The closed portion of the road would be replaced with a bike path or walking trail.

Notably, the Forest Service backed away from a plan to use shuttle buses to reduce vehicle traffic into the area.

“There was concern from the public that the possibility of introducing a shuttle service ... might leave hikers returning late stranded in the wilderness,” the proposal concluded. “This is a complex issue, which needs further study and monitoring data of recreation use.”

Walsh said the Forest Service isn’t giving up on the shuttle bus idea, but is instead going to take the next few years to gather more data. One of the problems with the suggestion, she said, was that a bus system might encourage even more people to use the area.

Some local hikers avoid the Brainard Lake area because it’s already overwhelmingly busy, Walsh said.

“Our concern was that putting people on a bus and driving them to the trailhead would put more pressure on the wilderness,” Walsh said. “We’re not sure it wouldn’t increase pressure on the wilderness.”

Walsh said the Brainard Lake area sees two distinct types of users: people who want what she called the “Big W” wilderness experience, and people who just want to take a stroll and have a picnic in the woods.

The proposal aims to keep those two uses separate, she said, so that people who want a real backcountry experience can get it without having to fight crowds of picnickers, who also deserve to use the area, Walsh said. The current setup, Walsh said, funnels everyone into the same area.

Trevor Hughes can be reached at 303-684-5220, or by e-mail at thughes@times-call.com.
Changes are coming because so many people are using the 3,500-acre area, which is technically a wilderness and must be managed as such.

However, anyone who has tried to camp or hike there knows competition for parking and tenting sites is fierce, particularly on summer and fall weekends. The dozens of cars circling for scarce parking show it isn’t truly a remote area.

The Brainard Lake road offers easy access to Mount Audubon and several other popular wilderness hikes. But it also offers fishing and picnicking and has become what recreation planners call a “drive-through” wilderness.

Under the Brainard Lake proposal, the Forest Service would:

Build a year-round parking lot near the Red Rock/Sourdough trailhead to accommodate up to 235 vehicles. Today, winter users park along the road outside the gate, which is locked when summer ends.

Rebuild the Pawnee picnic area to accommodate up to 220 vehicles, and reconstruct the nearby campground while retaining the existing 45 sites.

Create eight picnic sites in the Red Rock Lake area, along with a handicap-accessible trail and a connection to the existing snowshoeing trail.

Build a new campground near the current recreation area entrance. Because that would be expensive, Walsh is seeking to expand the existing Meeker Park campground in partnership with RMNP.

Close the northern portion of the road around Brainard Lake, but create two-way vehicle access to the Niwot picnic area and the wilderness hiking trailheads. The closed portion of the road would be replaced with a bike path or walking trail.

Notably, the Forest Service backed away from a plan to use shuttle buses to reduce vehicle traffic into the area.

“There was concern from the public that the possibility of introducing a shuttle service ... might leave hikers returning late stranded in the wilderness,” the proposal concluded. “This is a complex issue, which needs further study and monitoring data of recreation use.”

Walsh said the Forest Service isn’t giving up on the shuttle bus idea, but is instead going to take the next few years to gather more data. One of the problems with the suggestion, she said, was that a bus system might encourage even more people to use the area.

Some local hikers avoid the Brainard Lake area because it’s already overwhelmingly busy, Walsh said.

“Our concern was that putting people on a bus and driving them to the trailhead would put more pressure on the wilderness,” Walsh said. “We’re not sure it wouldn’t increase pressure on the wilderness.”

Walsh said the Brainard Lake area sees two distinct types of users: people who want what she called the “Big W” wilderness experience, and people who just want to take a stroll and have a picnic in the woods.

The proposal aims to keep those two uses separate, she said, so that people who want a real backcountry experience can get it without having to fight crowds of picnickers, who also deserve to use the area, Walsh said. The current setup, Walsh said, funnels everyone into the same area.

Trevor Hughes can be reached at 303-684-5220, or by e-mail at thughes@times-call.com.

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