As Chris and I were approaching Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), we knew that we needed permits to follow the CDT through the park. All we had were our phones, and phone service isn’t great along the trail, which made things difficult to coordinate.
Difficult doesn’t even begin to describe it. Rocky Mountain National Park is a heavily visited park. I get it. They need to control visitor access. I get that, too. But they’ve made it so complicated and unfriendly that they’re driving people away. Maybe that’s the point. I’ll let you decide after reading this.
Permits and Timed Entries
All over their website, they indicate that you need two things: (1) an entrance pass and (2) a timed entrance reservation. You then have to arrive within the two hour window of your timed entry. Except if you have a camping permit. That’s your timed entry. However, you can’t check-in until after 1 PM. Read all that somewhere. OK…um, can you enter earlier? If so, how much earlier? Any time slot earlier? If not, somewhere I read that if it’s after 2 PM then you don’t need a timed permit. Seems like a big fuss for a hour difference.
I think the camping permit is referring to car camping at sites along the road, not wilderness camping. I’m pretty sure from staying in other national parks that I need an overnight wilderness permit. So is that third thing that I need? I don’t know. I was reading pages and pages about this on my tiny phone screen trying to figure this out.
There was one page that said very specifically that vehicles require an entrance pass and a timed entry. Also, there is an option for a non-vehicle entrance pass. Does that mean if you don’t have a vehicle that you don’t need a timed entrance reservation? Can’t find anywhere that says only vehicles need timed entries, nor can I find anywhere that says people arriving on foot do not require timed entries.
Furthermore, I don’t know how much all these permits cost. In the FarOut map app that I use to navigate the CDT (and the AT), user comments were saying $36 per person. I added two non-vehicle day passes for $15 per person for me and Chris. You have to pick the day pass for a specific day. OK, got it. The website then immediately took me to checkout. Whoa, whoa, whoa! You said I need two things. I still need a timed entrance reservation (I think) and maybe an overnight wilderness permit (I think).
I go back and try to add two timed entrance reservations. Not allowed. Each person is only allowed to make one timed entrance reservation per day. WTF? So Chris has to get her own? I can’t buy it for her while I’m doing this? Fine, whatever. Remember, I’m trying to do all this on my itty bity phone screen, which is adding to my frustration.
I look at the tiny calendar on the website, and timed entrance reservations indicate something like 190 available every day for the next two months. However, you can’t select them. Turns out, they reserve 40% of the timed entrance reservations for each day, and only release them after 5 PM the evening immediately before the reservation.
To be clear, the park website was trying to get me to buy day passes for a day that I don’t even know if I can get a timed entrance reservation for yet. What kind of fucking scam is that? Furthermore, Chris still has to get her timed entrance reservation separately. What if one of us can’t get a timed entrance reservation or our two reservations are for different time slots? We have to arrive separately and hike separately? Maybe even on different days? Seriously, WHAT THE FUCK?
But this whole mess gets even better. (For all the Sheldons out there, that’s sarcasm…it gets even worse. And for those who don’t get that pop culture reference to The Big Bang Theory, are we even friends?)
No Online Reservations
At some point, I find a page about wilderness camping permits. To my dismay, it clearly states (finally something is clearly stated) that wilderness camping permits must be picked up in person. No online option. And there are only two headquarters to get the permits, neither of which are anywhere near the CDT. Thus, CDT hikers with no car have to walk miles out of our way to get to one of two park headquarters to physically pick up a permit.
Wow. That’s how you treat hikers trying to hike a national scenic trail? This is best interagency cooperation that the National Park Service could come up with?
But it gets even better.
We also need to select a campsite and reserve it for a specific date. The campsites fill up weeks in advance. I don’t know weeks in advance when I’m going to arrive at a specific mile marker on a 3,000 mile trail. Weather and fire closures and injury and countless other things can wreak havoc on your schedule. What’s more is that on a tiny phone screen, they just give you a spreadsheet of campsites and their availability for a specific date. You have to somehow figure out where they’re at and if they’re even anywhere near the CDT.
Between my phone and Chris’, we were able to find a few on the trail, but everything had “0” available reservations except for a few group sites that listed “W” for walk up. However, there’s no definition of what “walk up” means. I guess you walk up and if there’s space available, then you have a place to sleep for the night. Otherwise…what? I dunno. Didn’t say.
All totally unclear and confusing. And none of it matters because I gave up trying to figure this crap out after Chris made a phone call.
We had also been reading that Rocky Mountain National Park requires bear canisters. I have a bear canister that I carried on the on the entire Appalachian Trail because I knew I would need it for two parks on the Pacific Crest Trail. Plans changed, and I’m trying to reduce my pack weight, so I ditched my huge two-and-a-half pound bear canister for two eight-ounce Ursacks.
Ursacks are heavy-duty bear-proof sacks. They’re relatively new, so not everyone accepts them as a replacement to hard-shell bear canisters. Chris called Rocky Mountain to see if they accept Ursacks…and they do! Yay! But only if they have the Ursack-made aluminum insert. Fuck. I didn’t buy the insert. Chris has Ursacks, and she doesn’t have the insert either. We’re trying to save weight, not carry around extra sheets of metal.
There is an option, though. We can rent bear canisters for $5 per day from an outdoor shop in Grand Lake. However, to return them after you complete to trail through the park, you have to hike five miles the wrong way back to town, then those same five miles back to get where you left the trail. 10 extra miles of hiking. And one person reported that he returned his 90 minutes late and got charged an extra day. I’m not so concerned with the $5, but that’s basically an entire day wasted to return a bear canister.
At this point, I decided fuck Rocky Mountain National Park. I know it’s beautiful. I know it’s part of the CDT. But fuck them if they’re going to make it so difficult for CDT hikers.
Road Walk Highway 34
With the decision to skip the park, Chris and I opted to hike up Highway 34 to the next section of the CDT. The CDT (and PCT) have large swathes that are “road walks” where you are literally walking along an asphalt road for miles and miles, often with no shoulder as cars and semis zoom by just inches away from you at 70+ mph. Obviously, highly dangerous. I don’t mind walking dirt roads, but I have no qualms about hitching a ride in a vehicle for these asphalt portions. I don’t consider walking on asphalt much of trail experience. I’m not going to be a “purist” (walk every step on the trail) on the CDT for miles of deadly asphalt.
Thus, Chris and I tried to hitch the five miles up Highway 34. There’s no taxis or Uber in the tiny town of Grand Lake, so that wasn’t an option. Thumb out. Lots of cars. Nobody stopping. Finally someone did, but he said he was only a mile up the road. Seriously? Only a mile? Thanks for stopping, but we need five miles…just four miles more. Nope. Oh well, our spot here is pretty good for hitching—slow section with long visibility and a turnout where cars can pull over—so we declined the one-mile offer.
Eventually a crew cab pickup stopped. It was full with a family, but they agreed to let us hop in the bed and drop us off at the CDT where it crosses the highway.
Here’s the best part of all. (Again, sarcasm, Sheldon.)
It turns out we couldn’t even go up Highway 34 because the highway goes through the edge of park, and you need….can you guess? A day pass and timed entry reservation. Argh! Fuck you, Rocky Mountain National Park!
Like us, the truck driver didn’t know any of this. Just a nice family trying to get to Estes Park. I couldn’t hear their exchange, but eventually we were let through and got dropped off at the CDT four miles later and then hiked the maybe two miles out of Rocky Mountain National Park. Good riddance.
Let me add that Highway 34 is the only way to get to Estes Park, which is just 45 miles north. Well, not the only way. You could drive all the way back down south past Winter Park, east across the mountains, north through Denver, west back across the mountains, then finally arrive at Estes Park several hours and a 150 miles later. That’s your two options if want to navigate between Estes Park and Grand Lake: (1) plan your trip well in advance and try to buy both a pass and timed entrance permit, or (2) drive literally a hundred miles out of your way.
All said, technically Chris and I should have paid $72 (supposedly, never got a final total) to drive four miles to a trailhead and walk two miles out of the park. That is fucking ridiculous.
Apologies for the Profanity
Sorry for all the profanity. I held back as much as I could, but some of my frustrations slipped through. Believe me, this is just a tiny bit of the frustration that I felt trying to figure out all this on my tiny phone screen with weak signal out in the wilderness.
And understand that I want to support the park service. I love the outdoors. I’ve been on the board of multiple conservation nonprofits. I care about it so much that I’m even remotely managing conservation access to roughly 3,000,000 (that’s three million) acres of land across Texas while hiking both the Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail. I give up my job and house and family and CNM partner to hike the trails, but not my unpaid volunteering for conservation nonprofits.
And despite that, this experience trying to support the park service has left me so frustrated that I have to say:
Fuck Rocky Mountain National Park!