Golden Gate Canyon State Park braces for a busy leaf-peeping season

Front Range leaf-peeping season will begin any day now, and at Golden Gate Canyon State Park, that means rangers are bracing for crazy crowds that annually overwhelm the scenic mountain area northwest of Golden when the aspen turn.

“We literally get run over,” park manager Todd Farrow said recently on a tour of the 12,000-acre park, which is located 12 miles up Golden Gate Canyon and seems to have aspen stands every direction a visitor turns. Some of them frame gorgeous views of the Continental Divide.

Golden Gate consistently ranks as fourth-busiest among the 42 parks operated by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, behind Lake Pueblo, Cherry Creek and Chatfield, and it’s No. 1 among CPW’s mountain parks, attracting 1.3 million visitors last year. Of that, 291,000 visited in a five-week period during prime leaf-peeping season, representing 22% of its total visitation for the year.

There are only 400 designated parking spots at the park’s 11 trailheads, which means lots of headaches for the five fulltime — and five seasonal — rangers when the aspen are turning.

“We have to put ‘No parking’  signs everywhere, because these parking lots fill up, and our visitors will park on the side of the road,” Farrow said. “We don’t allow any parking along the roadway. It destroys vegetation. And with all the moisture we’ve gotten this year, you can see how tall all these grasses are.  An exhaust system or a catalytic converter parked over that could spark a wildfire.”

In many places, there is little or no shoulder, which doesn’t stop folks from parking there anyway.

“Unfortunately we get that kind of behavior during leaf-peeping,” Farrow said. “People park on the side of the road, essentially turning this into a one-and-a-half-lane road. It may not be a big deal to a lot of people, if they’re just thinking about vehicular traffic. But think about a fire truck or an ambulance that needs to get here in an emergency situation and they can’t.”

Golden Gate has geographic complications, too. The three main roads into and through the park are public highways. Farrow says that means CPW wouldn’t be able to impose a timed-entry reservation system, like the one at Rocky Mountain National Park, even if it wanted to. There are no gates at the park entrances, just electronic kiosks — Farrow calls them “iron rangers” — where visitors can buy passes.

“You could manage (a reservation system) if you had one way in and one way out,” Farrow said. “With the county roads that go in and out of here, I can’t put staff at each of those areas. I just don’t have it.”

One notable trouble spot for illegal parking on the north side of the park is along Gap Road near Golden Gate’s most popular attraction, Panorama Point, which offers a stunning vista to the northwest that includes the Indian Peaks along the Continental Divide and Longs Peak farther north. During leaf-peeping season, you can photograph that view framed with flaming aspen.

Gap Road also is used by locals who live nearby, with park property flanking both sides of the road. Farrow says people will park cars along the road there “for miles” when the small parking areas at Panorama Point fill up.

“We have people out here walking with strollers and dogs and kids,” Farrow said. “The speed limit here is 25 mph, and locals will go 40.”

There is a similar situation on Colorado State Highway 46 near the south entrances to the park.

“In pull-out areas, we’ve put out ‘No parking’ signs and people don’t care,” Farrow said, “They’ll park right in front of them. Then they’re walking down this road, the speed limit is 35, and you’d be hard-pressed to find people that are going less than 45, 50.”

As with many public lands along the Front Range, population growth and the pandemic have driven a visitation surge at Golden Gate. From about a million in 2019, visitation shot up to 1.6 million in 2020 as pandemic shut-ins sought solace in nature. Earlier this year, the park completed a new 10-year plan to help manage that visitation.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to reach pre-pandemic levels,” Farrow said. “We’re the closest backcountry experience to Denver. You can get up here in an hour and be out in the backcountry. We have certainly been discovered.”

Prime leaf-peeping season this year is expected to begin around Sept. 23 and run through mid-October. Farrow recommends visiting during the week if possible. On weekends, you’d better get there before 8 a.m.

“If you come up early enough, you can get a parking spot,” Farrow said. “Know where you’re going, and have alternative plans. One of the challenges we face with our visitors is, they select a trail — normally it’s the Horseshoe Trail or the Raccoon Trail — and they’re just dead-set on doing that trail. They get up here, and there’s no parking for that trail because the parking’s already full.

“What we don’t want you to do is just pull off the road, ‘To heck with it, I don’t have the patience for this, I’m just going to park here and take my chances,’ and cause resource damage, possibly igniting a wildfire,” he added. “When one car parks there, everybody else thinks it’s OK.”

Park rangers are empowered to write parking citations.

“We are law enforcement officers, but we operate in the customer service world,” Farrow said. “The park belongs to the people and visitors of the state of Colorado, and our job is to take care of it.”

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