By Doug Dart, President of the Eldora Civic Association (ECA) and Editor of the ECA Newsletter
This article was originally printed in the Eldora Civic Association Newsletter Fall 2021 Edition.
“COVID-19 lockdown has thrown chains on everybody’s lifestyle, but for people who love outdoor adventures it means just one thing. Inventing even more outdoor adventures. People are hitting hiking trails in record numbers this summer, especially at the most popular national parks where reservation systems have been put in place to handle the multitudes. Seeing the crowds at national parks, my wife, Karen, and I avoided some of our favorites like Rocky Mountain, Zion and Yosemite in favor of Colorado trails we thought would be known mostly by locals. Turned out most of the local hikers and a few out of staters like us had the same idea. On our first backpack three weeks ago, there weren’t enough parking spaces along the dirt road outside of Nederland at the popular Hessie trailhead that leads into the spectacular Indian Peaks Wilderness. We waited 1ó hours before a spot finally opened up to start our three day, 17-mile backpack that took us to King Lake along the Continental Divide to Devil’s Thumb Lake. When we returned, at least 10 vehicles had been ticketed for parking outside the designated area.” Excerpt from an article written by John Werner, Sports and Travel writer for the Waco (Texas) Tribune-Herald. August 7, 2021.
The astonishing increase in weekend crowds heading to the Hessie and Fourth of July trailheads over the last two years has been frustrating for some and difficult to fully understand, but it is apparent that the beautiful mountain landscapes west of Eldora have hit the big time. COVID’s sudden elimination of most activities that normally keep people entertained has been the catalyst for the increase in visitation, and timed entries and permitted parking at other popular Front Range areas such as Rocky Mountain National Park and Mount Evans have only fueled the desire to find alternatives to these crowded places. It is not hard to understand how Hessie made the list. There is the Internet, from which nothing can be kept secret, but also weekly articles in local newspapers recommending far less crowded or even “undiscovered” places to visit. Less crowded is a relative term, but as has been the case with the Hessie trailhead, less crowded has nonetheless been overwhelming.
Over the last two decades, the increasing popularity of the Hessie trailhead became alarming to Eldora residents due to the large number of people traveling through town to either find or create a parking spot. Cars lined both sides of Eldorado Avenue’s west end on busy weekends and passage farther west along the dirt road was all but impossible for emergency vehicles due to vehicles parking haphazardly on both sides of the road. Boulder County recognized that something needed to be done to solve the gridlock but also wanted to maintain access to the Hessie trailhead. Parking was eventually limited to the south side of the dirt road in two well defined zones, and in town parking was greatly restricted. Two options were explored to provide access to the trailhead: a new parking lot in Hessie or a shuttle service. Increased parking was not a popular alternative, so the County began a shuttle service in 2012.
The shuttle originally ran from the Nederland Middle - Senior High School parking lot to the Hessie trailhead. Several years later when shuttle services were extended into the fall, parking was switched to the RTD parking lot in Nederland, but then moved back to the high school two years ago. Since the shuttle began, services have been extended later into the fall and hours of operation have been extended. In 2021, the shuttle began operating on Fridays as well as on weekends.
Another change that was added in the last few years was the establishment of a checkpoint at the high school staffed by Open Space Rangers and Boulder County Sheriff’s Deputies. On weekends, trailhead parking areas fill up early. When this happens, cars are required to park at the high school where visitors board the shuttle. On busy weekends, parked cars not only fill the high school parking lot but extend east along CR130. Often, they are turned away. During the summer of 2020 when shuttle capacity was restricted, hikers could be seen walking along the road from the high school to the Hessie trailhead to begin their hike.
Boulder County has been monitoring ridership and has collected data since the program began in 2012. Shuttle utilization remained fairly steady from 2012 to 2016 but in 2017 there was a sharp rise in annual boardings and between 2017 and 2019 utilization increased by 76%. Ridership data for the year 2020 do not reflect actual demand because shuttle capacity was limited to about 40% of seated capacity due to COVID-19 restrictions. Ridership data from the summer of 2021 reflect full capacity operation and offers a foreboding forecast of what future hiking seasons may look like with 33,926 boardings recorded, an increase of 120% from 2019, the most recent non COVID year. There are several caveats in the interpretation this year’s data as service was provided over three rather than two days a week and hours of operation were extended. Nevertheless, there is no question that demand for access to the Indian Peaks Wilderness area has skyrocketed. The busiest day ever recorded for the shuttle was September 25 of this year with a little over eight hundred people riding to the trailhead. In 2021, the traffic checkpoint turned around an average of 409 cars a day and on the busiest day, 850 cars were turned around.
For the near future, the shuttle will continue as a way to access the Hessie trailhead. According to Alex Hyde-Wright, Principal Transportation Planner for Boulder County, there are no plans to reduce the level of service provided as it appears the popularity of the area west of Eldora will continue to rise. The County continues to evaluate options as demand soars so that the trailheads are managed in a way to provide a positive experience for both residents and visitors. For Eldora’s residents, the shuttle has proven to be a great success by reducing traffic passing through town. But even if hundreds of hikers can be transported into a wilderness area on a single day, it doesn’t mean that the problem is solved. And how sustainable is a checkpoint that turns cars away by the hundreds? The sad fact of life for those that love the wilderness is that it has become a commodity for which there is an ever-increasing demand, and it may be that the use of timed entries and permits, a policy that some find unpleasant, may be the best approach for balancing demand and a quality wilderness experience.
For more information about the Hessie Trailhead Shuttle visit: https://www.bouldercounty.org/open-space/parks-and-trails/hessie-trailhead/
For more information about the Eldora Civic Association (ECA) visit https://www.eldoracivicassociation.org/