Plan to camp in Colorado over Memorial Day weekend? Maybe think again

Several tents are set out by the local nonprofit Rocky Mountain Field Institute invites college-aged students from around the country to a 30-day program that starts in the classroom and ends in the field: on a 14er where they camp out and do trail work on Saturday, July 29, 2017. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

Every year come Memorial Day weekend, Colorado’s mountain highways are a parade of RVs and tent-toting trucks — a scene marking the kickoff to camping season.

But this year officials are asking those planning their pilgrimages to be aware of changes due to COVID-19.

And they aren’t exactly extending an invitation.

Across all of Colorado’s national forests and grasslands, developed campgrounds are off-limits. The closures are expected to be in place through May. Also through the end of the month, under an order signed April 7, campfires, grills and barbecues are restricted on those lands.

The reason is explained on U.S. Forest Service webpages representing every corner of the state, including that of the Pike and San Isabel national forests, covering the foothills of Colorado Springs to the wilds around South Park and Chaffee County:

“These fire restrictions will prevent the drawdown of fire and medical resources to unwanted human-caused wildfires and reduce firefighter exposure to COVID-19.”

The Bureau of Land Management also is telling explorers to keep first responders in mind.

“We want the public to be aware that local search and rescue operations may be limited,” said Jayson Barangan, the BLM’s communications director for the state. “So when you’re out there, use common sense.”

Dispersed camping has been banned on BLM lands stretching the Arkansas River. On Forest Service grounds, dispersed camping, along with hiking and river recreation, is “allowed, although discouraged.”

Will words of caution prevent the typical rush?

“We know it’s coming,” Buena Vista mayor Duff Lacy said. “We know there’s no way to put up a barricade to stop it.”

He described a catch-22 prevailing in the popular adventure base, where business owners like him would otherwise around now be eager for Front Range crowds.

“In normal circumstances, we’d love that. Bring it on,” Lacy said. “But right now, it’s kind of hard to explain even to the locals: Our infrastructure, our hospitals in other words, is not big enough to handle any kind of outbreak at all. That’s our concern.”

The Forest Service recently launched an online tool directing people to updated information on their favorite destinations. They can find, for example, a long list of closures and access limitations to popular areas within the Arapaho and Roosevelt national forests. Those are due to Clear Creek County closing county roads to nonresidents.

In a news release announcing the tool, the Forest Service listed several guidelines ahead of the typical busy season. First among them: “Stay close to home to keep other communities safe.” That’s in line with Gov. Jared Polis’ repeated calls to not treat the pandemic like a vacation and to stay away from mountain towns.

But Randy Wheelock said he and his fellow Clear Creek County commissioners are worried about the governor’s announced “safer-at-home” phase of the coronavirus response, lifting the previous stay-at-home order.

“Our bigger thing is day-trippers out of Denver and wondering what the governor’s relaxation of the restrictions, how that will impact Clear Creek County,” Wheelock said. “And our guess is it’s going to be a lot. All we’re hearing from counties all over is that (visitation) is blowing up.”

The BLM, like the Forest Service, is advising anyone considering travel to respect local orders prohibiting outsiders, including in San Juan and Gunnison counties.

Will that respect be given with summer days ahead? Crowded trailheads around the state suggest Coloradans are eager to escape quarantine confines.

“I really can’t speculate,” Barangan said. “We are seeing increases in recreation use, for sure. I know other federal agencies have had similar concerns. We’ll keep (flexible) and address any issues as they arise.”

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