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Proposed Reservation System Could Threaten Climbing Access in Eldorado Canyon

The comment period for the Eldorado Canyon State Park draft management plan closes on May 25.

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In Boulder, Colorado, where the spontaneous pre-work multi-pitch and after-work solo circuit have been woven into local climbing culture for decades, residents could be in for a rude awakening. 

In April 2021, Eldorado Canyon State Park released a draft of its new management plan, the first update since 2000, which includes recommendations for a new reservation system. The reservation system aims to reduce park visitation by 20 percent and could impair access for climbers, particularly Boulder and Denver residents accustomed to making spur-of-the-moment  trips.

“Eldo has this aura of freedom and exploration, and the best days are those where you find time for one last climb before it gets dark,” says Molly Mitchell, a Boulder local who’s been climbing in Eldorado Canyon for much of her career. “[With a reservation system] you take away what is, in my opinion, one of the special things about Eldo—the spontaneous adventures.”

A pair of climbers make their way up the Bastille Crack, a popular climb in Eldorado Canyon. Photo: Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post

Eldorado Canyon is a world-renowned destination and one of the early frontiers of American traditional climbing. The park’s 700-foot cliffs, airy sandstone aretes, and huecoed alcoves are home to over 1,000 routes, including dozens of historic lines authored by Layton Kor, Royal Robbins, Jim Erickson, Pat Ament, and other prominent trailblazers of the 1950s and 60s. Climbers were ultimately one of the leading forces pushing for park protection when a quarrying company offered to buy the land in the 1970s.

“That was a real crisis point for climbers in Eldorado State Park, and I think this [draft management plan] is comparable to that in terms of threat to access,” says Steve Levin, a prominent local route developer and the author of Eldorado Canyon: A Climbing Guide. “We are in crisis mode in Eldorado.”

While the draft management plan acknowledges that climbing is a “low impact” sport and that climbers are generally good stewards of the land, it also notes that climbers make up just 12 percent of peak-season park visitors. The bulk of new visitors, the plan notes, are picnickers and hikers coming from the rapidly growing Metro Denver area.

 “In the last five years, the capacity for the park has gone from approximately 260,000 to 530,000 annual visitors,” explains Park Manager John Carson. “A lot of people are new to recreation, and so some of them are not as knowledgeable about environmental ideas and concepts.”

Carson notes that there was a 20-percent jump in visitation between 2019 and 2020 alone, which has led to an uptick in trail short-cutting, erosion, off-leash dogs, and litter. The park has also faced budget cuts in recent years. Today, it operates with just four full-time staff and an annual budget of less than $160,000.

 Eldorado Canyon State Park has made a number of trail improvements over the years, but the narrow, unpaved main road and dirt parking lots haven’t been updated to handle the increased traffic congestion and parking challenges.

“It’s a steep canyon with a one-way-in, one-way-out roadway, so when you get a significant amount of people in here it puts a strain on the facilities, on the trail systems, on the natural environment, on the staff,” Carson says. “It was time for us to take a hard look.”

 The draft management plan, drawn up in the wake of the 2020 outdoor recreation boom—spurred on by the covid-19 pandemic—includes recommendations for the construction of additional bathrooms, delineated parking spots, a redesign of the entrance station to improve the flow of traffic, and  a shuttle system, which Carson says is widely supported by climbers and other visitors alike. The plan also mentions potential trail improvements to keep hikers and bikers off the roadway, but doesn’t mention the other traffic obstacle: One of the park’s most classic moderates, the Bastille Crack (5.7+) is right off the main thoroughfare; belayers, onlookers, and the parties next in line all gather in the road.

Redgarden Wall, Eldorado Canyon. Photo: Michael Levy

Carson told Climbing that these strategies will be implemented first, and that a reservation system will be used as a last resort—likely not for another two to three years. However, the draft management plan states that reservations “will be piloted as soon as it is feasible to do so.”  

Early access and some availability for walk-up reservations are a possibility, Carson says, though Levin believes more needs to be done to ensure a fair solution for climbers, who have been such a prominent and longstanding part of park history.

“I think the park’s intentions are good, but they’ve presented a fairly black-and-white proposal,” Levin says, adding that he’d like to see more explicit allowances for reservation-free early access and a larger number of spots for walk-ins.

“Our biggest fears are about safety,” says Kate Beezley, executive director of the Boulder Climbing Community (BCC), a local climbing stewardship nonprofit. “If people have a reservation, they might have this mentality where they’re going to go for it even if it’s not the safest conditions or there’s a thunderstorm rolling in.”

 Safety concerns have also been at the forefront of discussions surrounding the new permit system for Yosemite National Park big wall climbing. Like Eldorado Canyon, Yosemite is filled with historic, highly coveted objectives that many climbers wait a lifetime to do. What’s a little rain when you’ve only got one day to try the route and you’ve flown across the country to do so?

Mitchell predicts that reservations could also dampen the adventurous spirit of Eldorado Canyon climbers. “If climbers only have a few hours, maybe they will flock to climbs they know as opposed to challenging themselves to try something new,” she says. Switching to a reservation system, Mitchell adds, would make the park feel less like a nature reserve and more like a climbing gym.

The BCC has released an official response letter to the new draft management plan, and Beezley urges climbers to submit their comments before the window for public review closes on May 25. She especially urges climbers to include their thoughts on how a reservation system could be made fair and reasonable to their user group, to emphasize that climbers self-disperse and follow Leave No Trace ethics, and to share their preferences on where shuttles should pick up and drop off such that climbers would be more likely to use them.

“I think it’s important to remember that the management plan does highlight that the park is a special place for climbers,” Beezley adds. “The park is not out to get us. But the biggest thing we can do is to advocate for ourselves and continue to be those positive partners.”

You can read the new draft management plan here. For more information on how to leave a comment for particular sections of the plan, refer to the BCC’s guide.