Should Colorado Require Hiking Permits?

Feature Photo: Longs Peak by Yours Truly

I realize I’m about to expound upon an inflammatory statement but here it is: I think Colorado should enact the use of hiking permits.

Whew, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest!

If you’re local, there is a good chance you have seen or read all of the hubbub in the news regarding the Hanging Lake Trail near Glenwood Springs. And if not, consider yourself lucky; it’s been a hot topic!

Hanging Lake is a beautiful little spot in the Western Rockies and for years, it’s been one of the more popular hikes in Colorado. But these days, the hike itself is becoming too popular for its own good. Two years ago rangers installed a gate at the parking lot. The idea is that once the 117 parking spaces are full, the gate is locked and no one else and park there {which effectively limits the hikers on the trail.}

{All photos by Will Rochfort}

Hiking the Keyhole Route on Longs Peak. I’d argue that this trail could use a permit in busy season.

But the gate doesn’t appear to be enough. There have been increasing complains about trail traffic, loud music, and illegal swimming from various hikers. A quick scroll of the #HangingLake hashtag on Instagram directs you to a bunch of photos of people standing on the Hanging Lake log, joking about how “rebellious” they are since the log is clearly marked as prohibited terrain.

Things like dog poop and graffiti have gotten so bad that a local Colorado resident has even started an account called Trail Trash of Colorado, specifically designed to highlight and shame IG users who are breaking the rules. Do I agree with his/her methods? Not entirely, but I understand why s/he feels the need to act so drastically.

While Hanging Lake is at the epicenter of the current storm, it doesn’t stand there alone. It is no secret that the Denver Metro area is booming. Between 2015 and 2016, Denver ranked the 7th highest in terms of percentage growth of its population {as per the US Census Bureau.} In 2016, the city added 91,726 people. Crazy!

Yosemite National Park

Nearby Utah’s percentage growth was even higher at 2.03%, followed by Nevada {1.95%} and Idaho {1.83%} to round out the top three. Looks like everyone is headed west!

Of course, this influx of people means that *some* trails are crowded. After all, everyone is moving here to be outside, right? {Well, and the legal weed probably…} And this is where my idea comes into play: hiking permits.

I realize that is not a popular suggestion, especially in a state where people have lived for so long without any type of permit system. We had to snag an overnight permit to camp in Great Sand Dunes National Park, but that is honestly the only time I can remember needing one in Colorado.

But in states like California or even in parts of Utah’s canyon country, hiking permits are the norm. They are used as a means to regulate traffic on trails so as to protect the environment. California has the country’s largest population by a landslide {39.2 million vs second place Texas’s 27.8 million} so it’s no surprise that they rely heavily on permits. Want to hike up Mt. Whitney? Great, snag a permit. Thru-hike the JMT? Get in line.

The Narrows in Zion National Park

But permits are also used in lesser populated states. Coyote Buttes in Arizona is notoriously beautiful–and notoriously tough to acquire a permit. The Teton Crest Trail in Wyoming requires permits as does Zion National Park’s The Narrows if you hike top down. The list goes on and on.

Yet when I sit here and think about Colorado, I can’t really think of a permit required for any of our iconic hikes. Why is that? I understand that it restricts freedoms and coming and goings on hiking trails, and I realize that is a hassle. But you know what? I’m pretty okay with planning ahead and accepting a bit of hassle in my life if it means beautiful trails to pristine areas are being preserved for years to come. If life is all about tradeoffs, I’ll accept that one.




  • Reply Claude at

    39.2 Million in California? No wonder I despise this place! And how many cars is that? It’s no longer the Hollywood I came to in 1965.

    Every such place of natural beauty in the US should require a permit a) to regulate and preserve, b) to dissuade the Hanging Lake log rebell mentality that has no purpose other than to break rules and inconvenience others.

    It’s not restricting freedom, it’s called playing by the rules. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In your house, you can make your own rules.

  • Reply AmyC at

    It’s sad that people are destroying/not taking care of the beautiful trails in Colorado (and probably other places). Even if that wasn’t an issue, I think you make a good point about the amount of people on the trails. I’d much rather plan ahead and get a permit than see the iconic trails destroyed and closed for no longer being safe. (feel like I should add that I don’t live in CO).

    • Reply Heather at

      While researching those stats, I was doing some research on the population growth in the west and I’m curious to see how it plays out on this part of the country. Obviously, the western states are booming and I bet it affects trails everywhere. CO has been in the spotlight since its growth spurt has gone on for a bit, but from the looks of it, I wonder if places like Utah and Idaho don’t start seeing similar issues. I figure I’d rather nip it in the bud before it becomes a problem, not after!

  • Reply Lynn @ The Not Dead Yet Blog at

    I’m for hiking permits. I’m also for NPS fining people who break the rules–hey, if they put it on Instagram, it’s fair game. I entered three permit lotteries this year and didn’t get any of them, but I still think the system is good. We need to protect these gorgeous places, even if it means we don’t all get to see them at the same time. (A friend was luckier in the lotteries than me, so I’m still doing Half Dome this year and could not be more excited about it. I’ll just keep trying the Enchantments every year until I get it.)

    • Reply Heather at

      You know, I personally don’t have too much experience with lotteries but I agree with you. While it’s obviously disheartening to not get to visit a particular area, it’s going to be MORE disheartening of that area is forever unavailable in the future thanks to overuse. Yay for Half Dome!

  • Reply Kristie Salzmann at

    Interesting topic, Heather. So just a quick few thoughts. Some of the areas are under Department of Interior while others such as Hanging Lake are on national forests and therefore under Department of Agriculture. Different agencies use different thresholds to make the move into NEPA (National Environemental Policy Act) steps for these sort of changes. An example that I can speak to is the Cirque of the Towers, which sits in the Popo Agie Wilderness on the Washakie Ranger District of the Shoshone National Forest (closest towns are Pinedale and Lander). Over the last decade, this area has become a climbing mecca of sorts. With increased traffic comes a variety of issues to this high alpine area to include improper campsites, LNT principles being ignored, resource damage and degradation, and increased trail maintenance. We are having to weigh many options in deciding if a permit system should be put in place. 1. can we adequately enforce such a system with our current personnel? 2.This would be an increased workload and can we do that with our current budget for recreation in the area? 3. will people skirt the system by coming in on the neighboring forest (Bridger-Teton) in the neighboring region if they choose not to enact the same permit system?

    Anyway, long story short, I am willing to bet that many places within Colorado in the National Forest System are already having these discussions and the above are just a few of the questions/issues they are running into.

    • Reply Heather at

      Oooh I never thought to ask you about this!! Do you know if there is any reason why particular areas of the country seem to to utilize the permit system more than others? It surprises me that CO hasn’t gone down that road as much as other areas. Is it just preference?

      • Reply Kristie Salzmann at

        So the reasoning can be a variety of things. If the use is impacting a designated wilderness area (especially an area with in it that is deemed “pristine”) it is easier to limit use because the Wilderness Act set party size numbers, etc. If it is a non-wilderness area, you have to prove negative effects and go through quite the process to change the use of a given area (NEPA related analysis). Next you have to look at the economic impact; is the area currently used by outfitters and guides? would a permit system change their business income? Is it proper to allow outfitters and guides to continue at current use levels while putting the general public on a permit system or vice versa?

        • Reply Heather at

          Hmmmm interesting. Thanks for the insight!!

      • Reply Kristie Salzmann at

        Also, as a whole, NPS tends to utilize permits more than USFS because there is less wiggly room for use in NPs than in NFs (preservation vs conservation discussion here).

  • Reply Jon Fairchild at

    Although placing a permit system on these destinations may reduce the sense of them being wild and free, I’m all for it. I’ve hiked on many permitted trails throughout the Sierra Nevada and have pull multiple lottery permits for rivers in Idaho. I’ve personally witnessed significant misuse of wild places and also seen how effective permitted systems can be. I’m sure implementing such systems is complex, but there no doubt in my mind these placed need protection from overuse and dilapidation.

  • Reply Heather @ Made In A Pinch at

    Interesting topic and insights, Heather. I enjoyed reading both the post and the comments! It clearly seems to be a growing problem that is difficult to solve, given all the different aspects of land use and oversight. While I selfishly admit that I wouldn’t want to go through the permit process to just go enjoy beautiful outdoor Colorado, I do agree that something needs to happen to protect this amazing land. The things that are happening at Hanging Lake, on the 14ers, etc along with all the foot traffic and damage that incurs is saddening.

  • Reply Rachel @ Better LIVIN at

    I think hiking permits are a great idea. They would help regulate numbers and the fees could go toward trail maintenance and other conservation efforts. As long as it was a simple process and a reasonable fee, I’d be all for it.

  • Reply Arletta at

    The amount of people out on the trails is insane now a days! Glad to see someone else thinks the same thing.

  • Reply Heather Rennae at

    I am getting into backpacking this summer for the main reason of being able to get away from the crowded car/rv campgrounds and actually enjoy the quiet solitude of the backcountry. I would be all for a hiking permit system so I wouldn’t have to worry about excessive traffic where I have set out to avoid just that. I am a huge plan ahead traveler too, so having a set schedule or lottery to work towards would be motivation for me to get out there and enjoy it while I can. I only hope if they do put a system in place, that they have the means to enforce it and eliminate the riffraff that are abusing our freedom to roam.

  • Reply Colorado and the Demands of Natives | champofthoughts at

    […] and enjoy OUR nature! This is due to improper behavior and incorrect treatment of our environment ( I don’t want to have to pay to be able to see my beautiful state. Preventing this is […]

  • Reply Trish at

    Hi Heather – It is sad that some people have little to no respect for the beautiful surroundings that are for everyone to enjoy. A Hiking permit may help this loss of responsibility to leave a place better than it was found it, or at least pick up your crap people! The generations of hikers before us knew how to respect and protect these areas of beauty. It is so sad this has been lost over the years. Interesting article! Keep up the good work!

  • Reply Christina at

    Yes!! My husband and I have been talking about this topic so much lately. We are weekend warriors since we have to work during the week, so unfortunately we end up hiking at the busiest times. The damage on trails is horrific. We started bringing extra trash bags because just looking at it and complaining doesn’t solve the issue either. Every hike we go on we come bag with a full trash bag. Last year we were jeeping in the back country and found several campsites that still had smoke in the fire rings. It’s so sad. People should have to take a test about trail rules before going on them, I swear. I am all in favor of hiking permits. I also think Hanging Lake should have a fee station like Brainard Rec. To help control the traffic. Also, higher penalty fees for people disobeying the rules should happen. Charge them $1,000 for jumping in the lake! Idiots are ruining our beautiful lands, 🙁

  • Reply Megan at

    I just wrote a piece about this same topic, and I completely agree with you. Paying for wilderness has never been a popular idea. For decades there’s been a political ping-pong over our public lands. However, these high-use areas need fee structure. If you don’t want to pay the fee, there are hundreds of other trails you can hike for free. I agree that wilderness *should* be free (and realistically most of it is: 55% of national parks are free, 93% of fish and wildlife refuges are free, 99% of BLM land is free, and 68% of USFS recreation sites are free). Studies have shown that when you start charging for a certain wilderness area, the users have a greater respect for the land–to me, that means less poop, less graffiti, and fewer people standing on logs because they’re rebellious. Thanks for speaking out on such a controversial topic!

  • Reply Garrett Ahern at

    Thank you for bringing this topic of discussion to the table, Heather. I am 100% with you in support of implementing permits throughout Colorado’s trails—especially those in the backcountry. As you mentioned, permits moderate the damage inevitably caused by humans frequenting an area. They also are a vital resource management tool that allow agencies to better understand visitation and usage patterns. In turn, they allow for more informed management decisions to be made. The key, as I think you hinted to in one of your responses, is to implement a permit system before it’s too late.

    Every trail, every drainage basin, every ecosystem, has a carrying capacity—not only for its native inhabitants, but for those who visit as well. With that said, I don’t believe it requires crowds getting to the levels you see on some fourteeners here in the Front Range. In fact, I believe we are well overdue for permit systems being implemented on most front range trails. Visitation should never rise to the level you see at places like Mt. Bierstadt or Grays. When crowds are allowed to coalesce as they do in such places, the very wildernesses character of those places is lost. We must have this lead our decision making process when it comes to outdoor recreation. The character of wilderness in the Front Range and beyond is the magnet which draws us near to places unmarred by humans. We all need wild places in our life; as John Muir once wrote, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” Without permit systems in place as a part of larger management strategies, the beauty of wild places is easily lost and the very things that draw us to those places is lost with it.

  • Reply Olivia Mayers at

    I love hiking, but sometimes the nature needs to get rest out of people!

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