Crested Butte’s new camping rules are restoring resources and producing few complaints — so far

In what was once a crowded dispersed camping site along the Slate River near Crested Butte, a camper occupies a newly designated single camping space in the Musicians campground on Aug. 1 , 2021. Last year this single site may have seen up to a half dozen vehicles occupying it as people flocked to public lands during the COVID-19 pandemic. Public lands in Gunnison County became so crowded with unregulated, dispersed crowding during the COVID-19 pandemic that the Gunnison Ranger District of the United States Forest Service has made dispersed camping illegal and have created more designated camping sites within the county. The National Forest Foundation and Gunnison National Forest work together to dispense information about the new designated camping regulations in Gunnison County. The team also hands out portable toilet kits, maps and informational brochures to aid hikers and campers. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

CRESTED BUTTE — On a Saturday morning at the end of July, Aaron Drendel, a recreation staff officer with the U.S. Forest Service’s Gunnison Ranger District, walked through Musicians’ Camp, a group camping area along the Slate River. Recent rain seemed to have scared some campers away, leaving several sites empty, but Drendel was focused on the longer-term shifts. After work last September to install boulders, short fences, signs and fire rings to better mark where to park a truck and pitch a tent, tufts of grass have sprouted and wildflowers bloomed in the gaps between campsites.

“Two years ago, there wasn’t a blade of grass in here,” Drendel said, walking between the pines.

Drendel has tracked on-the-ground impacts of camping around Crested Butte since 2015 and recorded a spike in effects. He’s mapped widening halos around campsites as people spilled out of overcrowded camping areas onto bigger swaths of surrounding meadows, encroaching on private land and trampling the scenery they traveled to see. He’s photographed bare dirt where there should be understory and stumps near a spray of sawdust where campers cut down trees to snug trucks and campers closer to the river.

“What we were documenting before we moved to the designated camping was essentially like a big, barren parking lot here,” Drendel said, gesturing to the center of Musicians’ Camp. Five similar gravel lots were being worn into the ground around town.

The reversal he’s seeing this summer follows a shift from a free-for-all dispersed camping system to what they’re calling “designated camping.” Visitors to the valleys near Crested Butte this summer have found each site marked with a post with initials for the area and a number. Metal fire rings with grills replaced rock fire rings. Sites at group camping areas, close enough to one another to chat almost campfire-to-campfire, are now a short walk to a pit toilet.

More primitive sites farther up the valleys sit more like shouting distance from one another. A few are marked as walk-in sites, like those near Mount Crested Butte where cars park along newly installed barriers and campers walk their tents to leveled pads. The Crested Butte Conservation Corps and seasonal Forest Service employees completed work on three drainages last fall — Slate River, Washington and Kebler — and plan to cover the next three — Gothic, Brush and Cement — this year. So far, the local Forest Service office has reported no complaints.

For campers, the fight to heal overused areas and curb visitors’ bad behavior will come with further consequences: campsite reservations are coming for at least some parts of the valley, and possibly fees. It’s a dramatic change from the open access of the previous decades, but local conservation crews say it’s a necessary step to protect the landscape that makes the valley worth visiting.

To Drendel, the community’s new approach walks a middle ground.

“We actually closed a couple areas of the forest to camping in response to some of this stuff boiling over,” he said. “Designating camping was an alternative to that. It takes a lot more management, but it preserves that opportunity for visitors to enjoy the public lands. … At least we give it one more chance and hopefully the public responds well, and I think they have so far.”

Pandemic-induced boom in the outdoors bolstered the case for change

Last year, as COVID-19 grounded commercial flights and shut down businesses, astonishing numbers of people flocked to Colorado’s resort towns and the mountains surrounding them. July, Crested Butte’s busiest month, saw record visitation. Then September visitor numbers edged ahead of July by 3% — and was 31% busier than the previous September.

Drendel saw license plates from across the country — campers arriving from as far away as Florida with little understanding of the etiquette or ethics of outdoor recreation. Bad behavior skyrocketed. RVs were plopped in the middle of meadows.

One local compared the tent cities popping up at the mouth of every drainage to a music festival, with 50 people camped in the space of a football field. Fire rings sprawled to multiple feet in diameter and popped up in rows as people squeezed tents one next to another, and everyone seemed to need their own campfire. Conservation crews picked up truckloads of trash, much of which was human waste.

“It was just escalating madness,” said Dave Ochs, executive director of the Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association. “Last year was hard to witness if you know what it looks like out there normally.”

Historically, camping rules varied from one drainage to the next around town. Some allowed camping 30 feet from the road, others drew that line at 300 feet. The ambiguity left campers visibly confused and taking cues from one another.

“It’s easy for us to sit here as a local and look at tourists being idiots, but it’s more like, hey, people just didn’t really know,” Ochs said. “You could see one thing happening out there and just think you can go and do it, too. Basically, starting in 2019, if anybody could find a hole to fit … whether it was their pickup, or just their Subaru and a tent, or their van and their friends’ seven vans, they found the way to do it.”

Given the chaos last year, the transition from the dispersed approach has a just-in-time feel to it, but the process predates the pandemic. In 2019, the Forest Service began gathering community feedback, recruiting graduate students from Western Colorado University for in-depth studies, conducting environmental reviews and working with local stakeholders and land managers, primarily through the Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee, or STOR, to bring more structure to the system.

The committee draws its members from Gunnison County towns, interest groups including mountain bikers and ranchers, local land management agencies and the ski resort. That grassroots, collaborative approach is part of how this project could speed from concept to concrete changes, said Joe Lavorini, Gunnison County stewardship coordinator for the National Forest Foundation.

“Shared stewardship is how we do business here,” he said. “We each bring our strengths to the table, and we check our logos at the door and focus on results.”

By early 2020, the work had secured federal approval and was scheduled for fall. Money from a Great Outdoors Colorado grant, the Gunnison Stewardship Fund and the U.S. Forest Service paid to contract the Crested Butte Conservation Corps, the Crested Butte Mountain Biking Association’s professional trail and stewardship crew, for the work.

Jennifer Fenwick, then a Western Colorado University graduate student, was hired by the Forest Service to spend weekdays visiting camping areas and drafting a blueprint for designated sites. Places worn bare by use but in undesirable locations, like on a slope or near a water source, were blocked off or posted with “no camping” signs. Then, Crested Butte Conservation Corps crews installed log fences, rock barriers and fire rings, including with the help of a landowner who used his mini-excavator to relocate boulders.

Last summer’s tourism rush bolstered the case for this project, even as it spurred worries the measures didn’t go far enough.

“It caused a lot of anxiety in the community that, ‘Hey, this look at how out of control it is, and you’re going to just go put up some signs and posts and control this?’” Drendel said. “In the end, I think it might end up just reinforcing that this was a great way to deal with the issues we were seeing, because the contrast from year to year is incredible.”

A few signs, and a massive messaging campaign to alert visitors to expect crowds and a new camping system and to come prepared with a plan B if a first-choice campsite isn’t available, seems to have achieved the goal.

“Yes, people are on vacation, and they do stupid stuff, but for the most part people, I think, want to play by the rules,” Ochs said. “Just giving that little hint of infrastructure and direction and management and signage, people really heeded it.”

Emphasis on education and outreachIn the valley above Gothic, the rustic town that houses the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, the parking lot for the 2-mile hike to Judd Falls, one of the busiest in the area, overlaps with the end of the 401 Trail, prized by mountain bikers for its flowy singletrack through aspens and waist-high wildflowers. By a few minutes after 9 a.m. on a weekend morning, every parking space is taken.

STOR Corps crew members, the paid staff who work on conservation projects around the valley under Lavorini’s oversight, sat at a table under a shade tent right by the trailhead sign and bathrooms, greeting the steady stream of traffic. Hikers stopped to ask questions and look over plastic bins stacked with hiking and biking maps, guides for watching elk and deer and a brochure on the camping changes. One biker needed directions to the top of the 401 Trail and welcomed advice on a shortcut in case of afternoon thunderstorms.

The site draws a lot of people who are new to the area, Lavorini explained, so the crew was positioned to meet them and give them the tools (perhaps literally, in the sense of the portable toilets they hand out) and ethics to improve their own experience and protect that of the people hiking near or after them.

Groups, including the STOR Corps, split the task of monitoring camping areas every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They record which sites are being used in each drainage, and ask any campers to fill out a 12-question survey inquiring where they’re from, if they had trouble finding a spot and if they knew about the new camping rules before arriving.

“It seems like the message is getting to people,” said Jack Morgan, a crew leader. “We’ve only seen five or so instances of illegal camping, mostly done out of ignorance. It’s not like last year, where people were just kind of uncaring and taking advantage of the freedom. This year, people have been like, ‘Oh, I’m in the wrong spot? Sorry.’ And then they ask questions about what the rules are, where they can camp and can’t.”

The most common complaint, Morgan said, is that people feared driving around for hours searching for a site or failing to find one open. Switching from the camp-anywhere system did cut the number of sites available. A Forest Service inventory in 2015 tallied 389 sites, and the designated system includes just 213. But this year, crews are reporting spaces empty, even on busy weekends like the Fourth of July. Ochs said he’s spotted friends in prime spots who said they rolled up on a Friday evening to find it available.

“Six months ago, I would have said, ‘It’s so hard to get information out to people, and why would anybody who is used to camping here every summer for 20 to 30 years even check in?’” said John Norton, executive director of the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership. “I thought we’d be overrun. I thought on Thursday and Friday nights, that we would be greeting would-be campers angry that their sites weren’t available, and they had to go check into a hotel.”

But word seems to have gotten around, Norton said, and he thinks that’s contributing to an as-yet-unquantified drop in visitors.

“If anything, we scared people away,” he said.

Lavorini wasn’t surprised to see that tourism has slowed this summer, given that loosening pandemic restrictions have opened up more travel options.

He argued the camping changes will ensure that Crested Butte remains a draw long into the future by protecting the resources and solitude that make it special.

“Nobody wants to drive for hours from Denver or come on their once-in-a-lifetime vacation and be camped right next to 50 people,” he said.

A future of reservations, and possibly feesThat reservations will join this new system now appears inevitable, but where they’ll apply and how they’ll be handled remains an ongoing conversation. Open questions include whether reservations would cover every site in every drainage or leave a few walk-ups, if the Crested Butte area would join the federal reservation system at Recreation.gov, and whether reservations could be added without fees, or if fees are coming, too.

Campers surveyed had mixed opinions about these potential changes. Out-of-state visitors who plan vacations well in advance seemed comfortable with fees and reservations. But Colorado residents feared being edged out of spontaneous weekend trips. Then again, Lavorini pointed out, there would be the comfort in certainty: “When you leave Denver, you know you’ll have a site waiting.”

Federal code requires certain amenities for campgrounds that charge a fee, and these campsites don’t have those amenities. The groups behind the camping changes have asked the U.S. Forest Service to consider nominal fees for high-use campsites, but there’s a “long and thorough public process” as precursor to that change, Gunnison National Forest District Ranger Matt McCombs wrote in an email. Those fees, McCombs added, are “a critical piece to maintaining the investments we’ve made with the community’s support, protecting the resource, and most importantly, sustaining a high-quality backcountry camping experience deep into the future.”

His motto is that it’s not pay to play, but pay to sustain. It’s just one more side effect in a state with one of the nation’s fastest-growing populations.

“Is it like it was three, four decades ago? No, it’s not, but times change,” Lavorini said. “And the alternative is worse — trampled wildflowers and an experience that is not a quintessential Colorado experience.”

“There’s a yearning for that freedom of being able to go out into the woods and pick your spot,” Drendel said. “But people realize that’s probably not the reality anymore.”

The road up the Slate River drainage passes a few scattered campsites before it turns to doubletrack and climbs harrowingly over a pass. The last few campsites cluster where emerald hillsides taper closer to the river. The rough road thinned out the RVs, and left a Sprinter van, teardrop trailer and tents.

“This is an area I think we caught just in time,” Drendel said, gesturing to a carpet of wildflowers threading between campsites.

But not everyone has gotten the message. An orange tent and gray tarp are perched on a grass hill, off the packed, bare ground of the designated campsites.

“If I saw them here, I’d go talk to them and explain why they should be in a designated site and save that experience for others,” Drendel explained. “This is really a transition year, and more about education.”

Meaning, tickets for breaking the rules will come next summer. As he’s talking, a pair of campers who have finished packing and hitching up their teardrop trailer stopped their truck alongside the two uniformed Forest Service staffers and flashed thumbs up.

“Thanks for all your hard work,” said the man behind the wheel. “It’s made it a lot nicer out here.”

Last year, these two locals couldn’t even find a campsite, or if they did, were squeezed alongside half a dozen vehicles, many of them parked off the packed dirt. On this trip, the woman said, she saw — and booed at — just two trucks that had driven onto the grass.

“It’s actually pretty common to hear that feedback from people,” Fenwick said as the couple rattled away downhill. “They appreciate that we’ve designated the sites.”

“It’s more management,” Drendel added, “but I think it’s preserving the experience that people want to have.”

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