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Data confirms what the eye suggested at Colorado’s state parks in 2020: unprecedented visitation.

Numbers were not yet final by the end of December, with counts still being logged from that month and some of November. But the 18.3 million visitors reported so far were up from the 14.8 million total in 2019 — a nearly 23% surge.

The record 2020 tally is upwards of a 53% swell from the agency’s 2013-14 fiscal year, when 11.9 million visitors were counted at the 41 state parks. (Guests of the 42nd state park that partly opened in October, Fishers Peak, were not represented in the latest spreadsheet provided to The Gazette).

The state-protected preserves followed a trend noted at open spaces and trailheads around Colorado and the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The hordes came with “unprecedented challenges,” said Bill Vogrin, Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman. 

That’s why CPW starting Friday added an extra $1 “high-use” fee to day passes at Lake Pueblo, Castlewood Canyon, Roxborough, Golden Gate Canyon and Staunton state parks, among the most popular on the Front Range. The fee bumps “will help us add staff and mitigate the extra expenses and resource strain associated with extremely high visitation,” Vogrin said. 

Those parks join Cherry Creek, Chatfield, Boyd Lake and Eldorado Canyon with existing “high-use” fees. 

At Lake Pueblo — the perennially busiest state park that saw a record 2.7 million people flock to its shores from January through October — gates were closed for several hours on summer weekends due to exceeded capacity. That was a first for the lake, though closures were nothing new for other Front Range parks. 

Volunteers were deployed to pick up trash from “massive crowds,” Vogrin said. The stewards noticed more first-time visitors in need of education. 

“For example,” Vogrin said, “a couple of our parks experienced dumpster fires because well-meaning newcomers to the outdoors didn’t know how to drown their coals. They tossed them in a dumpster.”

There was a more grim side effect, he said: record death on the waters.

“Hopefully the lockdown due to the pandemic was a once-in-a-lifetime episode and we won’t face the kinds of visitor pressure experienced in 2020,” Vogrin said. “However, we know we have to make changes because we already are facing capacity issues at our most popular parks.” 

The “high-use” fees come two years after CPW tacked on $1 to all park passes, added $10 to annual passes and upped hunting and fishing costs as well. State lawmakers approved the t in 2018, allowing CPW to make such changes. 

Pass prices had not increased since 2010. That meant the agency had “a lot of ground to make up,” Vogrin said. 

The act was meant to address $41 million shortfalls projected by 2025 within CPW, which without general tax support is expected to be self reliant on fees and federal and state grants.

CPW Director Dan Prenzlow in  updated the agency’s progress toward goals listed in that 2018 initiative. 

“Throughout this unprecedented disruption to nearly all aspects of our lives,” Prenzlow wrote of 2020, “it is remarkable that our goals from Senate Bill 18-143 continued on with relatively minor impacts.”

He counted “several great successes” on the year, one being the debut of Fishers Peak; developing a new state park was among Future Generations Act goals. Prenzlow counted another success in the hunting and fishing department. Growing the number of sportsmen and women topped the list of those 2018 goals, and that apparently happened last year.

Over 159,000 more fishing licenses were sold in 2020 than in 2019, according to the recent report. The report charts a 4% increase in big game hunting licenses sold compared with the three-year average. A 69% increase in other hunting licenses, including fishing combos, is reported for the year — though CPW notes this “is likely attributable” to changes from 2019 that required customers to purchase qualifying licenses.

In another change last summer, CPW began requiring hunting or fishing licenses for anyone visiting state wildlife areas, including the popular Dome Rock State Wildlife Area in Teller County. This was in an effort “to address some of the unintended uses we’re seeing at many” of the 350-plus areas, the agency explained. Using sporting fees, the lands have been set aside for habitat conservation.

The controversial move signaled another stated agency goal to “grow alternative sources of funding.” CPW hired a marketing firm in 2020 “to explore future new funding by gaining a better understanding of Coloradans’ awareness of CPW and their willingness to support the division’s mission,” reads the 2020 report.

The agency’s “relevance,” Prenzlow wrote amid the record year, “has never been more apparent or important.” 

After Lake Pueblo, 2020’s next busiest state park was Chatfield, the Denver oasis that reported 2.1 million visitors through October. Cherry Creek State Park is poised to cross the 2 million mark for the first time, adding more than 400,000 to visitation year-to-year. The growth was even greater at the fourth most popular state park, Golden Gate Canyon, which tallied 1.5 million visitors from January through October.

Castlewood Canyon, among parks with a new “high-use” fee, continues to gain popularity from its unassuming place on the prairie near Franktown. The park counted 263,744 visitors through November — up more than 56% from a then-record 2017. 

Closer to Colorado Springs, 2020 numbers were more steady at Cheyenne Mountain State Park (208,486 people through November) and Mueller State Park (134,764 through November). Those are 5% increases from the same period in 2019.

Mueller was among parks Vogrin mentioned that could better help relieve pressure elsewhere. Lathrop and Trinidad Lake state parks in southern Colorado were other “hidden gems,” he said. “We think many people would fall in love with these parks if they give them a chance.”

This content was originally published here.