National Park Shutdowns: Rocky Mountain National Park

“Rocky Mountain National Park is closed for the duration of the government shutdown. The park is closed for all publicly used and visitor services. This includes driving park roads, camping, and hiking. This message will not be updated until the status changes.”

-Voice Recording for Rocky Mountain National Park Visitor Services

Unless you’ve been under a non-government supported rock for the last two-weeks, you surely know the closed status of all National Parks across the country. You see it on the the news, you read it in the papers, and you hear it on answering machines. But what’s the real story behind these park closings? How are the closures effecting the specific towns that border these National Parks? Are people still able to enjoy the beauty that is now gated off? And how is each park closing unique to its surroundings?

I left on my road-trip across the country on Tuesday, October 1st; the first day of the government shutdown. My plan was to stop at as many National Parks as I could, but my timing turned out to be a bit on the terrible side. Instead, I’m heading to park gates and local towns, I’m talking to store owners and city spokespeople, and I’m trying to figure out what’s beyond the headlines; I’m figuring out the real story behind the park closings.

First Stop: Rocky Mountain National Park

A Disaster of Historic Proportions
That’s how Sara Rusch, spokesperson for the town of Estes Park, described the recent closings. And she wasn’t just referring to the government shutdown. Weeks before Capital Hill closed it’s gates, Estes Park (and a majority of Colorado) experienced torrential flooding that sent mud and muck onto the streets and into storefronts. So like many of the store owners that I talked to, Sara couldn’t definitively say which one effected the community worse, the flooding or the shutdown, but the combination of the two added up to a “disaster of historic proportions.”

She went on to say that not only was the shutdown effecting the couple 100 park service employees who were now jobless, but in a time of the year when Estes Park (located <.5 ┬ámiles from park entrances) is normally very busy with tourists, the town now is “not particularly busy.”

Effect on the Economy
On my visit to Estes Park to explore the National Park closings, it clearly wasn’t a ghost town. Even on a chilly Friday overcast afternoon, people still roamed the streets chewing locally bought taffy and toting around bulky shopping bags. But across store fronts sale signs were taped, plastered, and hung on the windows. And whether it was the flooding or the shutdown, or most likely both, it was clear that many shops were happy for any business at all. And as Tyler from Estes Park Brewery said, “nobody really knows what’s happening, it’s the small businesses that are taking the biggest hit, the ones that rely on continues purchases to make each month’s rent.” Or as the manager at Estes Park Mountain Shop said, “we’re all taking a hit, but like everyone else across the nation, we’re trying to roll with it the best we can.”

Can You Still Go?
Make no mistake, the National Parks are closed. And oddly enough, there are paid employees hired to man the gates. And although as an anonymous tip told me, “it’s a big park with a lot of land, their are entrances or areas that park rangers won’t be checking,” the fines are rumored to be between $75 – $1,000 (a fact I didn’t want to find out for myself). But Kate Rusch of Estes Park and the many business owners assured me that their is still plenty of things to do outside of the park including driving the Peaks to Peaks scenic byway, fly fishing in the unusually good waters (thanks flooding), and the general small mountain town appeal of Estes Park. And on my own visit, I’d have to agree, but my time spent in Estes Park was surely missing the 260,000+ acres of Rocky Mountain wilderness that would have otherwise defined my trip.

Article Note* – At the time of this publication, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper donated $362,700 of state cash to re-open the park gates for the remaining of the government shutdown. A welcome to the town of Estes Park and the state of Colorado, as well as the 3 million annual visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park.