On October 2, the sky was a clear blue, the air brisk but pleasant, and the aspens a dazzling yellow with the occasional patch of crimson. For an autumn day on the west side of Rocky Mountain National Park, it doesn’t get much better.
But the Kawuneeche Visitor Center was unusually quiet. Just west of the center, on Highway 34, barricades and gates blocked the Park entrance, hung with signs reading “road closed.” Every so often, a car cruised by, stopped at the barricade and paused. It then flipped a U-turn, either returning down the highway toward the town of Grand Lake or taking a moment to park at Kawuneeche. But the visitor center, too, had closure signs. Even its public restrooms were locked.
Among the visitors stopping at the center were Amy Kelly and Robert Thornton from Atlanta.
“I was born and raised in Denver, and I’ve been coming up here since I was 3,” Kelly said. “I’m disappointed, because it’s my park. It’s our park.”
The couple had planned on traveling along Trail Ridge Road to Estes Park, which Kelly calls her other “beloved town.” They made reservations for four days in Grand Lake with the sole purpose of visiting Rocky Mountain National Park, hiking among the fall colors and observing the elk rut.
“I have a lot of mixed emotions about this shutdown … you can’t keep letting the debt go out of the world,” Thornton said. “But to do this to people is really said, especially when we’ve traveled so far.”
The couple decided to make the most of their trip by taking advantage of other hikes in the area, mostly on forest service land. They did enjoy sightings of colorful foliage and elk.
“You’re still able to enjoy it, but not all of it,” Thornton said.
A little later, Lyle and Joanne Groome returned to their car parked at the visitor center. The two knew the federal shutdown had also forced a closure of the Park, but they decided to drive up from their home in the Denver area to see how close they could get and enjoy the changing leaves.
“It’s ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous,” Joanne said, expressing frustration with the U.S. Congress.
The couple visited Grand County and the Park last fall, calling it a “revelation.” It inspired them to purchase a National Parks pass. Although the Park closed, the couple said they might stop in Grand Lake for lunch to at least help the local economy.
“We just hope (the closure) isn’t going to last very long,” Lyle said. “I just wish our government would get it together and act like adults.”
The town of Grand Lake’s economy depends heavily on tourists flocking to the area to visit the Park. In particular, it booms during the summer months once Trail Ridge Road opens, linking Grand County to Estes Park. Brilliant autumn weekends offer businesses a last chance to capitalize on Park travelers’ dollars before cold weather sets in and closes the throughway.
Andrea Barnett and her husband Rodney manage Colorado Cabin Adventures, a scenic property of tourist cabins along the north fork of the Colorado River. While it’s still early in the week, the two are planning for a slow weekend.
While the summer brings international and out-of-state tourists to the area, the fall season brings more last-minute visitors from the Front Range looking to get out of town and enjoy the color.
“The Park’s a big draw,” Rodney said.
The Barnetts don’t own Colorado Cabin Adventures, but as the resident managers, they receive a bonus each month based on bookings. That bonus represents a big supplement to their salaries.
While the September floods brought some displaced tourists from Estes Park to their rental cabins, the Park’s closure during the torrential rains still caused an economic burden.
“Things start to slow down this time of year, but we expected the first two weeks in October to make up for the rest of it because of the fall and elk,” Andrea said.
After the Park’s September closure, Andrea researched other popular hikes in forest service land. When people called to cancel, she tried to highlight other experiences visitors could enjoy in the area.
“But it’s the Park, that’s the draw,” she said. “It’s the name – to say you went hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park.”
Last weekend, Colorado Cabin Adventures was full. So far, they only have two reservations for the weekend.
“Is it because of the Park closing? Probably, but you don’t know,” Rodney said. “Nobody calls us and says ‘we were going to book, but the Park’s closed.’ They just don’t call.”
Caught In a rut
In downtown Grand Lake, the American flags lining the town’s iconic boardwalk waved in the fall breeze. The town was quiet, which was not unusual for a Wednesday in October. But business owners, too, were preparing for an usually slow weekend.
“I would say this is somewhat slower than it might be during a normal week with nice weather, as we are having,” said Bob Scott of Bob Scott’s Authentic Indian Jewelry.
Scott’s shop operates in the late spring and summer, closing in mid-October through the winter. He acknowledged that given the seasonal nature of his business, he’s less likely to feel impacts from the Park’s closure.
“Though I’m hearing a lot of disgruntled people wanting to come and see the leaves, and it’s a big inconvenience,” he said.
Scott said the most common sentiment is disappointment. That frustration is directed less at the Park and National Park Service employees, and more at the U.S. Congress.
“We do feel the national economy should take precedence over their personal wishes and over their personal agendas,” Scott said. “That’s the common thing I’m hearing from people coming through my door.”
Tim Randall’s business, Never Summer Mountain Products, particularly benefits from recreationists visiting the Park. He said he felt an impact during the flood closures.
“This is the second time the Park’s closed, and this time around it’s just ludicrous,” he said.
At the Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce along Highway 34, Bob King, owner of Pancho and Lefty’s restaurant and a chamber board member, was chatting with Chamber Director Kacey Beres. By that afternoon, Beres already had 30 visitors come by and complain about the Park closure. She worries about its impact on the small business owners she serves.
“I think the trickle down will happen,” she said. “We’re going to see a decline in numbers because the Park’s closed.”
King said his business always feels a hit when Trail Ridge Road closes. And after the issues caused during last month’s flooding, the government’s forced shutdown is causing businesses already hurting to take a bigger blow.
“I just don’t know what to expect,” King said. “We’re right in the middle of the rut, and that always attracts a lot of visitors. I feel sorry for the people in Estes.”
Still, the restaurants, retail shops and hotels on either side of Rocky Mountain National Park are doing their best to persevere. Unlike the barricades on at the Park entrance, businesses have worked to keep their doors inviting and unobstructed.
“Grand Lake is still open for business,” Beres said. “With the fall leaves, it’s a beautiful time to come up.”
Leia Larsen can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603.