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Demand for backcountry camping permits creates registration frenzy

Rocky Mountain National Park
There are more than 110 remote campsites in Rocky Mountain National Park only accessible by overnight backpacking sojourns (Image credit: Getty)

Demand for backcountry camping permits in Rocky Mountain National Park is so great this year – as it has been throughout the US – that park officials have had to parse out availability to keep the online registration system from crashing (again).

On March 1, the online payment system for securing National Park Service campsites crashed under the pressure of the large amount of activity from interested campers.

After computer glitches developed soon after RMNP backcountry permit sales opened, officials shut down the system and announced sales would begin the next day. But the reopening of registration was eventually pushed back to March 8. Park officials said the complications were caused by the Pay.gov website, which was unable to process payments, according to an article in The Denver Post.

In an attempt to prevent another crash of the online registration system, reservation sales for overnight backpacking camping permits in Rocky Mountain National Park will be spread over several days. On March 5, park officials adjusted that plan by staggering the availability of spring and summer permits “in an attempt to prevent an overload of the system,” according to a park news release.

At 8 am MT on March 8, registrations will be available for May and June. Two days later, on March 10, registrations will open for July dates. On March 12, backcountry campsites can be reserved for August, while September and October availability will open up on March 14.

Kyle Patterson, Rocky Mountain National Park’s public information officer, said only a few people were able to make reservations on March 1, “While the system was glitching for the majority of campers.” Those reservations were canceled in the interest of fairness, forcing everyone to start fresh on March 8.

“Our wilderness office has contacted those individuals and we will be issuing refunds,” Patterson said.

This is not the first time the online reservations system has been used, but in previous years hopeful campers had the option of making reservations in person at the park’s backcountry office. That part of the process typically attracted large crowds of people who drew their place in line via hand-drawn lottery. That option was not made available this year because of COVID-19.

“In the past it was never that hard to get backcountry permits to camp near Longs Peak,” said hiking enthusiast Bill Hanson. “But I think the publicity about the sites being available online has really driven interest. And since the start of the pandemic shutdown last year, it seems like everyone wants to hit the trails and go camping. It’s just part of the new normal.”

Other campgrounds within Rocky Mountain National Park are available through the Recreation.gov registration site. But that site has been plagued by its own challenges, according to an article in National Park Traveler.

"We do see recurring complaints about how the system is overrun by bots," said Rick DeLappe, a National Park Service employee who manages recreation.gov for the federal land management agencies that use the site for everything from reserving front country and backcountry campsites to tickets for scaling Half Dome at Yosemite National Park or going underground at Mammoth Cave National Park.

Brian Metzler

Brian is an award-winning journalist, photographer and podcaster who has written for Runner’s World, The Times, Outside, Men’s Journal, Trail Runner, Triathlete and Red Bulletin. He's also the author of several books, including Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and loves to run, bike, hike, camp, ski and climb mountains. He has wear-tested more than 1,500 pairs of running shoes, completed four Ironman triathlons, as well as numerous marathons and ultra-distance running races.