061720-ce-trails

This picture was taken on a Saturday in April, when cars were seen lining the road near the Mount Cutler trailhead in North Cheyenne Cañon Park. 

For months it has looked like summer at Colorado Springs trailheads — packed not by tourists but by locals in what has been a COVID-19 trend along the Front Range.

Now, Gov. Jared Polis has emboldened Coloradans to hit the trails, adding "the vast, great outdoors" to his "safer at home" guidelines. Now, "we've certainly entered into summer mode," said Scott Abbott, the Springs' regional parks, trails and open space manager.

And so the usual out-of-town wave appears to be combining with the larger local surge, making Abbott worry more than ever.

"Even pre-COVID, we knew we were bordering on some capacity issues," he said. "And then you put on top of that the COVID (crowds) ... it's just pushed that capacity kind of past the place that is really comfortable for everybody."

North Cheyenne Cañon Park has been a particular flash point, unique for its confined nature. While visitors to the city's other sanctuaries might find side streets on which to park — creating complaints in the neighborhood adjacent to Red Rock Canyon Open Space, for example — those options aren't available at North Cheyenne Cañon, with a lone two-lane road stretching between steep slopes.

As early as April, parked vehicles have been seen lining the road near the Mount Cutler trailhead, nearly eliminating one way of traffic. That causes "any number" of potential hazards, Abbott said.

And it's not only weekends when this is happening, he said. The canyon's uppermost, unpaved parking lot has been filling quickly on some weekdays too. A "free-for-all" scene has ensued: vehicles parking against hillsides, boxing in others.

The park's 2018 master plan calls for the lot getting paved "to hopefully minimize chaos," Abbott said. "But what we also realize is people will just continue down Gold Camp Road or down Cheyenne Canyon Road and try to park."

The master plan lists other potential strategies to possibly be explored in public meetings — shuttles and reservations among them. Those discussions are not imminent, said Abbott, whose team has struggled to keep up with enforcement while picking up discarded bags of dog poop and trash.

"We want to make sure we protect these resources first," he said, "and a very close second to that is we attempt to provide a quality recreation experience. When lack of parking and crowding start to take away from your experience, I think our conversations around capacity should begin."

Contact the writer: 636-0332

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