COLORADO – If you’ve been captivated by the emerald-blue waters of the Blue Lakes in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, or have ever considered climbing the 14,150-foot Mount Sneffels, then you’ll want to pay close attention. The United States Forest Service (USFS) is proposing significant changes to how you can access these popular outdoor destinations.
According to a recent report from the Denver Post, the USFS is considering implementing a new permit system to manage access to the Blue Lakes Trail. This would mark a groundbreaking shift, affecting not just overnight campers but daytime hikers as well.
The Need for Change
The proposal aims to curb the environmental impact caused by increasing visitation to the Blue Lakes and Mount Sneffels. Dana Gardunio of the USFS’s Ouray Ranger District says the area has seen a gradual increase in visitors over the years, escalating significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The sheer volume of hikers and campers has led to numerous issues like improper waste disposal, degradation of natural habitats, and visitor frustration due to overcrowding.
A visitor impact study last year counted a record-breaking 509 people along the Blue Lakes Trail during a single day in July, which is far more than the area can sustainably support. There is also widespread use of social trails and off-road routes, alpine trampling, illegal campfires, and rapidly growing campsite construction and use.
New Blue Lakes Trail Permit System
The most significant proposed change is the introduction of a permit system to visit the Blue Lakes Trail to help manage and mitigate these impacts while preserving a Wilderness environment for visitors. Here are the details:
- Day-use Permits: Day hikers will need to secure permits from May through September. This is a hiking permit: not a parking reservation. One permit per person.
- Overnight Camping: Those planning to camp overnight will also require permits during the same period and be limited to four designated sustainable campsites.
- Limited Numbers: The USFS plans to issue up to 40 day-use and 24 overnight permits each day for a maximum of 64 people on the trail each day.
These permits would be available for reservation through recreation.gov. Notably, the Forest Service confirmed that climbers who choose to tackle Mount Sneffels via the Yankee Boy Basin trailhead and route would not require permits.
Additional Management Plan Changes
Aside from the permit system, the USFS has additional plans to manage the environmental impact, including:
- Banning camping above treeline and eliminating dispersed camping near the trailhead.
- Reducing the number of campsites at Lower Blue Lake.
- Closing and restoring social trails and off-road routes in the Yankee Boy Basin
The USFS released its first draft in spring 2022, receiving overall support from local communities. It is now opening the plan for another 45-day public comment period, aiming to finalize the strategies by early 2024. Read the full proposal and share feedback here. The earliest that permits would be required is May 1, 2025. Initially, there will be no fees, although this may change.
A Growing Pattern of Permits and Reservations
This proposal is just one of numerous examples of growing regulations across Colorado public lands, in response to growing numbers on popular trails and summits. Permit and parking reservation systems like this now operate at Hanging Lake, the Four Loop Pass, and popular 14ers including Quandary Peak, Maroon Peak, Snowmass Mountain, and Capitol Peak.
While the permits reduce traffic and impact on public lands, some argue they make the outdoors less accessible and disproportionately impact under-privileged communities and those with less flexible work schedules.
Prevent Permit Systems by Leaving No Trace
To avoid similar restrictions on other trails and outdoor areas, visitors are encouraged to follow Leave No Trace principles:
- Plan Ahead: Know the regulations and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.
- Dispose of Waste Properly: Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter.
- Leave What You Find: Do not pick plants, or disturb wildlife and historical artifacts.
- Be Respectful of Others: Avoid loud noises and keep pets on a leash.
- Minimize Fire Impact: Use established fire rings, and keep fires small.
By adhering to these guidelines, outdoor enthusiasts can help preserve the natural beauty and ecological integrity of public lands for future generations.