So many visitors travel to Rabbit Valley, near Colorado’s western border, that the Bureau of Land Management will require camping reservations immediately and will begin construction or remodeling of campgrounds slated to open no later than next spring.
Located west of Fruita in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, Rabbit Valley is managed for motorized recreation, including motorcycling, ATVs, and in some places full-size vehicle driving. BLM wants to control the rush of riders by requiring reservations and charging fees as scattered camping threatens the region’s fragile desert soil.
Rabbit Valley is the latest place in Colorado to see dispersed camping restrictions imposed in recent years. While camping remains free in most of Colorado’s 11 national forests, some areas are becoming more restricted.
The South Platte District of the Pike National Forest introduced fees in the fall of 2020, and a reservation system for designated sites for the drainages around Crested Butte was considered last spring. Chaffee County is also grappling with resource depletion at busy campgrounds this year, where trash and litter left by visitors is threatening trout populations.
“You go out there to find some solitude and peace and quiet, and that means we kind of have to limit the number of people and where they can camp,” said Chris Herrman, executive director of the Colorado Canyon Association, an organization , which promotes the management of national protected areas in western Colorado.
McInnis Canyons saw 264,390 visitors in 2019, and camping across Colorado has increased since the pandemic began in March 2020. Too many people camping in unregulated locations can damage vegetation and the desert soil, which erodes easily when overused and is slow to recover.
The BLM will develop or enhance approximately 75 new campgrounds and introduce the Rabbit Valley fee system in late winter or spring of 2023. After completion of the construction work, visitors may only stay overnight at developed locations.
However, starting today, visitors will require a free temporary Individual Special Recreation Permit.
Once the new campgrounds are complete, fees will be $20 per night for each campground, including two vehicles. At larger locations, each additional vehicle over two is an additional $10, with a maximum of five vehicles. The BLM may begin collecting lodging fees at campsites in Rabbit Valley starting September 30.
Construction of new campgrounds at Rabbit Valley was approved in July 2019 in response to increased visitor demand. When these new locations are created, the BLM will phase out the temporary permit program.
“Use of the area has increased over the past 15 years, and camping fees are being used to improve infrastructure, develop amenities and preserve the area,” said Collin Ewing, Manager of McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. “We engaged the public throughout the process with multiple comment periods, meetings and consultations with the Southwest Resource Advisory Council.”
Colorado Trails Preservation Alliance founder Don Riggle, who has campaigned for motorized trails and access in Colorado for 20 years, said he hopes the BLM will implement camping regulations on all public lands between Fruita and the state line. Mountain bikers have long camped at scattered locations on the south side of Interstate 70 near the Kokopelli Loops trails.
“I think they should make it universal, not just in Rabbit Valley,” said Riggle, who just returned from a few days on BLM trails west of Fruita near Rabbit Valley. “I think it’s only a matter of time before that happens everywhere. So there is only so much space left to camp, and more people than ever are out here.”
Herrman said that as Colorado’s population and outdoor recreation grows, businesses and county governments must maintain levels of sustainable tourism.
“If we love this to death, we’re not going to improve the quality of life for residents and we’re not going to get the economic benefits from tourism,” Herrman said.
CORRECTION: This story was updated at 2:35pm on March 30, 2022 to clarify that there is no reservation system for camping in drainages near Crested Butte.