Outdoor recreation during COVID-19: Forest Service limits some access, backcountry open

Colorado Springs residents Colleen Withus and Joseph Murray return to the rest area after hiking Hanging Lake in February.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

COVID-19 lockdown has touched every aspect of life in the Roaring Fork Valley, including the great outdoors.

While outdoor recreation is expressly allowed under Gov. Jared Polis’ stay-at-home order, there are still restrictions, and the White River National Forest is tightening access in some areas.

“Most backcountry access points and trails remain open,” the Forest Service said in a news release.

But the Forest Service will close developed recreational facilities like rental cabins, toilets and group sites through April 30, a Friday news release states.

The popular Hanging Lake trail is closed through at least April 11, and no permits are available for purchase until after that date.

The boat ramps at Grizzly Creek and Shoshone are currently open.

The Vail Pass Winter Recreation area is open from the Redcliff and Camp Hale access points, but the Interstate 70 parking lot is closed.

Backcountry trails are open, but that could change if authorities see violations of the social distancing orders.

“The Forest Service will be monitoring access points and adjusting management of these areas as appropriate to best meet social distancing direction and keep group sizes small. Safe and responsible use of our national forests will reduce impacts to local communities who may be at risk from the virus,” according to a Forest Service fact sheet.

Polis’ order, which took effect Thursday, tells all Coloradans to stay home for the next few weeks to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, unless someone is running necessary errands, working in an essential role, or going outside for exercise.

 “We want people to be able to get outside,” said Carrie Godes, spokeswoman for the Garfield County Public Health department.

Outdoor recreation is important, but further restrictions could be put in place if social distancing guidelines are not followed, Godes said.

“Right now it’s a privilege, and I would encourage people not to ruin that privilege. We want people to be healthy, to get outside, to breath clean air, to get physical exercise,” Godes said.

But locally, some activities and access to public lands has already been restricted.

“I think an example of that is Sunlight being closed, due to a number of factors, but some of those were social distancing complaints in the parking lot,” Godes said.

Godes also asked that people be careful in the backcountry since a medical emergency there would draw upon needed resources from local hospitals during the pandemic.

The governor’s order lists many activities as examples of allowable activities, such as “walking, hiking, nordic skiing, snowshoeing, biking or running.”

Those and other activities must assume social distancing, and some physical recreation should be avoided altogether under the governor’s order.

“I don’t know if there’s a way to practice social distancing in soccer that would be exempt,” Godes said.

Violation of the governor’s order could be punished by up to $1,000 in fines and up to 1 year in jail.

But local law enforcement would ask potential violators to voluntarily comply with the order first.

“The first step that they’re going to take is an educational approach, asking for compliance,” Godes said.

If the matter escalates, it could result in a cease and desist letter and eventually a citation.

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