Wilderness experience in Rocky Mountain National Park 2002: Report to RMNP

Open-File Report 2003-445
By: , and 



Approximately 250,000 acres of backcountry in Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP or the Park) may be designated as wilderness use areas in the coming years. Currently, over 3 million people visit RMNP each year; many drive through the park on Trail Ridge Road, camp in designated campgrounds, or hike in front-country areas. However, visitors also report much use of backcountry areas that are not easily accessible by roads or trails. Use of the backcountry is growing at RMNP and is accompanied by changing visitor expectations and preferences for wilderness management. For these reasons it is of great importance for the Park to periodically assess what types of environments and conditions wilderness users seek, to help them facilitate a quality wilderness experience.

To assist in this effort, the Political Analysis and Science Assistance [PASA] program / Fort Collins Science Center / U.S. Geological Survey, in close collaboration with personnel and volunteers from RMNP and in cooperation with the Natural Resource Recreation and Tourism [NRRT] Department at CSU, and launched a research effort in the summer of 2002 to investigate visitor numbers, wilderness experiences, and management preferences in the Park.

Specifically, the purposes of the research reported here are: (1) To determine what constitutes a wilderness experience; (2) To identify important places, visual features, and sounds essential to a quality wilderness experience and; (3) To determine what aspects may detract from wilderness experience in RMNP. Thus, answers to these questions should provide insight for Park managers about visitors' expectations for wilderness recreation and the conditions they seek for quality wilderness experiences. Ultimately, this information can be used to support wilderness management decisions within RMNP.

The social science technique of Visitor Employed Photography [VEP] was used to obtain information from visitors about wilderness experiences. Visitors were selected at random from Park-designated wilderness trails, in proportion to their use, and asked to participate in the survey. Respondents were given single-use, 10-exposure cameras and photo-log diaries to record experiences. A total of 293 cameras were distributed, with a response rate of 87%. Following the development of the photos, a copy of the photos, two pertinent pages from the photo-log, and a follow-up survey were mailed to respondents. Fifty six percent of the follow-up surveys were returned. Findings from the two surveys were analyzed and compared.

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Wilderness experience in Rocky Mountain National Park 2002: Report to RMNP
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2003-445
DOI 10.3133/ofr2003445
Year Published 2004
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Fort Collins Science Center
Description vi, 47 p.
Time Range Start 2002-01-01
Time Range End 2002-12-31
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N