ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. - Rain across the state Wednesday provided the country's fourth-most-popular national park with a break from large crowds of tourists and lines of traffic.
"You should have been here yesterday," a park volunteer said. "With nicer weather we had to turn away 300 vehicles. There simply wasn't enough space for them."
Rocky Mountain National Park, near the town of Estes Park, welcomed 4.5 million visitors last year; only the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon and Yosemite national parks drew higher attendance.
RMNP has experienced a 40 percent increase in visitors since 2012.
KRDO NewsChannel 13 went to the park to talk with managers and visitors about the impacts of overcrowding and vehicle congestion.
"We're very concerned about some of the issues," park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said. "People are approaching wildlife more often, there are more illegal campfires and we're seeing more human waste in the back country."
Similar concerns have been expressed at other national parks.
This year, RMNP began its second season of closing parking lots in the popular Bear Lake, Wild Basin and Alpine Visitor Center areas when those lots become full.
"When my family and I left Pennsylvania, we thought we were getting away from it all," a tourist said. "We never dreamed we'd see all this congestion in a place where we didn't expect it."
The park encourages visitors to arrive before or after the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., carpool and use the park shuttle buses.
"The trailhead parking lots fill up well before noon, some as early as 6 a.m.," Patterson said.
The park is doing everything it can to improve the situation, she said, despite a limited budget, staff and resources.
"We have as many visitors as Yellowstone but less staff," Patterson said.
Some visitors agree that the park is often too congested but others said the increased attendance is understandable, given the park's natural beauty.
"I know everyone wants to be here and enjoy it," a tourist said. "But we also have to make sure we preserve this park for future generations. If we don't, we'll lose it. They're not building parks like this anymore."
Many tourists say congestion and overcrowding spreads to nearby Estes Park when tourists visit the town.
RMNP opened in 1915.