Steamboat Springs vU.S. Forest Service officials say Fish Creek Falls had 80,000 visitors last year just as they prepare to open the recreation area for summer business this weekend.
"This is the earliest that we've been able to open," said Paul Blackman, outdoor recreation planner for the Forest Service.
Usually, the recreation area isn't cleared of snow until the week before Memorial Day, he said.
Last year, the Forest Service estimated that winter and summer use of the area was calculated at more than 80,000 visitors, which is probably the most ever, Blackman said.
That reflects the increasing popularity of the site in the winter and "speaks to the improvements that we've made there," Blackman said.
For the past couple of summers, the Forest Service has hired a work crew to do trail improvements on the lower trail and to pave the upper trail.
The work will continue this summer, starting in June, as interpretive signs, restrooms in the parking lot and an entrance station will be built at the site.
"If they can get it done in less than a month, that would be great," district recreation manager Ray George said.
He said the upper parking lot will probably be closed for a day or two sometime this summer while work is under way.
The entrance station, which will probably be the most noticeable addition this summer, will be staffed most of the week to help with parking, dispensing information and collecting the use-fee for the area.
"It should simplify the collection process," Blackman said.
One other element that locals might notice at Fish Creek Falls this summer is the Texas couple that have been summer residents at the site for more than 10 years won't be there.
Sam and Helen Bayless, who always made sure fees were paid and new visitors didn't get lost, have decided to work at a different site this summer, George said.
Currently, George is looking for someone to replace the couple, but admits the new volunteers will have some big shoes to fill.
"(They) were probably responsible for a lot of the fee compliance," he said.
Fee compliance is important to the Forest Service. The agency is dependent on the fees to pay for site improvements.
The Forest Service is allowed to keep 90 percent of the fees collected at Fish Creek to pay for up-keep of the area, which resulted in $40,000 last year.
"It goes straight back to the Fish Creek Falls," George said.
The remaining 10 percent goes into a pool with other fees from around the state at the regional office in Denver.
Forest districts apply for the money to pay for other projects in the forest. George said the pool was worth $90,000 last year.
The fee-collection process is actually an experimental project called the Recreation Fee Demonstration Project.
It is meant to find alternative ways to fund up-keep at recreation sites.
It's a possible permanent alternative to charging an entrance fee to the whole forest, like some national forests do in Washington and California, George said.