Colorado’s rafting industry welcomed a record number of rafters in 2021, posting its largest annual increase in commercial raft trips, up 44% from the pandemic-hampered 2020 season.
The Colorado River Outfitters Association counted 619,968 commercial river trips on 20 Colorado rivers last summer, a record increase of 189,793 visits from the previous summer.
“These are just staggering numbers, but we’ve seen them happen,” said David Costlow, director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association, who has yet to add the five-river count to the total tally and expects the final number is approaching 625,000.
But outfitters are hoping the pandemic rebound boom can sustain them this summer, with a light snowpack and more travel options for vacationers.
The rafting crowds were strong last summer. The bounce season was buoyed by travelers with limited travel options and more open school hours which allowed for rafting vacations in May and June. Colorado rafting outfitters have generally brought visitors within a six-hour drive, but last year they saw people driving 12 hours or more for summer vacation.
And with students on a looser school schedule last summer, the flow of rafter traffic in Colorado in May and June was off the charts.
“To compare to skiing, the chairlifts were full and the labyrinths were full in May and they were full in June, as they always are in July,” said Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions and Royal Gorge Cabins. on the banks. of the Arkansas River near Cañon City.
The past two years – an all-time high after a 20-year low – confirm that rafting activity is not so different from rubber flotillas floating down choppy rivers. The only certainty is a mad dash.
Poor snow years mean low water and fewer paddlers. Heavy snow years can stir up the heavy sluffs that scare off some rubber riders. A few warm weeks in the spring can send a steady snowpack downstream in a torrent, which is happening right now. Dust blown in from the Utah desert can also accelerate snowmelt. Wildfires, high fuel prices and poor economy can also pinch the flow of thrill seekers.
The pandemic has made 2020 even more difficult for Colorado’s rafting industry, with visits hitting their lowest point since 2002, when wildfires and drought strangled summer tourism in Colorado.
Rafting companies saw 112,000 fewer visitors in 2020 than in 2019. And outfitters spent more to house those rafters, running buses and rafts at half capacity to comply with pandemic distancing restrictions . The economic impact of commercial rafting in 2020 fell to $148.7 million, down $36 million from 2019.
“Last year helped us bounce back from 2020,” Costlow said.
But will 2021 revenue be enough to help rafting businesses survive this summer?
Hot, dusty winds have ravaged the state’s snowpack in recent weeks, and outfitters are bracing for a low-water season. These low-flow summers – like 2002 and 2012 – see dramatic drops in visitation.
And after last year’s surge, maybe a little less demand will be a good thing.
“I don’t think we’ll see the kind of demand we saw last year, and honestly, that’s good,” said Duke Bradford, who founded Arkansas Valley Adventures upstream of Buena Vista in 1998. challenges . I think we will be able to handle a little less demand much better this year with a slightly improved work situation.
Unless there is a sudden change with late May snow or June rains, the 2022 rafting season is unlikely to set a new record. .
“To have another season like the one we had last year is going to be very, very difficult,” Costlow said. “I was telling my members last year when they were bringing in record business, put that extra away because you’re going to need it in the future.”
Snow accumulations are decimated in southern Colorado. Snow in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins is 4% of the long-term average. This number is 2% in the Rio Grande basin and 39% in the Gunnison River watershed. It improves as it moves north, with the upper Colorado Springs at 59% of normal, the South Platte at 67%, and the Yampa at 73%.
The only stretch of whitewater to see a decline last year was Glenwood Canyon, where the Colorado River was entirely blocked and Interstate 70 closed for a few weeks after devastating landslides caused by torrential rains in late July. in the fire burn scar of Grizzly Creek. And this drop was only a few hundred visits.
Rafting traffic on Clear Creek doubled in 2021 from the previous year, topping 100,000 for the first time since CROA began counting in the 1990s.
Dale Drake said advance reservations for rafting trips at his company Clear Creek Rafting in Idaho Springs are up from last year. He suspects people are booking earlier after being turned out due to large crowds and understaffed outfitters last year.
“We think demand will hold up this summer,” said Drake, who has seen the labor crisis ease this spring by finding more drivers and commercial guides.
And he’s not too worried about the low snowpack.
“We will have more family-friendly streams,” he said.
The nation’s busiest rafting river, the Arkansas River, has a falling snowpack measuring just 31% of normal. Last year, traffic on the Arkansas River jumped 41% to a peak of 256,650 commercial rafting trips. In 2020, rafting the Upper Arkansas River generated an economic impact of $63 million. (Costlow is still compiling the economic impact report for the 2021 season.)
The Arkansas River has a one-of-a-kind cooperative model — the Voluntary Flow Management Program — that maintains floating flows of 700 cubic feet per second from July 1 through August 15. The program, established in the early 1990s with a unique partnership of recreational interests, wildlife managers, water conservation districts, and the Front Range cities of Pueblo and Colorado Springs. It’s more about timing the release of about 10,000 acre-feet of water to downstream users so it can benefit the Upper Arkansas River Valley’s $41 million rafting economy.
Flows in Twin and Turquoise lakes in the upper Arkansas River are expected to be about 45,300 acre-feet, below the long-standing average of 58,000 acre-feet. And that projection will likely be lower when the next update assesses the effect of that wind and dust.
The Pueblo Board of Water Works is also working with valley rafting companies to schedule an additional 4,000 to 5,000 acre-feet of water into the Pueblo Reservoir, which can help increase raftable river flows beyond the flow management program, or VFMP.
“It’s best to delay the VFMP for as long as possible,” said Bob Hamel, director of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, noting the costly and exhausting hassles – like driving rafters down long canyon roads to access short stretches – outfitters have to endure to float guests when flow rates drop below 700 cfs.
Hamel’s association recently deployed a research firm to assemble an economic analysis of rafting in the Upper Arkansas River Valley. The 34-page report looked at visitors in 2020 and found that rafters spent $15 million during the 100-120 day rafting season, creating an economic impact of more than $41 million and supporting the equivalent of 455 full-time jobs in Chaffee and Fremont. counties. Researchers also surveyed the rafters last year and will do the same this summer, creating a three-year database that will include the worst, the best and what everyone expects a rafting season to be. uncharacteristic on the Arkansas River.
The idea is to be able to show the financial impact not only of rafting but of all recreational flows in the river.
“Maybe with this data we can go and involve other companies,” Hamel said.
It’s a page from the national outdoor recreation manual. Federal review of outdoor recreation – determining it’s a $788 billion industry responsible for more than 3% of economic activity nationwide – broadened the scope of the industry of the outdoors as more businesses and communities recognize the economic and political power of recreation.
The local studies will help the new Arkansas River Conservation Cooperative build stronger bonds around the river, Neinas said.
“Maybe we can find opportunities to ensure habitat quality, wildlife quality and recreation quality,” he said. “This report is our baseline for what we do and how we deliver value. We are all cut from the same cloth in this valley and the voice of recreation is so important to our economic livelihood and quality of life. We want to unite around the river and help make sure that, frankly, the water we protect is there year-round, not just the 100 days the rafting industry operates here.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, Jason Blevins’ premium outdoor newsletter. >> Subscribe