‘Not Armageddon’: Officials brace for return of Rainbow Family Gathering to Routt County

Gathering could see 10,000 people descend on remote part of Routt National Forest

Rainbow Family members march in North Routt County in 2006 during their annual gathering. The 2022 gathering will return to Routt County near Adams Park west of Steamboat Lake.
Matt Stensland/Steamboat Pilot & Today

After the Rainbow Family of Living Light posted directions to a forested part of Routt County just after noon on Tuesday, June 14, Commissioner Tim Redmond’s phone was “bombarded.”

Constituents were reaching out concerned about the news of the group’s 50th anniversary gathering taking place in a remote area of the Routt National Forest known as Adams Park.

“They’re basically asking me to stop the Rainbow Gathering,” Redmond said. “I have to let them know that we as county commissioners don’t have any power over U.S. Forest Service lands and we don’t have any way to stop 20,000 to 30,000 people from doing what they’re going to do.”

The Rainbow Family Gathering is expected to bring people from all over the country to the area that is close to the Wyoming border and north of both Slater and California parks.

Facebook posts have some soliciting rides to the meet-up for them and their canine companion from Cleveland, encouraging rental car sharing after they land at Denver International Airport and offering tips for how to adjust to altitude — some more grounded in science than others.

The group’s website outlines a loose schedule of some planned events for the gathering, which is set to start July 1 and continue for at least a week, though previous gatherings have extended multiple weeks. Based around “Rainbow time,” the group plans a silent circle of prayer for peace, a discussion focused on cyberspace issues and a talent show at the “Granola Funk Theater.”

“The Rainbow Gathering is about humans attempting to live in peaceful community with each other and coming together to collectively pray for world peace,” says a blog post titled “A first-timer’s practical guide to the Rainbow Gathering.”

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But as excitement builds among the Rainbows, there is a growing number of concerns among locals about the influx of people to the remote area and how that could impact critical habitat, as well as nearby communities like Steamboat Springs, Hayden and Craig.

While the Rainbow Family asserts they don’t have any leaders, Forest Service Public Information Officer for the Rainbow Gathering Hilary Markin said the agency traditionally works with the group mitigate impacts. Markin has served in this role for multiple Rainbow Gatherings, including last year in New Mexico and 2019 in northern Wisconsin.

“It’s actually an unauthorized incident, so we bring in a national incident management team, much like we would for a fire, that helps address the health and safety risks to the public and to participants,” Markin said.

Members of the incident management team have already started arriving in Northwest Colorado, Markin said. Many of the members of this team have worked on Rainbow Gatherings in the past.

While estimates for the number of people expected to show up for the annual affair vary wildly, Markin said they are expecting about 10,000 people. Both the Wisconsin and New Mexico rendezvous saw between 6,000 and 7,000 participants.

“What tends to happen is right now there’s a small group of people on the landscape, and that’ll continuously slowly build up until the peak day on the Fourth of July,” Markin said. “That first weekend in July, that’s when we’re going to see the massive number of attendees, and then it’ll quickly fall off after the Fourth.”

Before people flock to the forest, Markin said, officials will have a resource-protection plan in place that addresses things like where participants can get water, what areas are appropriate for camps or latrines and how some of these resources need to be constructed.

After the gathering, there will be another group of Rainbows that come in to rehabilitate the land in consultation with Forest Service, Markin said. She added that these efforts have been relatively successful at cleaning up after previous gatherings.

The gathering last came to Routt County in 2006 near Clark. Commissioner Tim Corrigan said that while it did present some challenges, it didn’t lead to significant environmental problems.

“In 2006, our environmental health department was directed by the state to go up and inspect the sanitary facilities that were being constructed,” Corrigan said. “They went up after the event and took soil samples, and generally, the work that the Rainbow people did on the sanitary facilities was of good quality and did not result in any specific environmental degradation.”

Routt County Emergency Manger Mo DeMorat said the selected location was near one of three spots officials already suspected. One problem with Adams park is how remote it is, which could complicate delivering emergency services if called for.

North Routt Fire Protection District Chief Mike Swinsick said the area technically isn’t in any fire district and is about 45 minutes away from the department’s Steamboat Lake firehouse. In 2006, the Forest Service actually used that firehouse to hold court proceedings, allowing people to face a judge after being ticketed.

“We ended up getting a few calls a day out of it,” Swinsick said. “Nothing major as far as a fire.” 

Routt County law enforcement is preparing to deal with the gathering as well. Steamboat Springs Police Chief Sherry Burlingame said she has started reaching out to other law enforcement agencies and setting up agreements to send additional officers to Steamboat if necessary.

These additional officers could potentially stay in dorms at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs campus.

Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins said he has been a part of meetings with local partners for the past few weeks.  

“We will be really busy, I’m sure, for the next two or three weeks,” Wiggins said. “If things get really busy, then we’re making preparations to contract some of our neighboring sheriffs who have extra people that can pull shifts and beef up our system.”

Both Burlingame and Wiggins encouraged people to be more conscious of locking their vehicles and homes as more people come to town — an attempt to limit potential crimes of opportunity. While relatively far from Steamboat, Burlingame said she anticipates to have increased traffic as people make their way up north.

The group’s directions to Adams Park are from Craig or Baggs, Wyoming, something that Craig City Manager Peter Brixius said will likely lead to increased traffic through Craig and Moffat County in general.

Corrigan said the location is probably far enough out that this year’s gathering could have less of an impact on locals in Hayden and Steamboat than it did last time. He also feels officials are better prepared.

“We did this in 2006 and it was not Armageddon,” Corrigan said. “Here we are 16 years later, and we are better prepared to respond to this kind of an event.” 

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