Outside and outnumbered: Routt County state parks saw more visitors than ever this summer. The outcomes proved a double-edged sword.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — This summer saw a big spike in visitation at Routt County’s state parks. At times it was overwhelming.
Looking at the cumulative totals from May through September, Colorado Parks and Wildlife welcomed 318,000 more people on campgrounds and public space compared to the same time frame last year, according to spokesperson Randy Hampton.
All of those visitors provided much-needed support for local businesses grappling with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. It also was heartening for Parks and Wildlife officials to see people using the outdoors as solace amid an otherwise chaotic time.
But in other ways, the busy summer became a fiasco of its own, according to Parks and Wildlife park managers who recounted their experiences during a virtual meeting on Thursday.
Crazy for camping
Local public health ordinances temporality prohibited camping at Routt County’s four state parks, along with any short-term lodging, at the onset of the pandemic in March. The restrictions were a way to limit the number of visitors coming to the area who could potentially spread the coronavirus and overwhelm the health care system.
By the end of March, the Routt County Board of Commissioners loosened the lodging ban, making state parks one of the only ways people could visit the Yampa Valley. Getting outside also was one of the few activities people could safely and legally enjoy under Colorado’s stay-at-home order.
This led to a surge in camping across Northwest Colorado, an area with sprawling open space and picturesque public lands. At the end of March and into the start of summer, Parks and Wildlife recorded a slight rise in visitation at its parks in the region, according Hampton. Then it skyrocketed.
The number of visitors surpassed last year’s count by nearly 200,000 people for the month of July alone, according to Hampton. That same month, Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order transitioning the state from the safer-at-home order to what he called Safer at Home and in the Vast, Great Outdoors. It encouraged outdoor recreation as long as people followed health guidelines.
“Colorado has millions of acres of accessible federal land, municipal parks, state parks, state and county open space and other accessible areas that allow for stronger social distancing in our great outdoors,” the order read.
People took advantage of all that open space, which at times made for some cramped conditions. At Pearl Lake State Park in North Routt, Senior Park Ranger Ryan Crabb saw about 2,000 more vehicles per month at the lake’s parking lot this summer than last. Most of those vehicles belonged to paddleboarders, he said. The traffic filled the lot by 10 a.m. most days. People quickly adapted to the craze, with keen water enthusiasts learning to either arrive early or in the evening to beat the crowds.
The same was true for nearby Steamboat Lake, where packed parking lots were the norm.
“It was like Fourth of July weekend every day of the summer,” Crabb said.
Craig Preston, park manager at Stagecoach State Park, also noticed campers booking longer stays than usual and an uptick in weekday visitation. He surmises they wanted to get away from crowded cities or take advantage of remote work.
“People normally staying for a weekend were staying for the full week,” Preston said.
It was clear that those visitors were in need of a remote escape. As Jacob Dewhirst, park manager at Yampa River and Elkhead state parks observed, usually ignored or seldom-used areas suddenly grew popular this summer.
“People wanted their own private, safe haven,” he said.
Used but abused
While wildlife officers liked to watch so many people enjoying the land, they soon found themselves overwhelmed. Park employees sometimes had to stand all day in the blazing sun turning around cars from filled lots. Rangers wrote more citations over enforcement issues, such as people having fires amid fire bans or pitching tents outside of designated spots.
“It was a grind of a summer,” Dewhirst said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
With high usage comes high wear-and-tear. Parks and Wildlife officials winced to see grass trampled from careless hikers, trees damaged from hammocks and illegal fires posing risks to the ecosystem and surrounding communities.
“There is such thing as overuse to a resource,” Preston said.
Part of the issue was a lack of awareness. As Preston explained, many of the people who camped at Stagecoach this summer had either never camped before or had limited experience. Some didn’t even know how to pitch their tents.
“They would look at you with a blank stare and we would just smile and help them set it up,” he said.
Rifle Gap State Park Ranger Matt Schuler said littering was a bigger issue this summer, along with people trying to fell trees for firewood in prohibited areas.
When he told them about Leave No Trace Ethics, many had never heard the term before. At first he was baffled. Then he saw it as an opportunity to make stewards out of people and teach them how to respectfully recreate.
“It reminded me why we are rangers,” Schuler said. “It was really meaningful work.”
Boon for business
While hard on the environment, this summer’s outdoor craze helped local businesses weather the COVID-caused storm.
May, June and July saw increases in sales tax collections from local sporting goods stores compared to last year, one of the few industries to see such an improvement, according to city of Steamboat Springs documents. Harry Martin, co-owner of Steamboat Ski & Bike Kare, had trouble keeping enough bikes in stock to meet demand. It was indicative of a broader trend nationwide.
“The bike business has been incredible,” Martin said during an interview in August. “The whole industry basically sold in two months what they would have normally sold in a year.”
Other outdoor-oriented companies in Steamboat, from fly-fishing outfitters to tubing and paddleboard renters, also benefited from the spike in visitation.
The extra boost will cushion what could be a tough road ahead for Steamboat. Many uncertainties remain about what the coming months will look like for a community that relies heavily on winter tourism. Steamboat Resort announced plans to operate for the 2020-21 season but at a reduced capacity. Local restaurateur Rex Brice, owner of Rex’s Family of Restaurants, said he expects to only have 50% capacity at his establishments. Other eateries are getting creative to welcome more customers in the snow, like Aurum’s plan to install outdoor yurts and a general push for takeout service.
When it comes to predicting winter visitation at state parks, Craig Preston of Stagecoach, a popular ice fishing destination, said he has given up on trying to gaze into any crystal balls.
“Every time you think you have a plan, it goes sideways,” he said.
He and other Parks and Wildlife officials at Thursday’s meeting hope this summer served as both an educational experience for people new to outdoor recreation and a positive memory to encourage better usage in the future.
As Rifle Falls Park Manager Schuler concluded, “Hopefully those people will come back next year.”
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At 7 p.m. Thursday, the Yampa River’s temperature was 72 degrees at a spot in the Chuck Lewis Wildlife Area south of Steamboat. That’s about 15 degrees higher than the typical average.