Surging recreation could signal busiest summer ever in Grand
This summer’s potential for record-breaking recreation in Grand County comes down to simple math.
A general public that could be fully vaccinated by the end of May has been cooped up in a pandemic for over a year. During that time, tons of people have discovered the outdoors leading to record land use.
“People who were using the outdoors regularly are going to continue to do so and, because of the pandemic, all these new recreationists emerged,” said Meara McQuain, director of the Headwaters Trails Alliance. “We expect now that they’ve got that initial experience they’re likely to continue to use the outdoors.”
Last year felt like a busy summer, especially considering COVID-19 restrictions, but Grand County is now preparing for what could be its busiest season yet.
“I think that that is a fair assessment,” McQuain said. “Had we not had the pandemic, which greatly impacted tourism numbers in the spring and early summer of 2020, it likely could’ve been our busiest year.”
Rocky Mountain National Park recently announced plans to continue its reservation system, citing the growing number of visitors impacting the park experience. Use since the pandemic has continue to spike at Rocky with officials citing a 28% increase of visitors in November and a 38% increase in December — typically some of the slowest months at the park.
The US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have seen similar spikes in use over the past year. McQuain said triple digit increases in land use are more than possible for Grand this summer.
The Headwaters Trails Alliance is joining a number of efforts to mitigate the impacts and environmental damage that comes with that exponential increase in usage. That includes a messaging campaign alongside regional and statewide efforts, a number of trailhead expansion projects, and the beginning stages of a stewardship program.
As for the business side of things, Grand’s tourism economy looks like it’s in a good position. Granby Chamber of Commerce Director Lauren Huber thinks road trips will be more popular this summer, and Grand’s proximity to the Front Range makes it an ideal stop.
“Looking at trends for tourism to the area, I think Grand County and Granby are well situated to have a very successful summer,” Huber said. “I think people’s habits are changing a bit from how they vacationed in the past.”
For outdoor retail, inventory of summer recreation goods like bikes and water activities are selling out fast. Businesses are gearing up for a busy summer, according to Huber.
AVA Rafting & Zipline, with a location in Kremmling, has revenue and guest numbers rivaling 2019. Call center manager Katie Schneider said she thinks that as restrictions loosen, the summer looks even better.
“We’re pretty neck and neck with 2019, which was the last normal year we had,” Schneider said. “I’m expecting it to look pretty similar to that year if not a little bit better.”
Last summer saw a lot of recreationists interested in rafting or ziplining with AVA, but COVID restrictions meant some people had to be turned away. Even so, Schneider said last fall was especially strong for the company.
Following a busy ski season, Schneider has found that interest has really picked up since mid-March.
“We’re encouraging people to get outside and we’re doing it in the safest way we possibly can, but the interest is definitely there for this coming summer,” Schneider said.
Important to keep in mind, Grand saw two wildfires scorching 20% of the county including hundreds of thousands of acres on public land. While it may not dissuade tourists from visiting, it does restrict where they can go.
While HTA will help to improve the infrastructure of closed areas, trail users will be pushed elsewhere this summer. It means more concentrated use on top of an increase in users.
“We’re anticipating higher usage in those areas,” McQuain said. “We’re trying to get ahead of it to some degree.”
That means, in addition to the trailhead expansions, HTA is trying to place strategic infrastructure like portable toilets and trash receptacles along with updating maps and educating the public about closures.
Even with all these considerations, many are excited for the summer.
“We’re looking forward to a grand reopening,” Huber said.
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