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The Arkansas River through downtown Salida appeals to people trying many types of recreation, from stand-up paddleboarding to picnicking. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Whitewater rafting is a staple of Colorado tourism and summertime activities. In 2019, the economic impact of rafting statewide rafting measured $188 million, the second highest in the industry’s history, Colorado River Outfitters Association reported. 

But business relying on runoff can be a tricky game

There is always the spectre of winter droughts hanging overhead, and rafting companies have become creative in the past few years to stay afloat. Ziplines, rock climbing and other activities have popped up along every river corridor within the past 10 years as a result. 

David Costlow, executive director of CROA, describes the rafting industry as similar to farming. Dealing with too much, too little or hopefully, just the right amount of water, is an annual challenge for outfitters statewide. 

Not all outfitters have diversified their activities, Costlow said. But along the Arkansas and Clear Creek rivers, many companies have created lodging opportunities to draw in customers, and hopefully keep them there. 

“If you only have one key on the keyboard, you can’t make a lot of music. If you have a lot of keys on the keyboard, all of a sudden, you can do a combination of things,” is how Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions in the Arkansas River’s Royal Gorge, describes his diversification strategy.

A guide from International Whitewater in Salida paddles guests in Arkansas River on June 22, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Arkansas River is the most rafted river in the country, logging 190,246 user days — that’s one rafter on the river for one day — and commercial rafting delivered more than $66 million in economic impact to the communities along the river from Leadville to Cañon City in 2019.

Echo Canyon, which offers luxury cabins and glamping tents, has tried to bring the feel of Breckenridge to Fremont County. The strategy worked, he said, resulting in people extending the length of their stays, whether they were vacationers or day-trippers, to try some of the food and drink, and classes like photography.

Neinas also compares himself to a farmer. Both jobs, he said, depend on Mother Nature. 

Lawson Adventure Park and Resort, which is located near other competing Idaho Springs attractions, always had a plan to diversify the visitor experience in the mountains. 

“We were fortunate that we had a lot of activities in the first place,” said Greg Books, Lawson Adventure Park founder and CEO. “For us, it was part of the early plan, we wanted to have more than rafting and not be water-dependent.”

Books wanted to develop year-round activities that could withstand the uncertainty of Colorado droughts. With 13 themed lodging options — including cabins, yurts, a pet-friendly experience and one 420-friendly yurt — adding a zipline, via ferrata and disk golf course was a logical decision to make the most out of their land.

Two climbers get to the top of Lawson Adventure Park’s via ferrata course, one of their land-based activities that is able to operate with COVID-19 protocols. (Leilani Osmundson, The Colorado Sun)

These activities are just some of the 12 land adventures Lawson Adventure Park and Resort has added; others, including rock climbing, ropes challenge course, bungee trampoline jumping and Zorbing — a hamster ball obstacle course — are not operating due to COVID-19. Land adventures have helped the company continue to bring in guests in times of drought, and more recently, the coronavirus.

The adventure company has added protocols to all their operations to ensure safety in the time of a global pandemic. There is a no-contact check-in for lodging guests, the vans that guests ride in for whitewater rafting are misted with sanitizing chemicals after every trip, and a disinfectant process for gear used for the various activities. The lodging options are all separated and have their own individual air conditioning units, he added.

A Lawson Adventure Park employee cleans the via ferrata climbing gear after each use to protect future visitors from exposure to COVID-19. (Leilani Osmundson, The Colorado Sun)

Books said he is grateful for Gov. Jared Polis’ new Safer at Home and in the Vast, Great Outdoors order. It’s why they’re allowed to operate as close to normal as possible, he said. 

“What we’ve learned is that people enjoy that diversity,” Books said. “We want people to experience rafting, whether it’s their first time, or they live in Denver and go every year.” 

“We are surrounded by excellent competitors that force us to be as good as we are,” Neinas said. 

Lawson has seen larger numbers of in-state guests since the pandemic threw a wrench into the typical tourist season, which was a pleasant surprise, Books said. 

“This year, people are staying a couple of days and splitting up the activities. They’ll spread it out so they can relax and hang out longer,” Books said. “Whereas in previous years, non-COVID years, people try to get in and out. They’re not in a hurry this year.” 

Neinas also noted that people don’t seem to be confident about booking trips far in advance. With the global state of uncertainty, rafting has become even more of a last-minute market than it already was. 

While in a typical year, more people might be jumping on a plane to vacation elsewhere, both owners have noticed an increase in the number of local visitors and people road tripping from nearby states. 

“People are choosing to recreate in their own backyards,” Neinas said. “How lucky are we as residents of Colorado to have the playground that we have?”

Email: Twitter: @laurenirwin88