Colorado’s rafting industry hosted a record number of rafters in 2021, posting its largest annual increase in commercial raft trips, up 44% over the pandemic-hobbled 2020 season.
The Colorado River Outfitters Association counted 619,968 commercial river trips on 20 Colorado rivers last summer, a record 189,793-visit increase from the previous summer.
“These are just staggering numbers, but we saw them coming,” said David Costlow, the director of the Colorado River Outfitters Association who still needs to add counts from five rivers to the total tally and expects the final number to land closer to 625,000.
But outfitters are hoping the boom from the pandemic rebound can float them through this summer, with a meager snowpack and more travel options for vacationers.
This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
The rafting crowds were strong last summer. The bounce-back season was buoyed by travelers with limited travel options and more open school schedules that allowed for May and June rafting holidays. Colorado’s rafting outfitters have typically drawn visitors from within a six-hour drive, but last year they saw folks driving for 12 or more hours for summer holidays.
And with students on a looser school schedule last summer, the flow of rafter traffic into Colorado in May and June was off the charts.
“To compare to skiing, the chairlifts were full and the mazes were full in May and they were full in June, just like they always are in July,” said Andy Neinas, who owns 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 following a 20-year low — affirm that the rafting business is not that different from rubber flotillas bobbing down roiling rivers. The only certainty is a wild ride.
Bad snow years mean low water and fewer paddlers. Big snow years can stir the stout flows that scare away some rubber riders. A few hot weeks in the spring can send a regular snowpack downstream in a torrent, which is happening right now. Dust blown in from the Utah desert can equally hasten snowmelt. Wildfires, high fuel prices and a bad economy also can pinch the flow of thrillseekers.
The pandemic made 2020 even more challenging for Colorado’s rafting industry with visitation reaching its lowest point since 2002, when wildfires and drought throttled summer tourism in Colorado.
Rafting companies saw 112,000 fewer visitors in 2020 than in 2019. And outfitters spent more hosting 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 recover from 2020,” Costlow said.
But will 2021 revenues be enough to help rafting companies survive this summer?
Dusty warm winds ravaged the state’s snowpack in recent weeks and outfitters are bracing for a low-water season. Those low-flow summers — like 2002 and 2012 — see dramatic drops in visitation.
And after the surge last year, maybe a little less demand will be good.
“I don’t think we will see that 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. “Last year we were dealing a lot with labor challenges. I think we will be able to manage slightly less demand much better this year with a slightly improved labor situation.”
Unless there’s a sudden shift with some late May snow or June rains, it’s unlikely the 2022 rafting season will set a new record. .
“To have another season like we had last year will be very, very difficult,” Costlow said. “I was telling my members last year when they were reporting record business, tuck that extra away because you will need it in the future.”
Snowpacks are decimated in southern Colorado. Snow in the San Miguel, Dolores, Animas and San Juan river basins is 4% of the long-term average. That number is 2% in the Rio Grande River basin and 39% in the Gunnison River drainage. It gets better moving north, with the headwaters of the Upper Colorado 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 mudslides caused by torrential rain in late July in the Grizzly Creek fire burn scar. And that decline was only a couple hundred visits.
Rafting traffic on Clear Creek doubled in 2021 over the previous year, topping 100,000 for the first time since CROA started counting in the 1990s.
Dale Drake said advanced reservations for rafting trips at his Clear Creek Rafting company in Idaho Springs are pacing ahead of last year. He suspects folks are booking earlier after being shut out due to big crowds and understaffed outfitters last year.
“We think demand is going to sustain through this summer,” said Drake, who has seen the labor crisis ease this spring as he finds more commercial drivers and guides.
And he’s not too worried about the meager snowpack.
“We’ll have more family-friendly flows,” he said.
The most rafted river in the country, the Arkansas River, has a dwindling snowpack measuring just 31% of normal. Traffic on the Arkansas River last year jumped 41% to a high of 256,650 commercial rafting trips. In 2020, rafting in the headwaters of the Arkansas River stirred a $63 million economic impact. (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 raft-floating flows of 700 cubic feet per second from July 1 through Aug. 15. The program, created 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 into Twin Lakes and Turquoise Lake in the headwaters of the Arkansas River are projected to be about 45,300 acre-feet, below the longtime average of 58,000 acre-feet. And that projection will likely be lower when the next update weighs the effect of that wind and dust.
The Pueblo Board of Water Works also works with the valley’s rafting companies to schedule an additional 4,000 to 5,000 acre-feet of water rolling into Pueblo Reservoir, which can help augment raftable river flows beyond the flow management program, or VFMP.
“It’s best to delay the VFMP as long as possible,” said Bob Hamel, the director of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, noting the costly, morale-draining hassles — like driving rafters down long canyon roads to access short stretches — outfitters must endure to float guests when flows 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 rafters spent $15 million in the 100-120-day raft season, creating an economic impact of more than $41 million and supporting the equivalent of 455 full-time jobs in both Chaffee and Fremont counties. The researchers also surveyed rafters last year and will do the same this summer, building a three-year database that will include the worst, the best and what everyone expects to be a somewhat normal season of rafting on the Arkansas River.
The idea is to be able to show the financial impact of not just rafting but all recreational flows in the river.
“Maybe with this data we can go and involve other businesses,” Hamel said.
It’s a page from outdoor recreation’s national playbook. The federal examination of outdoor recreation — determining it to be a $788 billion industry responsible for more than 3% of all country’s economic activity — has expanded the outdoor industry’s reach as more businesses and communities recognize the economic and political strength of recreation.
The local studies will help the newly formed Arkansas River Conservation Cooperative foster stronger ties around the river, Neinas said.
“Maybe we can find opportunities to ensure the quality of habitat, the quality of wildlife and the quality of recreation,” he said. “This report is our baseline for what we do and how we provide value. We are all cut from the same cloth in this valley and the recreation voice is so important for our economic livelihood and quality of life. We want to coalesce around the river and help insure that, frankly, the water we are protecting is around all year, not just the 100 days the rafting industry here is operating.”