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.
MOUNT EVANS — The T-shirts and hoodies are stacked deep on the tables of the 95-year-old restaurant. Bill Carle estimates he’s spent about $300,000 on the Mount Evans souvenirs for the Echo Lake Lodge his family has operated for 57 years.
He spent that before Denver officials told Carle the city would not be renewing his family’s contract to operate the city-owned lodge a few miles below the Mount Evans summit and 2022 will be his final season.
“They told me, you guys have been wonderful but we want to go in a different direction. I asked what direction that might be? They said ‘We’re planning to have a plan.’ I told them I thought that was a mistake,” says Carle, sitting in the corner of the log-walled restaurant where he was once in charge of cleaning the grand fireplace at age 11. “We have a lot of perspective. If you want to go in a different direction, I wish they would bring us in on the conversation. Don’t let me order $300,000 worth of merchandise and then tell me we’re done. It’s kind of callous.”
The Carle family’s company H.W. Stewart Inc. has been serving tourists in Colorado’s most venerated locations for nearly 130 years. Carle and his sister, the late Barb Day, made donuts with their cousins atop Pikes Peak, where his grandmother started the family business as a telegraph operator in the Summit House in the late 1800s. He’s lived on top of Pikes Peak and Mount Evans. He’s worked with his grandparents, parents, sister, cousins, nephews and nieces in restaurants, shops and lodges at Garden of the Gods, Red Rocks, Buffalo Bill’s gravesite on Lookout Mountain, Estes Park, Rocky Mountain National Park and Grand Lake.
His abrupt removal from Echo Lake Lodge below the summit of Mount Evans marks yet another “unceremonious departure” for the family that pioneered Colorado tourism. The family lost the contract on Pikes Peaks in 1992, after serving visitors to the mountain for more than a century. A year later they lost their contract to run the Red Rocks Trading Post. Both times, Philadelphia-based concession giant Aramark bested their renewal bids. They forged the first-ever public-private partnership with the National Park Service — requiring an act of Congress — at the Fall River Visitor Center near the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.
Now the family is packing up after 57 years at Echo Lake Lodge. The city of Denver has not announced any plans for the restaurant and gift shop, which includes a handful of former guest rooms on the top floor.
“Currently, we are not extending the existing concession contract or advertising a new contract while we undergo a planning process to determine the best use for the building and the park,” says Cyndi Karvaski, spokeswoman for Denver Mountain Parks.
The city also is not renewing the Carle family’s concessions contract at Buffalo Bill’s gravesite and Pahaska Tepee on Lookout Mountain, but has given Carle two years to wind down his decades-old operation at that city-owned mountain park.
“I need to get out of the government concessions business,” he says. “Sometimes it’s just enough to make you scream. I’m going to say the government is ageist. We are dealing with a different generation now and I guess I’m breaking the cardinal rule criticizing Denver but … I don’t have much to worry about any more, do I? I think the public should be taking a closer look at how the city is managing its mountain parks.”
Adjusting the Mount Evans reservation system
Echo Lake Lodge was built in 1927. Denver’s mountain parks master plan in 2008 called for $2 million to upgrade the lodge, which anchors the city’s 616-acre park at the base of Goliath Peak. Carle grouses that too little of that investment has gone toward the tired lodge, where a failed leach field has left the building’s bathrooms unusable since last summer.
Denver in 2018 approved a five-year contract with H.W. Stewart to run Echo Lake Lodge. The contract required Carle to pay 7.9% of gross sales on food and souvenirs but not less than $31,700. The city that year also approved an identical deal for the family at Buffalo Bill’s gravesite at Lookout Mountain.
He’s paid the city much more than that, plus $50,000 for capital improvements at the start of each lease. In 2019, the Echo Lake gift shop and restaurant generated $1.5 million in sales over five months of operation, which generated about $120,000 for the city. He spends about $60,000 a season on utilities and maintenance.
The Arapaho Roosevelt National Forest in 2021 installed a pilot reservation system for all visitors to Mount Evans, hoping to better control crowds and limit impacts. The Mount Evans Recreation Area, with the highest paved road in North America climbing to the top of the Colorado 14er, is one of the most trafficked spots in the forest and the $2 reservation system offers visitors timed entry. Reservations for popular locations have grown in Colorado in recent years as land managers grapple with growing crowds and impacts.
Carle said he understands the need for reservations to control peak-traffic days but hopes the system can be adjusted on Mount Evans. There is no cellphone coverage and internet service is spotty on the mountain, so visitors who did not book a reservation ahead of time often need to drive back down the mountain road to get reception so they can book a $2 entry to the peak. The system does not allow for on-site reservations or cash payments.
“We get a dozen people a day coming in here begging to use our internet so they can book a drive to the summit,” says Denice Mellberg, who has managed Echo Lake Lodge with the Carle family for 37 years and spends every summer living in a guest room above the restaurant.
Carle has stories about Amish visitors turned away because they didn’t have smartphones. And a mom who missed the signs warning about the need for reservations. And many visitors who were unaware of the need for an advanced ticket were turned away.
“It’s exclusionary. It’s a flawed system. It’s going to be necessary to fix those flaws,” he says, suggesting a green or red light at the bottom of the hill telling people before they drive up if they need to make a reservation.
The reservation system is part of an overarching message by federal land managers pleading with visitors to plan ahead and do a bit of research before venturing into public lands.
“It is important for folks to visit our website regularly so they have the latest on fire restrictions, closures, safety messages and reservations,” says Reghan Cloudman with the Arapaho National Forest. “Cellphones don’t work in many places folks are going to be visiting so pre-work is essential.”
A helping hand on the mountain
Rescuers in Clear Creek County hold Mellberg, Carle and his late sister in high esteem. With a 24-hour presence on the mountain, the operators at Echo Lake Lodge “have absolutely saved us from all kinds of rescues up there,” says Howard Paul with the Alpine Rescue Team.
Carle says they never turned away someone in need. And the number of folks in need grows every year, he says.
“When it’s privately owned, we are incentivized to be here and have that front door open,” he says. “My grandmother always told us we can’t do business from an empty wagon and half the secret to our business is simply keeping that front door open.”
Paul said Day would often direct visitors to easy trails if she suspected they were ill-prepared for alpine hiking. Carle and his sister would often jump in their cars and rush up the peak to help people with minor medical issues after a mishap or car trouble. They would take in visitors who needed help at all hours.
“And when we were up there on a mission, it was common for them to open their kitchen at 2 a.m. and cook us a hot meal and bring it up to us on the mountain,” Paul says. “When we were up there overnight, which was very common, as we were coming down they would open the kitchen and give us hot breakfast. We had such a great relationship with them. It will be interesting to see how the new plans unfold up there. I can tell you that Bill and his family will be very missed.”
Barb Day died in October, a few months before the city of Denver told Carle that the summer of 2022 would be his last at Echo Lake Lodge. She ran the H.W. Stewart business and spent 40 years making pies sold in the restaurant on Mount Evans.
“These kids are tired of answering questions about the pies,” says Mellberg of the young J-1 visa workers from Thailand who are working at the lodge this summer. “People are coming asking about the pies and I tell them this is our last year up here and they have tears in their eyes.”
Those pies, like the donuts Carle and his sister made on Pikes Peak in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, are part of the edible story of Colorado tourism. Just like Beau Jo’s pizza in Idaho Springs. The Rocky Mountain oysters at Bruce’s Bar in Severance. The fudge at the Buffalo Bill museum. The rattlesnake sausage at The Fort. The burgers at My Brother’s Bar.
“These are the things people remember and they talk about,” Carle said. “It’s sad to see those things go away.”
Losing the Echo Lake Lodge “was like losing another family member,” Carle said.
“It feels horrible. It’s an emotional loss, it’s a business loss. We have always felt we were part of the mountain and the mountain was part of us. We felt the same way on Pikes Peak,” he says. “I wish there was some sensitivity for the people who got us where we are today. This is five generations working in Colorado tourism for more than a century. That should mean something.”