Visitors flock to outdoors during pandemic

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Local outfitters, campgrounds experiencing record year

  • RIGS Fly Shop Guide Service guide Spencer Terry holds a brown trout along the Uncompahgre River. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed more vacationers outdoors this summer. Courtesy photo
    RIGS Fly Shop Guide Service guide Spencer Terry holds a brown trout along the Uncompahgre River. The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed more vacationers outdoors this summer. Courtesy photo
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Campgrounds are full, Jeeps and paddleboards are in short supply, and local outdoor recreation businesses are seeing more customers than past years, as people opt for trips to less populated areas with activities that feel safer and easier with the uncertainty of the pandemic.

While the San Juan Moun-tain region is always a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, demand has heightened during the pandemic. With people canceling flights and cruises, vacations within driving distance have filled the void for those still looking to get away.

During this spring’s shutdowns, “we were in the mindset of scaling back,” said RIGS Fly Shop & Guide Service owner Tim Patterson. But with businesses reopening under Gov. Jared Polis’ latest phase, “Safer at Home and in the Vast, Great Outdoors,” people have been encouraged to head outside and business is rebounding. “But people are flocking to the great outdoors; we’re pleasantly surprised,” Patterson said.

“The data absolutely suggests that this is the summer of the road trip: said Skyler McKinley, AAA Colorado’s director of public affairs. A national AAA survey found that overall travel is down 18 percent compared to last year, and air travel has fallen by 75 percent, but road-trip travel is down only about 3 percent, he said.

The primary driver is a sense of safety. “There are fewer options for flying, and you can’t take a cruise right now,” he said, but even those who could travel by plane are choosing to drive because they feel safer in their own cars. Western states in particular are in high demand; for the first time, Denver was AAAs most-searched destination, which in past years has been Orlando. Travelers are “looking west, and taking inventory of nearby national parks,” McKinley said. “Anecdotally, we’re getting a lot of requests from travelers about rural areas.”

“People are doing driving vacations more than flying, and traffic is much heavier in town,” San Juan Mountain Guides co-owner Mark Iuppenlatz said. That has resulted in more business for the company: The recently opened Via Ferrata attracted more than 3,000 people in the first six weeks, and the business’s traditional guiding trips are also up “pretty significantly,” he said.

“Outdoor activities are perceived as safer than indoors,” luppenlatz said, in addition to the traditional draws of the mountains, fresh air and sunshine.

RIGS has had more customers who are first-time anglers trying guided fly fishing, Patterson said. They’ve scaled down the size of those trips, with two people per guide instead of three, and are meeting people on site instead of providing transportation to make it easier to maintain distance.

Paddlesports are also particularly popular: RIGS’ rentals at Ridgway State Park are increasingly in demand, Park Manager Kirstin Copeland said.

Patterson attributed that in part to the interest in outdoor activities which is driving other surges, as well as to the lack of rafting trips this summer. The drought conditions and low water flow in the Uncompahgre and San Miguel rivers, as well as concerns about transporting people safely to avoid spreading the virus, made it “a good year to take a break from rafting,” he said. But they’ve seen more demand for other water sports like kayaking and paddleboarding in the absence of rafting.

“People want to get out, away from everybody,” Colorado West Jeep Rentals owner Jeff Lindberg said.

The increase has come as businesses struggle to keep up their stock, due to high demand and less supply from manufacturers this spring.

Lindberg said Jeeps and Polaris RZRs are in short supply, making it harder to keep up with the number of visitors. “You just can’t get them: he said, with no indication when production might catch up to demand. “We have two-thirds of the fleet we usually have.” Patterson agreed, and said stock shortages have been the biggest challenge: It’s hard to get everything from paddles to life jackets to fishing rods, he said.

Kevin manager at Scott RV in Grand Junction, said demand for RVs has been climbing since March. That’s when the first stay-at-home order sent people searching for ways to travel in their own, enclosed space. Sales and camper upgrades have increased by zo percent compared to last summer, he said.

“Stock has become difficult to fmd, and manufacturers are struggling to fill all the orders,” Taiclet said. “With everybody shutting down, you’ve got glitches in the supply line, and when we’re talking about thousands upon thousands of back orders, it’s making it a little more difficult.”

“People just went a little crazy,” he said. “A lot of people are very interested in purchasing campers and jumping into that recreation, which is awesome.” First-time buyers are particularly interested in smaller, easy-to-tow trailers.

Low gas prices are also making road trips and RV travel cheaper. According to AAA, national gas prices are currently lower than the last three summers, though they’ve climbed since the spring. Average prices in Colorado are about 15 to zo cents per gallon lower than last year. The average price in Colorado is just under $2.43 per gallon, compared to sz.63 a year ago, while the national average is s2.18, down from $2.71 last year. It usually takes about a 50-cent change in gas prices to shift travel behavior, McKinley said. While year-over-year gasoline demand is down, it reached its highest point since the start of the pandemic last week, according to AAA.

Steve and Lori Jonker, hosts at the Ouray Amphitheater Campground, said that while the site is always crowded, they’ve turned more people away this summer than in years past. Last year, they usually sold out for the night between 2 and 4 p.m. each day; this summer, they’re often full before 9 a.m., they said.

“A lot of people come up here without a plan; they show up at 5 o’clock and assume they’re going to find a spot,” Steve Jonker said. “There’s a lot more first-timers,” he added, who need more instructions on things like bear awareness and campfire etiquette. “A lot of them don’t know how to put up their tents.”

“We’re hearing from people that they’ve canceled their bigger plans,’’ opting for trips closer to home, Lori Jonker said. They’ve had “an awful lot from the Front Range,” as well as from neighboring states.

Ouray RV Park is looking at its “busiest season to date” since Jason and Amber Perkins purchased it in 2015. “People feel safe and comfortable in their RVs,” Jason Perkins said, and they want to stay longer. The average length of stay has increased from three days to five to seven days, and the business has seen about 25 percent growth over last year, he said.

Like the Jonkers, he’s talked to many first-time RV travelers, who need help setting up sewer and electric. State parks are seeing the same trends.

“Pretty much daily, we’re full,” Copeland said of the campgrounds at Ridgway State Park. “That oftentimes would happen maybe starting July 4 through mid-August, but it has been that way since about the first of June.” Camping and day use at the park have both increased 3o to 40 percent this year, she said. The number of boat inspections have increased threefold from last year, and boat parking areas have run out of space on recent weekends. “When you drive past Dallas Creek, it’s car to car to car,” she said.

Some campers at the park last week said they were moving to different sites daily, since they were unable to book one for multiple consecutive nights. Others who have come to the park for years said it’s been noticeably busier than past trips, but the self-contained nature of RV camping means they don’t have to worry about exposure to the virus from dose quarters with strangers.

Employees are hauling “exponentially more” trash than in past years, especially from areas like the swim beach, and “quite a bit more” human waste, Copeland said. “We went through 24 cases of toilet paper in two weeks," she said.

The crowds have meant more work for park staff to ensure people are following rules, Copeland said. “We’re trying to keep people off the natural resources: she said, to prevent them from driving off roads or tying things to trees in damaging ways. This leads to concerns about impacts on wildlife behavior and damage to natural resources. “Areas that are normally less dense are being much more inundated, and we know that probably the wildlife are being moved: she said.

And when people can’t find places to stay in campgrounds and parks, they’re setting up camp wherever they can find an open space.

“There’s more gypsy camping in non-approved locations,” luppenlatz said. “There’s a lot of pressure in the backcountry from car campers and RVs, because of the shortage of legal campgrounds.”

He’s noticed more erosion and trash, as well as people who “just pull out into the wildflowers and camp: he said.

In response to complaints about people driving off road in the backcountry and causing damage, Timber Ridge Lodge owner Brian Duckles worked with Gretchen McArthur to create a flyer urging people to stay on trails. It includes instructions to keep off fragile tundra, avoid widening trails and pack out any trash, in an effort to educate first-time Jeepers and others who don’t know trail rules and etiquette.

Demand for camping and outdoor activities was already climbing long before the pandemic, Copeland said. “Looking at the trajectory we were on prior to COVID, the type of recreation that Ridgway offers was in a pretty steady growth,” she said. “But COVID maybe had people who were not sure say, ‘Let’s go get that camper; let’s go get that boat.’ It accelerated or enhanced what was already going on:

Growth could continue beyond the traditional summer tourism season if visitors aren’t heading home to get back to school or to work. Perkins said reserva-tions at the RV park for the fall have increased by 5o percent from last year, with more people planning longer stays in September and October. Visitors are making plans to travel this fall, getting out of big cities to stay somewhere they feel safer while they’re telecommuting and attending school online.

Copeland said the state park typically sees a significant decline in visitation after August, but based on reservations so far, “we’re not seeing quite as much of a drop.”

Liz Teitz is a corps member with Report for America, a nonprofit program partnering with local newsrooms to bring more quality reporting to underserved areas. Please consider supporting her work at the Plaindealer by making a tax-deductible donation here.