Mountain Towns Prepare For Large Crowds As Summer Sports And Outdoor Recreation Festivals Return

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A cyclist rides up Hwy. 6 to Loveland Pass in Summit County.

Visitation to Colorado’s mountain towns picked up over Memorial Day weekend, the official start to the summer travel season in the U.S.

But in Eagle County, the action really starts next week, when crowds descend on Vail to watch people — and dogs — compete in biking, running and jumping off docks.

“Our real kickoff comes with the GoPro Mountain Games. From that point on, it’s all hands on deck,” said Chris Romer, CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership.

Travelers are heading to beaches and parks across the U.S. after being largely grounded for more than a year. In Colorado, a return to normal means visitors flocking to the celebrations of outdoor adventure that were pared down or canceled during the pandemic. 

The mountain games in Vail, which have been drawing outdoor enthusiasts for almost 20 years, attracts about 20,000 spectators during busy weekends, according to estimates from the Vail Valley Foundation, the event’s planner. Last year, the games were cut back due to COVID-19 restrictions. Now, the schedule is packed, including concerts at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater.

The games start June 10 and run through June 13. As of May 15, the occupancy rate for hotels in the area was about 40 percent, roughly equivalent to pre-pandemic levels, according to Romer. That rate will likely climb to about 60 percent once late bookings are accounted for, he said.

Colorado businesses that rely on leisure and tourism are optimistic heading into the summer. The state lost $10.5 billion in travel spending during the pandemic, according to U.S. Travel data, but the trend appears to be turning around with widespread availability of the vaccine.

Big cities like Denver were hit hardest by the drop-off in travel, while some of Colorado’s mountain communities were able to capitalize on access to outdoor activities that are naturally socially distanced. Still, summer visitation was far from normal last year, and the coming months could be some of the busiest on record for the state’s outdoor meccas.

John Hughes owns Louie’s Ice Cream Shoppe in Buena Vista, a town known for its proximity to some of the best whitewater rafting in Colorado. Hughes said he took in about 80 percent of his typical summer revenue last year. 

Memorial Day is the second busiest weekend of the year for him — the Fourth of July is his busiest. This year, his revenues were up 35 percent compared to last year. The long weekend coincided with Paddlefest, an annual kayaking competition, which was virtual in 2020. Hughes said the event was a big boost for his business.

“That brought in all kinds of traffic from rafters to people who just want to be part of the scene … and the partying and all things river,” Hughes said.

At Rocky Mountain National Park, Memorial Day weekend marked the reintroduction of the reservation system that launched last year to ensure social distancing. Permits for the Bear Lake Road corridor are already sold out for the rest of June, while mornings in July are also gone, according to Kyle Patterson, a spokesperson for the park. A quarter of permits are held back for purchase the day prior to visiting, but they sell out fast, Patterson said.

“Visitors are encouraged to plan ahead,” Patterson said in an email. “Due to what some are calling the COVID bump or crush we are expecting extremely high visitation this summer.”