Rainbow Family’s 50th annual gathering hits peak attendance on Fourth of July

Exchange Rainbow Gathering Colorado
FILE -Rainbow Family members arrive in the Routt National Forest north of Steamboat Springs, Colo., Saturday, July 1, 2006, where as many as 20,000 took part in the annual Rainbow Family gathering. Officials predict that up to 30,000 people will show up for this year’s gathering, which is slated to take place in Colorado and will mark the 50th anniversary of the group. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski, File)

By Dylan Anderson, Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Adams Park trailhead in Routt National Forest is usually signified by a brown and yellow sign similar to those seen on public lands throughout the United States.

Other brown and white markers inform would-be trail users about allowable methods of travel: dirt bikes, four-wheelers, horses and by foot.

But on the Fourth of July, the trail snaking uphill through well-established aspens and towering fur trees on the way to the 50th annual Rainbow Family Gathering of Light was dotted with signs every hundred feet or so.

Some placards posed deep questions about life and the meaning of it all. Others gave directions to various camps or advertised community meals, hours of group meditation and even twice-daily 12-step program meetings. Some said almost nothing of substance at all, with one simply declaring, “This is a good sign.”

One scrap of paper tied around a tree trunk with a shoelace asked those passing by the same question on the minds of many in local communities since the self-proclaimed non-organization of non-members announced they were headed to Routt County.

“Why did you come here?” it read.

In the Main Meadow of the gathering on Independence Day, a shirtless man with long silver hair sat in the grass with his partner, watching the celebration of dancing and drumbeats unfolding before them. He said his name was Kadag, giving an alternative moniker that many at the gathering refer to as their “Rainbow name.”

Kadag traveled to Northwest Colorado from Chico, California, where he is a father and business owner. After attending his first gathering in 1992, he tries to get to the event every year, “if life makes it possible.”

“It’s a declaration of interdependence,” Kadag said. “Living on the land, you know how to care for one another. You get into an environment like this and you see love, you see random acts of kindness all the time, everywhere, from folks you wouldn’t expect it from.”

“That renews my faith,” he continued. “Coming out here to pray for peace in the cathedral of Mother Nature.”

Gathering’s peak

At the center of the gathering was the distinct aroma of body odor mixed with marijuana and burning sage. The U.S. Forest Service estimated there were about 10,000 people camping in the woods near Adams Park on Monday, the day the annual gathering of hippies was expected to hit its peak.

It’s a far cry from the 30,000 some had predicted for the groups’ return to Colorado 50 years after the first meet-up near Grand County’s Strawberry Lake in 1972. Still, many that frequent the yearly event say it is the largest they have attended.

The Forest Service reacted by mobilizing a National Incident Management Team to work with the so-called Rainbows, with many of the officials having worked previous renditions of the rendezvous. While maintaining it is an unauthorized, illegal gathering, Forest Service officials devised a detailed plan for how the group will minimize the impacts to the resource rich area of the forest.

The Rainbow Family contends the group has no leaders and there is no broad organization. Instead, people “plug in” where they can offer help, as much or as little as they choose.

Some Rainbows have been in the area for weeks building makeshift water and sewer infrastructure, backwoods kitchens and small spaces of community that offer tea, small trinkets to trade and a sense of open-mindedness that strives to make people from all walks of life feel welcome.

Another group of Rainbows planned to stay well after the gathering ended on Thursday, July 7, to tear down these structures, rehabilitate muddy trails and spread native seeds over various paths created by thousands traipsing through the Main Meadow — the central hub of the gathering.

While the Rainbows’ track record over 50 years is mixed, Russ Bacon, forest supervisor for the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, said they have generally been “very good at rehabilitation.”

The Adams Creek Trail — an already established route connecting multiple trailheads on Routt County Road 80 — showed visible signs of the increased wear. Hundreds of tents were strewn throughout the forest and meadow, some clumped in colorfully named campsites and others off on their own among the trees.

One attendee, who gave her Rainbow name Sunflower, said in a country with so many divisions among its citizens, it was crazy more people didn’t descend on the forest to pray for peace.

“Everything’s free,” Sunflower said. “ If you need anything, someone will get it to you. Everyone says, ‘I love you.’ People walk by and say, ‘You’re my brother.’ People are just incredibly kind.”

“Currency is money, but what if the currency was kindness? What if we could all just be kind to everyone,” she continued. “That’s what I think Rainbow is about.”

Calm or chaos

Angst over the gathering has been building since June 14 when the group announced it would come to Routt County. Still, many of the rumors cycling through social media locally have lacked evidence.

So far, this year’s gathering has led to less law enforcement involvement than 2021’s gathering in New Mexico, which saw more than 600 enforcement actions.

As of July 3, Forest Service Law Enforcement have issued about 450 citations related to vehicles, damage to natural resources and narcotic possession in addition to a wide variety of other actions.

Alcohol isn’t allowed in the gathering outside of an area referred to as A Camp near where most attendees park. Attendees say there is a faction of gatherers that are more about partying than peace, but they largely stay in this area, away from the center of the action.

Gatherers claim most drug use in the main gathering involves marijuana — which is illegal in the national forest despite it being legal in Colorado — and psychedelics like acid and mushrooms. Still, law enforcement reports other drug use like methamphetamines, cocaine, heroin and fentanyl.

In the days ahead of the Fourth of July, attendees say the Forest Service has had a stronger presence both on roads to the gathering and in parking areas. These infractions have been processed in a makeshift court in the woods presided over by a judge from Denver.

But on the Fourth, law enforcement was more relaxed as some Rainbows joked they were “grilling out” for the holiday. Still, a pair of federal officers came through in the afternoon to ticket vehicles improperly parked in an area reserved for the Forest Service.

When law enforcement is on the trail, gatherers shout “six” to notify others of their presence. Still, a gatherer from South Dakota who identified herself as Kersten said she hasn’t seen many officers during the week she has been in Adams Park.

“They know this is our peace day,” she said, referencing the Fourth of July. “We’ve been here the whole time and there hasn’t been one hiccup.”

Prayer for Peace

The central part of the Rainbow Family Gathering happens on the Fourth of July, when thousands of attendees start the day in silence. They greet each other with smiles and largely communicate with hand signals, though many still talk in hushed tones.

Kadag said this is an attempt to replicate the solitude and peace nature provides.

As noon approached, attendees dressed in a range of attire — from colorful costumes to nothing at all — started to gather in an area referred to as the prayer circle on the north end of the Main Meadow.

As more and more people encircled a sawed-off aspen trunk that had been stood up in a clearing and scribed with various messages for peace, a soft “Om” chant rose above the sound of the breeze through the meadow.

This continued for about a half-hour, with the occasional cheer from an “anxious hippie,” as the ritual waited for children at the gathering to march into the center of the circle.

While people continued to “Om,” a bearded man walked around slipping small pieces of frankincense into people’s pockets. A naked man with a purple eye drawn on his forehead sifted through the crowd, occasionally locking hands with fellow Rainbows.

When the “Om” faded, a chorus of “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” crescendoed — lyrics borrowed from John Lennon’s 1969 anti-war protest song. Then suddenly, the grouping of several thousand people erupted in celebration. Some formed smaller circles with people singing songs, banging drums and dancing.

The entire ritual is a callback to the first gathering in 1972. Gathering attendee Harold Bustamante said he is working on a book about the first people that prayed for peace at the top of Table Mountain above Strawberry Lake.

The gathering included diverse groups of people then and now, said Bustamante, emphasizing that military veterans like him have always been part of the gathering. Inclusivity is key, he said.

“Everyone is welcome. Whatever race, whatever culture, whatever political party they are a part of,” he said. “Interdependence is what we call it. Everyone is a sovereign human being coming together to create a village, a community the way native people have done it for thousands of years.”

Amid the celebration, one older attendee turns to a younger one to welcome his “brother.”

“We’ve been waiting for you,” the man said. “We’re happy you made it.”