A safe sanctuary: Summit outdoors community finds opportunity among challenges
Mountain Angler owner Jackson Streit was preparing for the worst in April and May 2020. Weeks into the onset of the pandemic, Streit had seen the Breckenridge he’d known and loved for decades shut down. In many ways, one of the world’s most popular mountain town destinations resembled its former ghost town incarnation.
“And then June 1 hit, and it was completely the opposite,” Streit said. “It was the busiest summer we’ve ever had in 35 years. We turned tons of trips away — probably a couple hundred trips. We had a record month every month.”
Breckenridge and Summit County quickly evolved into an outdoor mecca, drawing visitors from across the country.
Companies, organizations and guides rose to meet the challenge of increasing demand paired with ever-changing public health regulations, including physical distancing guidelines that turned the outdoors into a COVID-safe sanctuary for people looking for an escape during an anxious and depressing time.
That demand meant the outdoor recreation industry in Summit County was able to make up for initial COVID-19 losses and help pace — and in many ways steer — the local economy through unprecedented waters.
“We quickly realized the best outlets for people’s mental and physical health is the open air where there’s elbow room and you stay clear of other folks,” said Scott Reid, director of recreation for the town of Breckenridge.
As spring turned to summer and officials across the county realized visitors were viewing Summit’s open space as a place to get away, Reid was among those cultivating a plan to make it all work.
“A year ago now, a lot of what we were doing was figuring out, ‘How do we safely operate any of these things?’” Reid said.
He said trailheads quickly became an overwhelmed “choke point,” so the county and town of Breckenridge worked to expand parking lots at the popular B&B and Gold Run trails.
The town started building a new trail network in the Mineral Hill area specifically devoted to hiking. The thought was to provide more entry-level experiences for hikers that didn’t interfere and overload mountain bike traffic on the town’s beloved backcountry trails.
Come winter, Breckenridge took a similar approach to spacing people out on groomed backcountry trails and at the town sledding hill. The town groomed popular trails, such as Slalom and Hard Luck, to make them easier for fat-tire biking while investing in more grooming on the recpath and beginner trails. During a winter lacking snow, the increased capacity for fat-tire biking sent rentals soaring to 120% of last season.
Because of the influx of visitors, Reid said the town has plans to propose to the U.S. Forest Service up to nine new trails to be constructed in 2022. Reid said the town also will open a new beginner-friendly mountain bike trail this summer dubbed The Rose in French Gulch.
Over on the Lower Blue in Silverthorne, Gore Range Outfitters owner Glenn Morse saw interest in his horseback riding programming explode in June. While fall hunting season ultimately saw its share of cancellations due to uncertainty around evolving COVID-19 travel rules, Morse saw many of his horseback riding customers come out to the ranch from cities with more restrictions.
“People were enjoying small groups and enjoying fresh air — literally,” Morse said. “That’s what they were saying, ‘There’s just beautiful fresh air out here.’ I remember a bunch of people saying that.”
Abe Pacharz of Colorado Adventure Guides said his businesses saw 50% growth in demand in the summer. Pacharz said that was mainly from customers lacking outdoor experience “who wanted to get their family out to do something with a professional with them.”
Rock climbing at local spots, such as off Swan Mountain Road, was one of Colorado Adventure Guides’ biggest summer activities. The company also saw its two-hour mountain bike tour, group hikes to Mohawk Lakes and whitewater rafting maintain popularity throughout the summer. Along with exponential growth in the sport of golf, whitewater rafting was incredibly popular this summer in rivers near Summit.
“It was something people could all do together as families,” Pacharz said.
And even in summer, skiers and riders could make a few turns. As the official training site and destination for many pro skiers, snowboarders and athletes, Copper Mountain Resort pivoted away from its traditional weeklong Woodward Copper snow camps to small group skiing and riding sessions open to the public. As summer progressed, Copper saw more interest in lift-served mountain biking.
Heading into winter, Summit County ski resorts braced for more interest in uphill skiing due to capacity restrictions at local resorts. Copper met the demand by expanding uphill routes, including during the daytime.
As Colorado Adventure Guides’ operations transitioned to winter, Pacharz and his team had to adjust their programming to plan for a more complex backcountry environment, one that can be intimidating and dangerous for those who are not familiar with the mountains. As a result, the guiding company saw a major uptick in avalanche education bookings among customers who said they’d always wanted to try backcountry skiing.
Pacharz said classes have been a success, up 114% over last winter despite losing the overnight component and classroom sessions shifting to videoconference.
“And we continue to sell out courses,” Pacharz said. “If we open a course to six more people, it sells out immediately.”
Ski guiding services also boomed for the company during winter, as people were motivated to try new experiences to avoid COVID-19 burnout, Pacharz said.
“That’s so cool to able to provide that for people, something helping them get through this year and beyond,” Pacharz said.
Editor’s note: This story published in the spring 2021 edition of Still Standing.
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