Citing a strong Colorado snowpack, Summit County rafting outfitters ‘optimistic’ for season of good river flows

The snowpack this past winter is likely to lead to a good rafting season, though management of the Dillon Reservoir can make it more difficult to prediction conditions on the Blue River

Dan Foley guides a group down the Blue River in a previous season.
Performance Tours Rafting/Courtesy photo

Albeit intermittent, spring is here. With the gradual melt of the snowpack, Summit County rafting outfitters are preparing for the upcoming season.

While demand for the sport has dropped off since pandemic highs in 2021, average to above-average snowpack has local outfitters hopeful that this spring and summer will be seasons full of good streamflows.

“It’s a good water year going into it, so no fears there. Not too high in my opinion, not too low,” said Mark Hammer, the owner of The Adventure Company, which has a location in Breckenridge. “Economy-wise we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

Hammer said from his calculations, snowpack along the Arkansas River is about 20% above average this time of year. Other conditions he takes into account — such as dust layers in the snow, lower-elevation snowpack and the direction of last winter’s storms — are also favorable, he said.

While the snowpack does not suggest that it is going to be a “super high season,” Hammer said, the outlook for the season is good and is “something the public can look forward to and something us rafting outfitters can look forward to.”

“Truly for us, it’s a very good story,” he said. “It’s one less thing to worry about because you never know between the weather and the economy and the water.”

Kevin Foley, the owner of Performance Tours Rafting, which also has a location in Breckenridge, agreed.

“Everybody is feeling very optimistic about this upcoming season,” Foley said. “The snowpack level statewide is pretty much above average.”

Performance Tours is also expecting a strong season on the Arkansas River, which requires about an hour drive from Breckenridge to Buena Vista, Foley said. But how the season will pan out on the stretch of the Blue River that runs through Summit Count is a bit more difficult to predict since flows are reliant on releases from the Dillon Reservoir managed by Denver Water.

“We’re hopeful for the Blue River because when it is raftable, it’s a gem,” Foley said. “Guests in Summit love it because it is close by.”

Two rafts with Performance Tours Rafting work to navigate a group of rapids while out on a rafting trip. Whitewater rafting companies saw record numbers during the 2021 season.
Performance Tours Rafting/Courtesy photo

Both Foley and Hammer said their companies did not run tours on the Blue River last year due to a lack of water releases from the Dillon Reservoir. A few years of below-average snowpack in Summit County meant all the snow melt went toward filling the reservoir or was sent through the Roberts Tunnel to the Denver area.

This year, Hammer said he anticipates the Blue River will run this year, and Foley said he is also hopeful. But how strong — and for how long — the Blue River flows relies almost in large part on decisions made by Denver Water’s Board of Water Commissioners.

“There’s not a direct correlation between snowpack and raftable flows on the stretch of the Blue River we float on,” Foley said. “It really comes down to: what is the lake level and how much are they going to send down through the Roberts Tunnel?”

So far, the Denver Water board has indicated to rafting outfitters that the plan is going to be to fill the Dillon Reservoir first then look at the needs on the Front Range, Foley said. When the Denver Water sends flows above 500 cubic feet per second to Green Mountain Reservoir is when the conditions are best on the Blue River, he said.

After a record-breaking 2021 season coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, both The Adventure Company and Performance Tours saw lower demand in 2022.

Foley said so far advanced reservations are up from last season — with the first trip scheduled for April 28 — so he is hopeful that demand, perhaps encouraged by the good water year, will pick up some again this season.

Hammer said he is preparing for a slight uptick in demand from last season. Though he said the rafting industry is sometimes more resilient to economic downturns than other parts of the tourism industry, he is wary of economic indicators that could lead some would-be customers to tighten their belts.

“Even though there are economic concerns,” Hammer said, “I still feel like we’re going to have a good season.”

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