After a significant increase in visitation last summer as the world adjusted to COVID-19 restrictions, the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA) is getting ready for another busy season as the weather warms up.
“Even this past week where we had the nicer weather, we saw a big increase both in actual people here at the park and reservations that we have for our campgrounds, but we also are getting lots of phone calls and people walking in to get information for the summer,” says AHRA Park Manager Tom Waters. “And it just seems like it’s pointed that direction. It’s going to be potentially even busier than it was last summer.”
The AHRA tracks usage and visitation through vehicle counters at recreation sites, campsite reservations, and trip reports from commercial rafting companies. One of the biggest impacts seen from the jump in visitation is limited space for boats, cars, and other vehicles that come through.
“We’re having issues with not enough capacity for the boats or for the vehicles and trailers that wanted to be in there,” Waters explains. “There are two ways somebody can make a reservation for our campsites. One is online through CPWshop.com. The other one is calling the 1-800 number, and again that accommodates all the statewide reservations. But that number was busy, and so I think that it just shows that people are really starting to look forward to this summer, and with where COVID is at now, as far as people being able to get vaccines and potentially travel some more, I think it’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.”
Waters says that he expects June, July, and August to be some of the busiest months this year, as campsites have already been full almost every night this spring. The AHRA is also working with partners at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to address some of the parking issues and increase camping availability, though they may not get this resolved by this summer. They’re also working internally to improve communications, particularly for river use.
“We have sort of a different type of use than other state parks in that you put in at one site and take out at another one,” says Waters.“So what we’re working on this year is to improve communication between those sites that are most likely to be tied to one another. So at Ruby Mountain and Hecla Junction, [having people] on the ground at both sides during those really peak times to help facilitate the flow of traffic, provide information, and let people know what’s happening right now. We’re also working on an education piece that we’re doing with the Citizen Task Force, as well, to try to educate private boaters specifically about the busiest days, times, and sections that we experience.”
Waters says that education is a key piece for private boaters. By encouraging boaters to use lower-traffic sections, they’ll help keep more popular runs at capacity.
“For the Arkansas Headwaters, I think…people really focus on Browns Canyon National Monument, and it is a spectacular, wonderful place,” he says. “That drives a lot of people to go there, and I think that sometimes they potentially miss other spectacularly beautiful places that are on either side of that; upstream or downstream from there, where they could again have a great experience, maybe with fewer people.”
Aside from the pandemic-induced itch to recreate outdoors, another driver of the jump in recreation may be Colorado’s rising population. The Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) have all seen jumps in usage over the past few years, not just last summer.
“I think people are continuing to move here because they know how wonderful it is,” says Waters. “The recreational opportunities that Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and city and county parks are providing are top-notch. People want to come here and experience that. I think the pandemic might have jump-started it, but I think it was pointed in this direction.”
“I think that’s part of what Envision Chaffee County is working towards,” he continues, “and some of the numbers that they have as far as increase in visitation are tied to more and more people moving here, and I think we’re seeing it specifically within Chaffee County. If you just look at the number of homes that are being built and the amount of inventory that’s currently available for sale, people want to be here.”
Waters explains that increased visitation was felt across the board. The increase in recreational visits also means an increase in visits to local businesses as well as other recreation opportunities.
“Everyone saw increased use last year, whether it was happening within the AHRA or within BLM property that isn’t managed by the AHRA, or Forest Service lands … people who come to recreate here are looking to do multiple things throughout their trip. That mindset has an effect, and they visit multiple places within, let’s say, a weekend timeframe. So we see them, the BLM sees them, the Forest Service sees them, and then the restaurants and shops. It’s all connected.”
Even with the increased visitation, Waters says they didn’t see any major increase in reported boating accidents or search and rescue needs on the river this past season. Lake County Search and Rescue saw a decent spike in calls over the summer of 2020, mainly to help out inexperienced hikers who hadn’t anticipated the intensity of climbing a 14er.
“Last year was not exceptional in any way for our search and rescue calls or even our reportable boating accidents on the river,” he says. “I think that the easiest way to understand it is our increase in calls for that is directly tied to the extent and the length of time that we have high water.” This summer, Waters expects a fairly average flow. In his experience, mid-level years are generally good summers for private as well as commercial boaters.
“We still have April and even into May to add to the snowpack, but based on where we are at right now, I would expect a fairly average year, just a great level for people to come out for private boating or commercial boating. I’m definitely keeping a close eye on the snowpack right now, as we move into these warmer months and with the weather that we’ve had recently.”
As Colorado rounds the corner into spring, Waters says they’ve already seen a lot of phone calls and foot traffic to the AHRA office, even though it’s still early April.
“It feels to me like we’re almost a month early on some of this. I would expect this type of traffic in May, but to see it in April… it’s curious to me that it’s happening this early,” he says. “And, again, it could just be strictly based on the weather, but I think it’s just the indicator that people are ready to get outside. Last year, they purchased the bicycles and the camp trailers and they’re really ready to get out and use them.”
The other day, he fielded a 20-minute phone call full of questions. “At one point, he apologized to me and said, ‘I’m really sorry I’m asking all these basic questions, but I’ve never done this before and I’m really excited to go out and do it, and I want to do it correctly,’” Waters says. “I really appreciated that comment from him, and I reminded him that that’s why we’re here…to provide that information.”
Waters also reminds visitors and locals to recreate safely, from boating and swimming safely with personal flotation devices to paying attention to fire ban statuses, and, of course, to reach out if they have questions about recreating in the valley.
“I hope more people reach out, get information, figure out what they’re supposed to do and what they’re not supposed to do, and look for that experience where everybody else who’s involved with can enjoy it, too.”