After wildfires slowed tourism and spending last summer in Southwest Colorado, visitors are back in force filling hotels, rafts, train cars and Mesa Verde National Park.
Mesa Verde National Park saw an uptick in visitation in June, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s summer season is rivaling 2017, and hotels and motels were bustling over the Fourth of July weekend.
So far this year, tourism at Mesa Verde is down so far this year about 7%. From January through June last year, the park attracted 239,282 visitors and during the same period this year 221,640 tourists have visited, according to park data.
The park was closed earlier this year because of wet winter and the partial federal government shutdown resulting in the drop in visitation, said Kristy Sholly, chief of interpretation and visitor services at the park.
“We just got blasted with snow,” she said.
Now, tourism is picking up and the park feels busier, she said.
“It’s good to see people back in the park,” she said.
Visitation at the park was up 8.74% in June to 108,231 this year from 99,530 in June last year.
Durango tourismDurango’s tourism took a few years to recover after the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002, but that hasn’t been the case in the wake of the 416 Fire, said Kirk Komick, an owner of the Rochester
Hotel and Leland House.
“Our numbers are looking fantastic,” he said.
Occupancy in 17 hotels in town hit 97% on July 4, 98% on July 5 and 93% on July 6, according to a Smith Travel Destination report. Smith Travel and Destination tracks hospitality data.
During the third and fourth weeks in June, hotel occupancy at those same hotels increased 17% and 14.3%, respectively, compared with the same time last year, the report showed.
Strater Hotel General Manager Tori Ossola said a few factors may be contributing to Durango’s quick recovery after the fire. The town has a higher profile as a destination than it did in 2003 after the Missionary Ridge Fire, and more tourists are willing to travel through areas that have experienced a tragedy.
“We have been steadily on the increase in lodging all summer long,” she said.
Train reboundingWhile D&SNG ridership remains down for the year after a wet winter, summer ridership is even with 2017, said Christian Robbins, spokesman for the railroad. At the end of the year, D&SNG’s goal is to match or exceed 2017 ridership, which was 193,000 people, he said.
“We are happy with effectively bouncing back within one year,” he said.
To reach more tourists, the train started new 2-hour trips from Rockwood to Cascade in June, he said. The trips are geared toward those who did not book a trip before arriving in town and do not have time to go all the way to Silverton. The train has added more 2-hour excursions in recent weeks to meet demand, Robbins said.
The short trips were inspired, in part, by the mudslides last year that blocked the tracks and forced the railroad to start trips from Rockwood, he said. The emergency showed short trips were possible.
The train also started offering brew trains on Saturdays during the summer that feature lunch, live music and beer to draw in visitors, he said.
Extended rafting seasonThe rafting season on rivers across the region is expected to be extended by two to four weeks, said Molly Mickel, an owner of Mild to Wild Rafting.
Water levels now are on par with what is common in early June, she said.
“It’s been an amazing year,” she said.
The extended season will keep guides working longer and give them less downtime between seasonal jobs, she said.
The rafting season on the Dolores River below McPhee Reservoir lasted 51 days, which was a pleasant surprise for reservoir managers, said Mike Preston, general manager of the Dolores Water Conservancy District. Headed into the winter, McPhee was at one of the lowest levels in the history of the reservoir, he said.
“Nobody expected that we were going to have a spill in ‘19,” he said.
The quality rafting has also helped draw more visitors to Durango-area hotels, Komick said.
“I think water is life, and we’re just flowing with tourism,” he said.