A secure sanctuary: Summit open air neighborhood finds alternative amongst challenges

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Forrest Woodard will ride a rail in Woodward Copper Park at Copper Mountain Resort in Summer 2020.
Photo by Chip Proulx

Mountain Angler owner Jackson Streit prepared for the worst in April and May 2020. Weeks after the pandemic broke out, Streit had seen the Breckenridge, which he had known and loved for decades, shut down. In many ways, one of the world’s most popular mountain town destinations resembled its previous ghost town incarnation.

“And then June 1st hit, and it was exactly the opposite,” said Streit. “It was the busiest summer in 35 years. We turned down tons of trips – probably a few hundred trips. We had a record month every month. “

Breckenridge and Summit Counties were quickly becoming an outdoor mecca, drawing visitors from all over the country.

Businesses, organizations, and leaders rose to the challenge of increasing demand, coupled with ever-changing public health regulations, including physical distancing guidelines that made nature a COVID-safe haven for people living in fearful and anxious environments depressing time to look for an escape.

That demand meant that Summit County’s outdoor recreational industry was able to offset the initial COVID-19 losses and accelerate and in many ways control the local economy through unprecedented bodies of water.

“We quickly realized that the best ways to keep people mental and physical health out in the open, where there is leeway and distance from other people,” said Scott Reid, Breckenridge City Director of Recreation.

As spring turned to summer and officials across the county realized that visitors viewed the summit’s open space as a place of escape, Reid was among those devising a plan to make it work.

“A year ago we found out a lot: ‘How can we safely do any of these things?'” Reid said.

He said trailheads were quickly becoming a choke point, so the County and City of Breckenridge worked to add parking on the popular B&B and Gold Run trails.

The city began building a new network of trails in the Mineral Hill area, specifically dedicated to hiking. The idea was to offer hikers who did not disturb and overload the mountain bike traffic on the city’s popular backcountry routes, more entry-level experiences.

Family sled on April 1st on the Sledding Hill runway in Breckenridge.
Photo by Ashley Low

Over the coming winter, Breckenridge took a similar approach to distributing people on groomed backcountry trails and on the town’s sledding hill. The city has groomed popular trails like Slalom and Hard Luck to make cycling with fat tires easier while investing more maintenance on the Recpath and beginner trails. During a snow-free winter, the rental capacity increased to 120% last season due to the increased capacity for cycling with fat tires.

In response to the influx of visitors, Reid said the city has plans to propose up to nine new lanes to the U.S. Forest Service to be built in 2022. Reid said the city will also open a new beginner-friendly mountain bike trail called The Rose in French Gorge this summer.

Over on Lower Blue in Silverthorne, Glenn Morse, owner of Gore Range Outfitters, saw interest in his June equestrian program explode. While the fall hunting season ultimately resulted in cancellations due to uncertainty about how the COVID-19 travel rules would evolve, many of his riding customers came to the ranch from cities with more restrictions.

“People enjoyed small groups and enjoyed fresh air – literally,” said Morse. “That’s what they said: ‘It’s just nice fresh air out here. ‘I remember a lot of people saying that. “

Abe Pacharz of Colorado Adventure Guides said his companies saw demand grow 50% over the summer. Pacharz said this was mainly due to customers who lacked outdoor experience “who wanted their family to do something with a professional”.

Climbing local locations like Swan Mountain Road has been one of the Colorado Adventure Guides’ greatest summer activities. The company also saw its two-hour mountain bike tour, group hikes to Mohawk Lakes, and white water rafting, which are popular all summer. Coupled with the exponential growth of golf, white water rafting in rivers near Summit has been incredibly popular this summer.

“It was something that all people as families could do together,” said Pacharz.

Guests are pampered earlier summer on a commercial rafting trip on the Blue River north of Silverthorne with Performance Tours Rafting.
Photo by Lauren Swanson / Performance Tours Rafting

And even in summer, skiers and drivers were able to take a few turns. As the official training location and destination for many professional skiers, snowboarders and athletes, the Copper Mountain Resort has evolved from its traditional week-long Woodward Copper snow camps to small-group skiing and riding lessons that are open to the public. Over the summer, Copper saw more interest in mountain biking using the lift.

As we head into the winter, Summit County’s ski resorts have adjusted to more interest in skiing due to capacity constraints in local ski resorts. Copper met demand by expanding the inclines, including during the day.

As the Colorado Adventure Guides’ activities shifted into winter, Pacharz and his team had to tweak their programming to plan a more complex environment in the backcountry that can be intimidating and dangerous for those unfamiliar with the mountains. As a result, the guiding company saw a significant increase in bookings for avalanche formation from customers who said they had always wanted to try out skiing in the backcountry.

Pacharz said classes were a success, a 114% increase from last winter, although the overnight component was lost and class hours switched to video conferencing.

“And we continue to sell courses,” said Pacharz. “If we open a course for six more people, it will sell out immediately.”

Ski guide services also boomed for the company in the winter as people were motivated to get new experiences to avoid COVID-19 burnout, Pacharz said.

“It’s so cool to have this available for people, something that will help them get through this year and beyond,” said Pacharz.