Jun 3, 2022 - Sports

Colorado's rafting outfitters optimistic for 2022 after huge 2021 season

Rafters make their way down Clear Creek near Idaho Springs in 2011. Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Rafters make their way down Clear Creek near Idaho Springs in 2011. Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Colorado's rafting season is hitting its peak flows this month and outfitters are hoping for a near-record-setting year despite limited snow and labor challenges.

Why it matters: Rafting is core to the state's outdoor recreation industry with an economic impact near $185 million in 2019, before the pandemic.

State of the industry: Rafting outfitters set new records in 2021 with more than 620,000 trips on 20 Colorado rivers, a "staggering" spike from the pandemic low in 2020, the Colorado Sun reports.

  • The number of rafters on Clear Creek, not far from Denver, doubled in 2021 compared to the prior year, topping 100,000 for the first time since records were kept.

What to watch: This year, outfitters are anticipating a return to normal in terms of crowds.

  • Late season snow and average snowpack in the northern mountains is giving rafting guides hope for a strong year, but the southern mountains are still facing drought conditions.

What they're saying: Though 2022 is slightly behind the prior season, "we're still on track to have the second best year ever," Travis Hochard at River Runners in Buena Vista told us.

Be smart: Between now and mid-June is the best time to get peak flows on most rivers.

  • The season generally runs through Aug. 15, but you can find mellow floats into September.

Between the lines: Still, like most service industries, rafting companies are struggling to find enough staff to guide the boats. And a labor dispute is rippling under the surface.

  • A $15-minimum wage requirement issued by the Biden administration is being challenged in court by Colorado River Outfitters Association and outfitter Arkansas Valley Adventures. The mandate is on hold after the Denver-based 10th Circuit issued an injunction in February.
  • "We were already going above that arbitrary $15 an hour rate," Duke Bradford at Arkansas Valley Adventures told the Courthouse News Service. "It's been a real challenging time to get the staff needed to meet the public's expectations."

John's thought bubble: If you're adventurous, add the Upper Animas to your rafting bucket list. Years back, my wife and I took the first run of the season down this stretch with the awesome Mild to Wild crew.

  • It's listed as the most difficult commercially run stretch of river in the U.S. — and it didn't disappoint with a train ride to the launch, huge thrills on the water and mesmerizing views of the canyon.
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