Colorado rafting outlook for 2022 optimistic, despite challenges

Colorado’s rafting season hits its peak this month, and outfitters are hoping for a near-record year despite limited snow and labor issues.

Why is this important: Rafting is central to the state’s outdoor recreation industry with an economic impact of nearly $185 million in 2019, pre-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 of 2020, the Colorado Sun reports.

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

What to watch: This year, outfitters anticipate a return to normal in terms of attendance.

  • Late season snowfall and average snowpack in the northern mountains give rafting guides hope for a good year, but the southern mountains still face drought conditions.

What they say : Although 2022 is slightly behind the previous season, “we’re still on track to have the second-best year ever,” Travis Hochard of 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 usually runs until August 15, but you can find fluffy floats until September.

Between the lines: Yet, like most service industries, rafting companies struggle to find enough staff to guide the boats. And a labor dispute ripples beneath the surface.

  • A $15 minimum wage requirement issued by the Biden administration is being challenged in court by the Colorado River Outfitters Association and outfitter Arkansas Valley Adventures. The warrant is suspended after the Denver-based 10th Circuit issued an injunction in February.
  • “We were already going over that arbitrary $15 an hour rate,” Duke Bradford of Arkansas Valley Adventures told the Courthouse News Service. “It has been a very difficult time to get the staff needed to meet public expectations.”

John’s thought bubble: If you’re adventurous, add the Upper Animas to your rafting bucket list. Years ago my wife and I did the first run of the season on this stretch with the amazing Mild to Wild team.

  • It’s listed as the most commercially manageable stretch of river in the United States – and it didn’t disappoint with a train ride to launch, huge thrills on the water and mesmerizing views of the canyon.