Colorado’s State Parks: Economic Forces of Nature
Visitor spending estimated at $1.25 billion.
While Rocky Mountain, Mesa Verde and Colorado’s other national parks get the hype, the 42 state parks are significant economic engines for communities across the state.
Bridget O’Rourke, statewide public information officer with Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW), says the agency pegs the economic contribution of Colorado’s state park system at $1.25 billion.
“This estimate is derived from a study done by Corona Research in 2008-2009, which looked at visitor spending and adjusting for inflation,” she explains. “Looking at data we have on visitor spending, Lake Pueblo State Park has the highest visitor spending figure of $126 million [in 2020 dollars], likely due to the park’s popularity and amenities.”
But other parks also bring plenty of customers — and their dollars — to nearby towns and cities. At Golden Gate Canyon State Park about 30 miles northwest of Denver, non-local visitors spend an average of $288 per visit, comprising $22 million of the $37 million total visitor spending each year.
Near Bailey, Staunton State Park opened to the public in 2013 and now features more than 30 miles of trails. Many hikers and bikers visit Bailey for a post-park beverage or stop at local roadside attractions like the Sasquatch Outpost. “Some of our businesses are reaping the benefits,” says Robb Green, president of the Platte Canyon Chamber of Commerce. “Without Staunton, they were probably all just driving through.”
With more park visitors comes more traffic on U.S. 285, adds Green, but he feels the park is still “a positive economic benefit” for the area.
More traffic is also a concern for locals near the state’s newest state park at Sweetwater Lake, about 30 miles west of Eagle. Krista DeHerrera, marketing manager with the Gypsum Chamber of Commerce, about 25 miles east of Sweetwater Lake, describes “two sides of the fence” on the park’s impact: Some feel it will boost property values, but others think it will come at the cost of some peace and quiet.
“I’m happy it became a land trust, and not overdeveloped. I think it will protect the land, protect the lake, and protect the area and its pristine state, but the concern would be additional traffic up there,” says DeHerrera. “Is that going to change the face of this retreat area? I think there’s a lot of what ifs at this point, and we don’t know what it’s really going to do. It depends on how it’s promoted and it’s marketed.”
Just south of Trinidad, Fishers Peak State Park is starting to take shape. The 19,000-acre park — which takes its name from the iconic mountain that has long been closed to the public — could catalyze a new chapter in the local economy, after turning the page on coal and — with New Mexico following Colorado’s lead on legalization this year — cannabis.
“It’s huge for us,” says Marty Hackett, tourism and welcome center manager for the City of Trinidad. “Unfortunately, it’s going to be a few years before we see this sort of impact.”
Only 250 of the park’s 19,200 acres are currently open, with about two miles of trails, but the long-term map includes more than 70 miles of trails. That’s important, because trails attract people in an exponential fashion. Twice the miles might attract 3.5 times the hikers, according to a 2020 report from The Trust for Public Land (TPL): “On the low end, a one-mile trail system is expected to attract 700 non-local visitors. The 25-mile system is expected to attract 38,000 non-local visitors, while the 50-mile trail system is expected to attract 130,000 non-local visitors.”
By that math, TPL estimates a 50-mile system would generate $11 million in direct spending annually — about $1,300 per resident of Trinidad.
When the trail reaches the 9,633-foot flat top of Fishers Peak — targeted for 2024 — the park is “definitely going to be an economic driver for this community,” notes Hackett. “It’s the southernmost and first state park when you’re traveling from southern states. Most of our visitors, obviously, are from Texas. Without a doubt, they’ll be stopping at the first state park before they move on to the higher elevations.”
Hackett sees the pandemic-era boom in outdoor recreation will have long-lasting effects. “With COVID-19, we saw an increase in outdoor recreation,” she says. “We have an outdoor shop that just opened up. [The park] is going to definitely increase the business of outdoor recreation-related businesses coming in.”
“We wanted to make sure we were established before the park was in full-strength mode. It’s going to be a giant playground, for sure.” -Carlos and Leigh Lopez, owners Fishers Peak Outfitters, Trinidad
The husband-and-wife team of Carlos and Leigh Lopez opened Fishers Peak Outfitters in Trinidad in 2021. The Lopezes saw a need for a good outdoor store in Trinidad, but the nascent park played a role in the startup decision. “We wanted to make sure we were established before the park was in full-strength mode,” says Carlos.
“It’s going to be a giant playground, for sure,” says Leigh. “I just love the fact that they are building separate trails and separate portions of the park out for different recreational activities. They are building trails just for downhill mountain biking, which I’m really grateful for because I’m a backpacker. There’s nothing worse than when someone comes tearing down the trail.”
Carlos, who grew up in Trinidad and served on the local city council, has seen major changes in recent years — including fewer vacant storefronts on Main Street — and he expects more benefits as the park gets up and running.
“Since we’ve been open, people have been making Trinidad their destination,” he says. “When I was growing up, you never heard that. People would just stop at the gas station and get back on the interstate and go.”
As that dynamic changes, Fishers Peak Outfitters is launching guiding service later in 2022 in response to demand. Carlos says it’s all about “making sure that Trinidad isn’t just a one-trick-pony town. It went from the coal days to the natural gas days and now marijuana. We want to make sure we have a diversified portfolio like every good community should have.”