Idaho Springs transforms as the hub for a tourism reboot

Steeped in gold and silver mining history, Clear Creek County is investing in a less finite revenue source: tourism.

Steeped in gold and silver mining history, Clear Creek County is investing in a less finite revenue source: tourism.

“We were the Radiator Springs of Colorado,” says Clear Creek County Tourism Bureau Director Cassandra Patton, referring to the fictional pass-through town in the movie “Cars.” “Now perspectives are changing with the rise in astro, heritage, recreation and ‘foodie’ tourism.”

Idaho Springs, the largest and closest to Denver of four Clear Creek mountain towns, is the first to capitalize on the two hottest emerging tourism sectors: More than 70% of the county is public lands, and its legacy was earned in gold, silver and molybdenum.

The Mighty Argo project encompasses both. Backed by big names like Denver’s architectural conservation developer Dana Crawford and longtime local businesswoman Mary Jane Loevlie, the old mill site is getting a new life. An adjacent cable car is slated to open within a year. It will lift-serve mountain biking and hiking on the already popular Area 28, over 400 acres of BLM land recently renamed Virginia Canyon Mountain Park. A hotel will follow.

“What people don’t know is that before Interstate 70 and the Eisenhower Tunnel, we were a bustling tourism destination,” Loevlie says. “This is a just reboot.”

Clear Creek County tourism initiatives are working. A recreation map now ties together seemingly disparate mountain-town adventures. And targeted advertising is paying off: One in six visitors reports seeing an ad that prompted a visit to the county. Website traffic has increased 500% in the last eight years. Lodging tax income is up 100% over the same period.

It’s the tip of an iceberg. With four fourteeners, two scenic byways, two ski areas, 11 fishing put-ins, 37 official hiking trails, three zip line adventure parks, one of the state’s most-rafted rivers and a first-of-its-kind downhill mountain bike area on Floyd Hill, Clear Creek County is emerging as a destination in its own right.

Interstate 70 congestion and battle-scarred residents fearful of change remain challenges here. But for movers and shakers like Loevlie, it’s full steam ahead in the little county that she thinks can. “I always saw the bones. I grew up in town. I raised my children here,” she says. “There are people, friends for 30 years, who believed Idaho Springs could thrive again. We knew it was the right thing to do.”

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