When the COVID-19 coronavirus arrived on the Western Slope, it brought a wave of changes for local families, schools and businesses. The fallout from the pandemic has affected everyone in varying degrees, causing fluid, uncertain situations for many.
However, there has been one constant throughout the pandemic: People have been finding solace in the outdoors.
“You get stuck in the house and they say, ‘OK, stay home,’ and that’s hard,” said Randy Hampton, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Northwest Regional public information officer. “For years and years, we sit at our jobs and go, ‘Gosh, I really wish I could just have a month off to decompress my life,’ then all of a sudden, everyone does. Yet we’re freaked out by it because it’s just so different. Everybody wants to go outside, they want to go for a walk or a bike ride or a hike or they’ll go crazy. Everybody’s getting outdoors.”
Parks territories and campgrounds have especially seen a spike in attendance since Gov. Jared Polis’ stay-at-home order was lifted.
At Highline Lake State Park near Loma, the campground is filled with RVs and other vehicles. The park’s swimming beach and picnic areas remain closed, but that’s not keeping campers away.
Two of those campers, Beth and Bill O’Neill, typically spend 100 nights a year camping, with 75 of those in state parks. Eased regulations have allowed them to resume their stargazing lifestyle.
“No one comes in our camper, so we stay isolated,” Bill said. “We have a bathroom and a shower and everything, so we can follow all the rules and regulations and still be out in beauty. … I think everybody wants to go out camping because they can’t go to the bars and restaurants, they can’t go to the concerts and do a lot of things they’d do in the summer.”
Hampton said that parks across the northwestern quarter of the state are seeing an increase in camping across the board, with only high-elevation mountain sites dealing with snow or mud still closed down.
He also noted that the increase in outdoor activity hasn’t been limited to camping.
“If you take a look at boating, we allow 30 boats on the (Highline) lake,” Hampton said. “On Saturday and Sunday, we topped out. We were making people wait in line. Somebody had to come off the lake to allow another person on. We’re seeing maximum use that we can see while still doing the social distancing.”
“The things that congregate people are still closed, but the campground is full. That’s the story for most of the campgrounds we have at the lower-elevation parks.”
The increased turnout of campers and boaters isn’t the only positive development happening at Highline Lake State Park.
Parks and Wildlife rangers and the owners of Dare-Case Contracting broke ground on a new beach house Monday that’s scheduled to be completed by Sept. 1.
The new facility will feature six stalls in both the men’s and women’s restrooms — twice what the current facility holds — as well as a family restroom. The project’s budget is $738,000.
Difficulties presented by the coronavirus could affect the project’s timeline, but not significantly.
“Right now, our manpower here is pretty good and solid,” said Darrin Case, one of Dare-Case’s owners. “The one issue we have is we have some materials we’ve ordered from a company that’s going to be providing us the masonry and things like that. They’re not sure what COVID-19’s going to do to them. We have a floating delivery date for most of our material, but we should be able to accommodate the bulk of the schedule.”
As more people return to the great outdoors, Hampton sees an opportunity to not only better parks like Highline Lake, but also provide local businesses, such as Dare-Case, a much-needed financial boost.
“The nice thing is as more people are coming to the parks, as we see more park usage, there are projects like this that are funded by both lottery funds and by the number of people that come and go,” Hampton said. “It’s good to be able to put people back to work using some of that money that’s being generated on the other side. That will really be important to kickstarting the economy. Fortunately, as a state agency, we’re going to do the best we can to make sure people are working and we can find these projects.”