This is the first in a series of posts on my June roadtrip through northern Colorado.
My parents are avid CNN watchers, but sometimes what you see on the news doesn’t give you the full picture, especially when it comes to tourism. So went one conversation before I started my epic week-long Colorado roadtrip, which included stops in Estes Park, Lyons, Fort Collins and Boulder: “You’re heading north of Denver? Isn’t that entire area on fire?”
Make no mistake: this is one of the toughest fire seasons that Colorado has seen in a long time. High temperatures, combined with extremely dry air and almost no humidity, have produced tinderbox conditions in mountain forests. Colorado has been suffering from a drought all spring, and the abundance of trees that have been decimated by mountain pine beetles doesn’t help.
As of Sunday morning, newscasters in Denver were following 8 wildfires across the state. I woke up to read that a fire had broken out in Estes Park, closing the Beaver Meadow entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park – where I had just been a few days before. As I’m writing this, Colorado’s governor is on the scene at the Waldo Canyon blaze outside Colorado Springs, where Garden of the Gods and Pikes Peak have been closed. At the mountain’s base, the tourist town of Manitou Springs has been evacuated (although people were allowed to return to their homes Sunday night).
Concern is high for the Colorado Springs fire, mainly because it’s the closest to a heavily populated area. But the fire in High Park, Colorado – an area in the mountains about 15 miles west of Fort Collins – has commanded the most attention, justly. A lightning bolt sparked the fire, the second largest in state history, on Saturday, June 9, and, as of June 24, more than 83,000 acres have burned. Hundreds of people have been evacuated, and 248 homes have been destroyed.
But while the plume of smoke from High Park is visible from Fort Collins, as you can see in this photo taken around sunset on June 23, daily life in the city is still going strong. The city is known for its microbrews and the Colorado Brewers Festival, now in its 23rd year, went off without a hitch. Saturday night in Old Town remained lively, with packed bars and restaurants. Beer tours at New Belgium Brewery, home of Fat Tire and the third largest craft brewer in the country, are full.
During my chat with people who work at the Fort Collins CVB, I was told that the tourist businesses most affected by the High Park fire include the outfitters who run tours on the Poudre River (one of Colorado’s major rivers for white-water), and people who run seasonal rental properties out in the mountains. The hotels remain full, as firefighters and evacuees need places to stay (federal, state and local volunteers have been working on the blaze). People who came for outdoor recreation are being directed to other natural areas nearby.
While the fires impacted little of my trip’s itinerary this week, I did notice concern for the dry conditions at almost every stop. In Rocky Mountain National Park, we saw several fire trucks on Trail Ridge Road, an alpine tundra environment that opened early this year, due to lack of snowpack.
I asked the firefighters what they were looking for. “Lightning,” one guy told me, with a grim look on his face. The High Park fire is not an anomaly; most wildfires in the West begin because of natural electrical strikes.
My three days in Estes Park were full of blue skies; although it was hot and dry, we were still able to hike, as long as we brought plenty of water. The horses kicked up dust on the trail, but it wasn’t unbearable. Temperatures dropped 20 degrees when the sun went down.
Perhaps the scariest fire encounter came when I stayed with a friend who lives in Pinewood Springs, a small mountain community between Estes Park and Lyons. We were sitting out on his balcony, enjoying a few cold ones, when suddenly smoke poured into the valley. He got up to check the web for info, but no alarms went off and the local fire station remained silent.
We learned the next day that the smoke came from a pyrocumulus cloud that had entered the valley. According to a Denver Post article, these clouds form because “intense heating of air from the surface induces convection, which causes an air mass to rise above the fire and, in the presence of moisture (from water being dumped on the fire), can induce formation.” I don’t completely understand the science, but I do recognize how on edge the fires are making Colorado homeowners.
High temperatures and dry conditions are likely to continue this week. As my trip has proved, you can have a great time in Colorado right now, despite what’s going on. Here are a few things to keep in mind as the state hopes for rain:
Check roads. There have been detours put in place, and the route that you mapped out might need to be changed. Your cell phone might not work in the mountains. Via Twitter, the Colorado Emergency Management office told me that 850 KOA AM provides regular news. The Colorado Department of Transportation also updates road closures regularly.
Smoke is unpredictable. Even with the High Park fire plume visible outside Fort Collins, the town’s air quality has remained OK on most days. During my three days in town, I noticed the smoke later in the evening, when the winds changed. The TV stations out of Denver were inaccurate in their predictions, I found – while forecasters had projected thick smoke in Fort Collins on Sunday, we didn’t smell it all when we were at the Colorado Brewers Festival. Unless you have serious respiratory issues, you aren’t likely to have any issues.
Follow the rules. Rocky Mountain National Park, as well as campgrounds around the state, has a total fire ban in place right now. That means no campfires, including those made with charcoal briquettes (petroleum fueled stoves and grills are still permitted in designated backcountry campsites, as well as developed campgrounds and picnic areas). Firework bans are also in effect, and many cities won’t be holding July 4th displays.
Don’t panic. Colorado geography is made up of mountains and canyons, and distances can be deceiving. While a fire in Estes Park closed the Beaver Meadow entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park on Saturday, the park is so large that other areas weren’t affected. In a town that’s full of tourists, many people reported seeing smoke, but only a handful of properties actually needed to evacuate their visitors.
Look at a map. On TripAdvisor, I saw people asking about their planned trips to Vail and Breckenridge, places that are relatively far from the fires. Again, mountainous areas have a very different geography from the terrain that you might be used to back home.
Be flexible. The High Park fire has closed rafting in Poudre Canyon, one of the state’s best whitewater rivers. But Colorado has thousands of acres for outdoor activity. This past week, I’ve gone hiking, horseback riding, craft beer tasting, and taken several scenic drives where I saw moose, elk and deer. At the Fort Collins Marriott, I saw families happily splashing in the pool, oblivious of any fire concern. Your vacation will be what you make it, even if you encounter some adjustments.
Remain empathetic. You might have some questions about your vacation. But for many people in Colorado, these fires are literally hitting their homes. Firefighters are putting their lives in danger. If the area where you planned to visit has been affected, offer condolences and change your plans without too much vocal complaining.
Stay informed. The Denver Post’s website has done a fairly good job of updating where the fires are. Other news sites include KKTV. The websites for Larimer County and El Paso County have information, as does InciWeb, which posts updates on fires all over the West.
If you’re on Twitter, check the #HighParkFire and #WaldoCanyonFire hashtags, and follow @COEmergency. There’s a Facebook page for the Waldo Canyon fire. People on vacation have been posting updates on TripAdvisor’s Colorado forums.
And finally, the Colorado Tourism Office has developed a resource page that is constantly being updated.
Do you have any more tips on traveling around Colorado as the fires burn? Leave them in the comments!