Last year, Leroy Turley of Lakewood spent five and a half weeks driving 6,000 miles from Colorado to the East Coast and back. This year, his RV is staying in the garage.
The retiree, who was attending a family reunion at Chief Hosa Campground near Evergreen on July 12, said his vehicle gets 7 miles per gallon, and he can’t afford the rising gas prices on his Social Security income.
“They aren’t going to give Social Security a raise,” Turley said, pondering the matter with other relatives on a recent Saturday morning.
“We’ve traveled over nine years through 31 states,” said his sister Tressie Deiters of Plano, Ill. “Last year we didn’t do much traveling; this is our first trip and probably only trip (this year) — it’s very discouraging.”
Other members of the family from Oklahoma were carpooling for the first time, and one flew in for the occasion because it was cheaper than driving.
“That’s scary, isn’t it?” Turley said.
Tourists venturing out this summer make up an unpredictable lot as they adjust to the new economic terrain.
“It’s an unusual season,” said Denver Mountain Parks superintendent A.J. Addison. “It’s very unusual; it is all over the board.”
“All over the board” seems to best sum up the tourism situation in the mountain corridors this summer.
There has been an obvious lack of recreational vehicles on arterial routes through Colorado. Sales and repairs have been down at RV America in Denver, said service manager Joe West. And the company used to have summer rentals booked six months in advanced, but this year it has had rentals available when people call on the spur of the moment.
Even so, Chief Hosa Campground, which belongs to Denver Mountain Parks, has had a good turnout of recreational vehicles at its overnight facilities off I-70.
“Right now occupancy is about the same as last year,” said park ranger Bob Holley. But this year’s visitors include a rising number of Europeans who are taking advantage of the weak dollar, he said. Also, there are fewer out-of-state visitors and more in-state travelers.
On the flip side, Georgetown Loop spokesman Tom Hill said the company has added an extra train to accommodate an increasing number of riders, but, oddly, those visitors are primarily from the Midwest, California and Texas.
“I expected fewer out-of-state and more in-state,” Hill said of the tourists. “I wish I could read ‘em. It sure has me confused.”
Despite the success in Georgetown, ridership at other tourist trains is “off significantly,” Hill has been told.
Holidays have been unpredictable, too.
Father’s Day usually draws large numbers to mountain parks, but this year numbers were down, Addison said. Meanwhile, visits were up on the 4th of July weekend.
In Conifer, the Bradley’s gas station staffed up for July 4th to handle more business, based on past experience, but the crowds never came and sales were down, assistant manager Shelley Brown said.
Isolated communities like Fairplay have an even different tale to tell.
“I have to tell you, even with the raise of gas prices, I haven’t seen that much of a difference in traffic, not even recreation vehicles,” said Darci Armstrong, who helps her parents run the family-owned Silver Heels Truck Stop in Fairplay.
And that’s with gas selling at $4.43 a gallon for regular and $5.10 for diesel.
But the company’s profit margin for Sinclair gas is slim, she said. When a truck driver recently charged $557 on his fleet card to fill his semi with gas, her store made only $5 on that sale, she said.
“We do pennies on the dollar; we barely make any money,” Armstrong said. “I told my dad, ‘If we were losing money on milk, I would stop selling it …’ ”
As tourism shifts, so do retail sales.
“We see a lot of people in town, but the question is, are they spending as much money?” Hill said of Georgetown.
Larry Nassau, who works at the Hatch Fly Shop in Pine Junction, knows something’s up. He’s seen fewer folks coming through this year than in the past, though local traffic has been strong because people are staying closer to home.
Out-of-towners come for the “experience” and often bring along a little more money to spend, but that’s not always the case with locals.
“We are probably not selling as much of the high-end stuff — people are definitely feeling the crunch,” Nassau said.
The change in travel patterns, and in particular recreational vehicle use, has caught the interest of a CU-Denver graduate student who is compiling statistics on the trends, according to Sharon Russell, membership director of the Breckenridge resort chamber. The student recently approached Russell about the project.
Russell learned that some RV clubs are carefully planning their travel now. They may be less likely to venture far to reach a certain destination and more likely to explore areas available within a quarter or half tank of gas.
Shelley Brown has made a number of changes in recent months due to rising gas prices.
Her family sold their motor home, and they now use a tent and smaller vehicles for family outings, she said. And she even changed jobs, from working as a surgical tech at a hospital in Fort Collins to working at the Bradley’s convenience store in Conifer, because it was costing her about $600 per month to commute.
“I took a huge cut in pay — half of what I was making at the hospital,” she said. “But I have more (money) to spend.”
Even so, some travelers are far from packing it in, despite the cost.
Ben Hickman of Conifer was at the Bradley’s July 12, his boat in tow, filling up his SUV with petrol for a run to Wolford Reservoir.
“Gas is affecting (things), but I’m still traveling. Oh yeah, I’m not going to stay off the roads.”