The license plates told the story. As they usually are, most were from Colorado (this was, after all, a parking lot in downtown Ridgway).
But many cars were from out of state on Friday afternoon. Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming and Texas, the procession of plates read; Nevada, South Dakota. Maryland, Illinois, Washington, D.C.
Two weeks after Labor Day — traditional end to the summertime season — visitors keep flocking to Ouray County. Some were merely passing through this weekend: a young man and his fiance from Colorado Springs were purchasing just-picked apples (and fresh-pressed apple cider) at the Farmers Market in Town Park, on the way to their wedding this weekend in Telluride.
Steve and Diana Cychosz were also in from the Front Range. “It’s much busier than normal,” Steve observed. “There’s more traffic between Montrose and Ridgway than I’ve ever seen, especially for this time of year.”
Others had come from farther away, and planned to linger longer, assuming they could find a place to stay. Cindy and Jack Koch and their golden retriever, Cooper, visited Ridgway last July. This time was different.
“Every place we called to park our RV has been packed,” Cindy said. “Totally full.” The Kochs are from Reno; they fled to the San Juans to escape wildfire smoke from blazes in Oregon and California. Were it not for “the new owner of the KOA campground (on Route 550) who found us a spot,” Cindy said, “We would have taken a patch of dirt by the side of the road.”
The tale was the same in downtown Ouray. “We are busy. We’re busy,” a volunteer at the town’s visitors center intoned when a reporter inquired. The center is open daily from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., she said, and “so far” there are no plans to curtail the hours of operation.
“Everything in town is still very busy,” Julie Lancaster, accounts payable clerk for the City of Ouray, agreed. “There are lines outside a whole bunch of restaurants, partly because some are only offering takeout. There’s just not enough seating for everybody, and so I think your choices are pretty much, wait in this line at the brewery, or wait someplace else.”
The city is interviewing several candidates for the position of administrator, Lancaster said, “and it was such a chore just to find three hotel rooms for next week. All the innkeepers laughed, and said they don’t have anything open that soon. They’re booked through at least September, or maybe longer.”
Lancaster supplied revenue figures for admission to Box Canyon Falls, the historic tourist destination located just above downtown, which the city owns and operates. The numbers indicate that visitation is increasing.
“July wasn’t much different from last year, but August was huge — up 23 percent from last year,” Lancaster said. “I think we’ll see the same thing for September,” because with so many students attending classes remotely, “people aren’t going back to schools.”
Jeweler Lizzie Fike, whose works are on display at Mountain Girl Gallery, in downtown Ridgway, said she has witnessed the same thing. “I felt visitation this summer was down a little in Ridgway,” Fike observed, “because there was so much off-roading in Ouray and Telluride. But now a lot of second home owners are staying,” instead of returning to their primary residences.
Soon, more visitors will likely arrive, as hunting season begins in earnest and others journey to this region to witness the famous fall colors (aspen leaves have already begun changing on Owl Creek Pass). In addition to second-home owners lingering in town, Fike has noticed something else about this time of year. “Hunters spend more than leaf-peepers,” she said wryly.
Mountain Girl Gallery, at 609 Clinton St., is open Friday through Sunday from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. or by appointment (email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 970-318-0382).