The Importance of Recreating in Small Towns

Published 2022-03-27

By Brand Ambassador, Lindsey Davis

Ouray, Colorado, is a hidden gem. Boasting to be the ‘Switzerland of America,’ it’s an old mining town and a gateway to southern Colorado’s stunning San Juan Mountains. The nearly 1,000 person population experiences such extreme seasons that there is historically a stark shut down during the winter. That was until the Ouray Ice Park was developed in the late 90s. Now, in the dead of winter, the town has a thriving economy, packed motels, and restaurants and breweries that stay open year-round. This, combined with the town’s prolific hot springs, made for a stellar mid-winter gal’s getaway for me and a handful of girlfriends.

I’d never ice climbed, and I can assure you the idea of it was intimidating. I have a rock climbing background, but the concept of crampons and picks was all new. Faith in my abilities from girlfriends and a general combination of boredom and curiosity got me to say yes to this endeavor. We climbed a few times beforehand to wake up our muscles, piled into a Sprinter van and headed down to the southwest.

Hiking into the Ouray Ice Park on the first day was stunning. The climbing area is man-made and lined with infrastructure to bring water from the Uncompahgre River to rebuild the ice walls every night. There’s a team of people who run the park who maintain anchors, the ice formations and generally lookout for the climbers it attracts, which is excellent because the walls were crawling with climbers. The scene was reminiscent of white walkers in the Game of Thrones scaling the wall to get to the North.

We hired a guide named Heidi Wirtz to show us the ropes for the weekend. We spent the days learning proper mechanics and building our skills in placing ice axes, proper footwork, anchor building, and rope management. Heidi is a pioneer of the sport. To learn from women with women was a real treat in such a male-dominated field as mountaineering.

We’d stuff our faces with tasty food and brews from the local eateries in the evenings and soak our increasingly sore muscles in the hot springs in preparation for the climbing ahead. Like most outdoor activities, it’s amazing to find out you’re capable when given the proper resources and environment to succeed.

Beyond being an outdoor gal’s weekend for the books, I was struck by how much recreation has influenced this town. The one-of-a-kind asset of the ice park has created a sustainable economic engine for this rural community. Right now, so many small towns across the nation are seeing wages plummet, populations decline and facing harsh realities about transitioning from traditionally extractive industries. After such a challenging year, it felt important to put some money back in the hands of guides and outfitters and small businesses in even smaller towns that have experienced some of the harshest economic blows. I couldn’t help but be hopeful for the role the outdoors can play in helping us all live a little better – whether that’s curing cabin fever, finding new strengths, seeing new beauty, or keeping the lights on for your business support your community.

The recreation economy is big business, but it’s made up of mom and pop shops, small creative towns, and passionate guides and outfitters who support us in experiencing some of our country’s most incredible natural resources while helping communities thrive. I’m grateful to have experienced Ouray’s unique approach and hope to get back to their beautiful ice park next winter.

Click here for more information on the role of recreation in rural economies.