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Not just a pizza pit stop: Idaho Springs setting itself apart as 'Gateway to the Rockies'

Idaho Springs is capitalizing on daycationers and others looking for something different
downtown idaho springs.jpeg
Posted at 6:20 AM, Jul 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-20 08:20:49-04

IDAHO SPRINGS, Colo. — It’s not that Idaho Springs wasn’t on the map before.

“Moved here 27 years ago, best move we ever made,” Mayor Chuck Harmon said.

It’s just that its place on the map wasn’t ever this noticeable.

“It’s so busy,.I can’t get a parking spot to get back in my own office,” said Dr. Scott Keys, a dentist with an office on Miner Street.

Some call it the gateway to the Rocky Mountains, but don’t call it that pass-through town where people only make a pit stop for pizza.

“Beau Jo's is still great. But when [people] ask us where to eat, you can’t go wrong with anything,” said Faith Costello-Wolff, a new business owner in Idaho Springs.

“We saw it and wanted to stop and stay and see the town,” added Ray Ramirez, who was visiting from Houston, Texas.

It is possibly the Denver metro area's favorite daycation spot. For those living even further away, it’s a legitimate vacation destination.

“Why not come to this quaint little spot?” said Holly Frank from Salt Lake City, who was staying at the hotel at the Indian Hot Springs.

“We’re a destination,” Harmon said. “That’s the big difference.”

“It’s not a pass-through town anymore,” Keys said. “It’s sort of a weekend destination.”

The explosive growth in Idaho Springs is tangible, including the Colorado Department of Transportation's ongoing expansion of I-70, out-of-towners who can’t get enough of the city, businesses and locals who favor improvements but also recognize the challenges and growing pains that come with popularity.

Idaho Springs adapts to growing pains that come with being Denver metro's favorite 'daycation' destination

“We really enjoy being a bright spot in the economy,” said Harmon — the sneaker-wearing, blue jeans and tiki-shirt clad mayor who is as laid back and cool as his attire.

Sales tax revenues are up 7.5% in Idaho Springs, and not just post-COVID-19. That’s the highest of all time.

“We’ve been promoting the community with bands on weekends, cornhole tournaments on Fridays,” Harmon said. “Fortunately, we are everybody’s favorite daycation.”

That’s never been more recognizable than at shops on Miner Street like Little Bear E-bikes.

“We’re renting bikes every day now,” Little Bear owner Costello-Wolff said.

Costello-Wolff said they opened Memorial Day weekend after taking over an old diner, which speaks to the town’s changing tourism that's no longer just a stop-over for lunch or dinner these days.

“For 50 years it was Jiggy’s Café,” Costello-Wolff said. “It’s been a wonderful community. Everyone wants to help and wants to see the community grow. Businesses feeding off of other businesses is what it really is.”

They also host rafting tours on Clear Creek, which launch from right behind the Little Bear parking lot next door to City Hall. Just a few blocks down the road, a new trail system just opened up.

“We’ve just opened up a new 400-acre Virginia Canyon Mountain bike park right in the middle of our city,” Harmon said. “Some world-class trails for people of all different ages and abilities.”

Miner Street, which is the main street, is booming. So much so, the building the dentist office currently occupies is for sale.

“I think there’s mixed sentiment about it honestly,” Keys said. “Some long-term residents get irritated by the parking situation.”

But Keys recognizes the need for retail and restaurant space and the likelihood he may have to move to a spot off Miner Street eventually.

“I do want to stay in Idaho Springs and the area, but because of the parking and traffic and some of the headaches of being downtown on Miner Street, it’s just a better location for a different business,” Keys said.

He’s also excited about this town and its popularity. In fact, Keys and his wife just relocated to Idaho Springs less than two years ago from Texas.

“We’ve planted roots here in Idaho Springs,” Keys said. “And we intend to stay here until I can’t do this anymore. We love the community. We love the people in the community.”

Tourists can’t get enough.

“This is so close to the city,” Frank said. “And then you come back here and it’s quiet and peaceful.”

Frank and her fiancé have come here for years.

“We love that it’s so dog friendly, so family friendly,” Frank said.

Others are just now discovering it.

“We came two years ago with my older son, and we passed by and didn’t get to stop,” Ray Ramirez said.

“It’s beautiful,” his wife Crystal Ramirez added. “I love the small shops.”

Of course, infrastructure is a huge issue.

CDOT just opened up the westbound express lanes, which offer much needed relief.

“They’re not sitting in traffic. They’re not wasting gas,” said Nick Farber, director of transportation investment for CDOT. “It’s also helping those who choose to stay in general purpose lanes because [express drivers] aren’t clogging up those lanes, so everybody’s getting through the corridor faster.”

The mountain express lanes opened last year for free. Tolling started on July 7.

“Eight dollars on Sundays and $9 on Fridays and Saturdays,” Farber said. “We’ve been open two weeks, and so far, we’ve seen really great capture rates — anywhere from 10-20% using express lanes and peak travel times.”

There’s also a new small bus service in those express lanes called Pegasus, and there’s a massive widening project launching next year from Floyd Hill to the Veterans Memorial Tunnels.

“If CDOT handles that large project like they did the express lanes and minimizes the impact to local folks, I think locals will breathe a sigh of relief,” Harmon said.

But parking is the town’s Achilles' heel. A birds-eye-view at midday on a Monday showed several cars idling or circling like sharks, ready to pounce on the next available spot.

“Relief is coming,” Harmon said.

The mayor and town recently announced a new 250 spot parking garage behind Tommy Knockers that will be coming soon.

“CDOT has committed about $4.4 million to the project, or about 50%,” Harmon said.

“I understand the parking thing, we’ve definitely had some parking issues over the weekend,” Frank said. “But that hasn’t detoured us. It’s a minor inconvenience.”

For now, with gas prices north of $4.50 a gallon, Idaho Springs is a hot spot. A favorite on a map that has traditionally pegged it as a pass-through.

“Frankly, visitors pay most of the sales taxes,” Harmon said. “They make it possible to pave our roads and improve our parks, and we have not lost sight of that.”

“There’s kind of an exciting vibe about Idaho Springs,” added Keys. “We’re loving it.”

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