Lake Nighthorse recreation season sees record visitation

Lake Nighthorse’s 2020 recreation season, characterized by amenity improvements and high visitor turnout, came to a chilly, windy end Saturday.

Located south of the city, Lake Nighthorse is both a water source and recreation opportunity created from decades of intergovernmental negotiations. This year, the 1,500-acre lake saw more visitors than it has in any other year since it opened to the public in 2018, according to preliminary estimates from the city of Durango.

That high turnout was likely tied to the coronavirus pandemic, said Cathy Metz, director of Durango Parks and Recreation, which manages recreation at the lake.

“People felt more comfortable recreating where they could easily socially distance,” Metz said. “I believe that was tied to why we saw record utilization, not only in Durango but all over Colorado.”


Pamela Strom with her dog Amos and Rachael Woodie get in one last day of paddleboarding Saturday at Lake Nighthorse before the gates are closed for the season.

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Lake Nighthorse recreation season sees record visitation

Pamela Strom with her dog Amos and Rachael Woodie get in one last day of paddleboarding Saturday at Lake Nighthorse before the gates are closed for the season.

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

In 2018, the city recorded about 48,000 visits; in 2019, about 63,700. Rough estimates this year indicate that about 92,000 visited the lake. The city will be able to share final numbers before the end of 2020.

The lake’s recreation season also opened later than normal this year because of pandemic-related public health restrictions, meaning that those visits happened over a shorter period of time.

Another defining moment for Lake Nighthorse this season: the rattlesnake, dubbed “Freedom the Rattler,” that slithered aboard a family’s boat while it was out on the lake. Durango resident John Lesage’s video of the encounter was shared 2,300 times on social media, including by international marine products company, Seadek.

Durango also made progress on three management goals defined by an extensive public input process, Metz said.

The city is focused on financial viability, and this year, Metz believes Durango will recover up to 90% of its operating costs. In 2019, it recovered 85% of its expenses.

“One of the big priorities of Nighthorse is resource protection. This is a drinking water supply for members of our community,” Metz said.

The city focuses on preventing the introduction of aquatic nuisance species, like zebra mussels, by inspecting and decontaminating water craft. Lake Nighthorse has been successfully protected so far, but the city did have to decontaminate infected boats this year.

Every year, it aims to improve recreational experiences. This year, the city completed its swim beach and a fishing dock that was compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines.


Saturday marks the last public access day at Lake Nighthorse south of Durango. The lake closes for the winter season Sunday.

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

Lake Nighthorse recreation season sees record visitation

Saturday marks the last public access day at Lake Nighthorse south of Durango. The lake closes for the winter season Sunday.

Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

In 2021, the swim beach will be open for the entire season. Visitors will also be able to use a water flotation play structure at the swim beach, Metz said.

The beach was closed for construction for some of the season, pushing recreators to the boat dock area. With high visitor numbers, crowd control was a challenge, she said.

Equipment rental businesses saw record use, enough that they had a hard time keeping up with demand while sanitizing equipment to limit spread of the coronavirus. Classes, however, saw smaller numbers because of the pandemic.

“Despite the pandemic, I believe we achieved all of those goals in 2020 and really have received tremendous feedback from the community,” Metz said.

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