Staying afloat
After falling short in first year, Nighthorse opens with renewed expectations

Staying afloat

Lake Nighthorse, still surrounded by snow, opens this weekend. Last year, stand-up paddle boarders, kayakers and canoeists made up 37 percent of the lake's users./Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Tracy Chamberlin - 03/28/2019

After taking a couple hits in the first year, Lake Nighthorse fell short of expectations.

Attendance wasn’t what city officials anticipated, nor did the exceedingly long-awaited recreation opportunity bring in the kind of the money they’d hoped for.

One of the biggest hits came from the 416 Fire, which broke out June 1 and burned more than 55,000 acres north of Durango.

The San Juan National Forest was closed, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was shut down, and many of the area’s outdoor activities were put on hold as thick smoke lingered over the Southwest. The entire community took a financial hit – restaurants, hotels, river companies and more – and many employees were furloughed for weeks.

City officials ended up closing parks and open spaces  across town over concerns about fire danger for about a week and a half, including Lake Nighthorse.

Even after the lake was reopened, it’s likely some potential visitors decided to stay indoors or head out of town because of the smoke.

In addition to the impacts from the fire, the boat ramp at Lake Nighthorse was closed for a total of 35 days during May and June because of construction.

Overall attendance at the lake was just more than 48,000 for the year, a number city officials hope will double in 2019. Financially, they were expecting to take in enough money to cover about 80 percent of operating costs. But, they only generated about 74 percent.

Parks and Recreation Director Cathy Metz said, eventually, the City hopes to take in 90 percent of operating costs – a goal set for all Parks and Rec facilities. “That’s our target,” she added.

And, this year, things are certainly looking up. After a winter of record snowfall, lake levels are high, along with expectations.

It all kicks off with the Kids Fish First event Sat., March 30, and an official opening the following day, Sun., March 31.

There are some minor changes to the schedule and a few construction projects in the works. In addition, Metz said the City recently purchased what’s called a floating sport court, which will allow the lake to host drop-in kayak football and stand-up paddle board hockey. Another activity Metz touted was the 4th of July Parade of Boats, which is open to motorized and nonmotorized watercraft.

Anyone coming back after last year will likely notice one change over the winter. Throughout 2018, residents struggled in the thick mud at the “beach” area along the eastern shore near the existing dock. It made access to the lake a dirty business.

Actual construction of a beach isn’t on the schedule until next year, but in an effort to address the mess, Metz said crews have chipped dead trees near the overflow parking lot and distributed the mulch in an effort to mitigate the muddy beach.

The City has also made minor changes to the hours of operation – adding Fridays to the spring calendar in April and staying open until 7 p.m. in the fall – but nothing major is in the works when it comes to “No Wake” days, which was the most contentious issue ahead of the 2018 opening.

In the countdown to opening day last year, a group of area residents formed the Quiet No Wake Lake Nighthorse coalition. They campaigned for quiet use of the lake, requesting speed limits for motorboats and other restrictions on motorized use.

Although the City decided to allow for motorized uses, like wake boarding and water skiing, they created specific days and times when motorboats would be limited to 5 miles per hour.

These “No Wake” days run from opening day March 31 - May 15, and throughout the summer and fall on Mondays and Wednesdays.

This schedule is similar to last year’s, except for the addition of Fridays in the spring and daily operations beginning a couple weeks earlier. Metz said there were several reasons for the decision.

First, the spring construction last year and 416 Fire meant it was not going to be an average year. In addition, she said, they found lake users weren’t limited by designations.

In the early morning hours, the lake is calmer, which lends itself to paddle sports, and winds tend to pick up in the afternoon, which is better for other activities like sailing.

City officials still have the authority to adjust the schedule in the years ahead and make changes if needed.

One thing the City are unable to do without permission is construction. Agreements made during the decades-long debate over the Animas-La Plata Project – which eventually spawned Lake Nighthorse – require local Native American tribes to approve construction plans in an effort to protect historical sites.

Metz said that process is already under way, and lake managers hope to begin building an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant pier and boat launch this summer in addition to the existing one. Unlike work done on the boat ramp last year, though, construction won’t result in any closures, according to Metz, only minimal disruptions.

“I think we’ve learned a lot,” she added. “Last year we learned how to manage this lake, and this year we’re starting to have some fun with it.”


When to go: Lake Nighthorse

• Opening Day for nonmotorized use: March 31; continues Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays thru April 28
• Daily operations begin May 1
• Motorized recreation allowed after May 15
• Closes for the season Nov. 15

Hours of operation:

• March 31 - May 14: 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. • May 15 - 31: 8 a.m. - 6 p.m.
• June 1 - Sept. 2: 7 a.m. - 8 p.m.
• Sept. 3 - 30: 8 a.m. - 7 p.m.
• Oct. 1 - Nov. 14: 9 a.m. - 4 p.m.
For more, visit www.durangogov.org