EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado - From about now until the ski hills open is commonly thought of as one of the deepest of the valley's off-seasons. But this time of year, the county's public lands host a few thousand destination visitors - hunters.
While the archery and black powder rifle seasons of late summer and early fall have their devotees - including a growing number of local residents - the traditional seasons, open to those who bring high-powered rifles with them, draw the largest numbers. Some stay in hotels and eat at restaurants, but many more top off their supplies of food, ice, fuel and ammunition before heading into the backcountry.
Aaron Danis of Colorado Springs made a quick stop Friday at Columbine Market in Gypsum before heading up toward Heart Lake, in Garfield County north and west of Dotsero.
Danis, who's been a hunter for about 30 years, said he and his friends and family are regulars at Heart Lake and in the forests around Steamboat Springs.
Up Routt County it can be pretty easy to slip down into town for a meal or a shower, Danis said. Heart Lake is a little more remote, he said, so stocking up in Gypsum is about the last he and his friends will see of civilization for a few days.
Even if they disperse into the backcountry, hunters in the county still spend money while they're here.
Columbine Market manager Ron Hagen said the first rifle season isn't terribly busy - the bigger crowds come for the second and third seasons later in the month.
"But we still get a lot of people through here," he said.
Hunters shop for more than just groceries, of course.
West Vail Shell owner Rick Dilling said he sees plenty of rigs - from motorhomes to pickups pulling trailers with ATVs and tents in the beds. He sells gas to the drivers of many of those rigs.
"And I get a few tows every year, too," Dilling said.
Matt Solomon, owner of Alpine Arms in Eagle, said his shop sees a nice bump in business during hunting season. He's not selling guns to hunters - people going into the woods usually have their firearms sighted in and ready to go long before the season opens - but he does sell a lot of accessories, from thermal underwear to holsters to scopes and range-finders.
Those small sales add up, not the way Easter week in Vail does, but it does add up.
As of the 2010 season, big game hunting's annual economic impact in Eagle County alone was estimated at $28.7 million. Throughout Colorado, that number was $403.7 million.
That boost can mean the difference between a good and better year for a community.
Still, "hunting is really an under-the-radar thing," Vail Valley Partnership Executive Director Chris Romer said.
Hunting isn't the only not-really-obvious smaller economic engine in the valley. The Colorado National Guard's High Altitude Aviation Training Site - HAATS - brings hundreds of helicopter pilots to the western valley for training in mountain helicopter flight. Those people stay in hotels and eat in restaurants while they're here.
"They aren't our bread and butter, but they're nice to have," Romer said.
Hunting and HAATS have something else in common - both are things people will travel a long way to use.
"We're in a trophy zone," Solomon said. "This is really a destination for hunters. We have people from Utah, Illinois - all over the country - coming here to hunt."
Business Editor Scott N. Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930 or email@example.com.