The Rainbow Gathering of the Tribes plans to return to Colorado this summer to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The week-long confab drawing tens of thousands of hippie campers onto public lands announced this week that the national gathering of potentially 30,000 would return to Colorado.
The group’s national bacchanalia was last held in Colorado in 2006, with about 10,000 people camping out on Forest Service grounds in northern Routt County outside of Steamboat Springs. Before that they were 19,000 strong outside of Paonia in 1992. The first national meeting took place near Granby in 1972.
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The Rainbow Gathering hasn’t said where in Colorado they plan to land for the late June, early July festival. But in fire-shy mountain communities already cracking down on camping and crowds, opposition to the event is growing, with a focus on how tens of thousands of people camping together in the woods could ignite wildfire. (This post on Reddit – Take Action Against the Rainbow Rally – sparked over 670 comments in less than 24 hours. You can guess the tone of those comments.)
There are no leaders of the rainbow family. They have no headquarters or formal website. Nobody to call and ask questions. Today’s Rainbow is as casual as any other internet-connected community. They describe themselves as “the largest non-organization of non-members in the world”. And they closed their Reddit forum to outsiders on Thursday, as hundreds of commenters heaped with less-than-enthusiastic responses to the 50th annual convention in Colorado. Many of the group’s websites crashed Thursday as news of the events in Colorado spread.
The loose structure makes it difficult for federal land managers and local communities to address the impact and plan for the upcoming hippie party. The Forest Service, citing online gossip and posts, suspects the group may plan to gather in Grand County in June and July.
“The original 1972 gathering was up there, so I think there’s a potential desire to go back to Grand County for their 50th,” said Reid Armstrong of Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests.
Without a governance structure, the Forest Service has been unable to enforce its rules, which require permits for gatherings of more than 75 people on public lands. The agency usually writes tickets for illegal camping during large Rainbow rallies, but of course rangers don’t write more than 10,000 citations at every gathering. The Rainbow group has argued since the 1970s that they have the right to assemble on public land.
The National Forest has a National Incident Team that follows the annual Rainbow Family gatherings, which usually culminate during the Fourth of July holiday. (Last year’s gathering was in Carson National Forest near Taos, New Mexico.) This team—mainly Forest Service Police officers—works with local communities and local law enforcement.
While the exact location won’t be known until the Rainbow Family sends a scouting party to find a spot that offers open space near a water supply, the Grand County Forest Service and law enforcement agencies are aware of the possible gathering.
“We historically bring many resources to help protect the local community and reduce the impact on the community and natural resources,” Armstrong said.
In 2006, a Rainbow Gathering scouting report investigated a possible return to Grand County and identified a handful of possible locations on Forest Service land, including Church Park, Red Dirt Reservoir, and Buffalo Park.
One benefit to Rainbow Gathering impacts: The Forest Service knows it’s coming, unlike large wildfires like Cameron Peak and East Troublesome, the two largest wildfires in Colorado history that raged parts of the Arapaho National Forest in 2020.
“That way we can plan for it and prepare for it,” Armstrong said. “However, the effects may be the same. Slightly different but the magnitude of the impact on natural resources may be similar which is why we are bringing in an incident management team.”
2 overdoses, three babies at the 1992 meeting
The 2006 gathering at Routt National Forest’s Big Red Park near Clark attracted 10,000 to 15,000 campers. The Forest Service had 42 members of its National Incident Management Team observing the gathering and reported 218 subpoenas in the weeks leading up to the July 4 holiday peak. By the end of the event, that number would surpass 500. Forest Service officials told the Denver Post that they spent about $800,000 managing the event.
The 1992 Rainbow Gathering in Gunnison National Forest near Overland Reservoir above Paonia attracted approximately 19,000 campers. The National Forest, which prepared a comprehensive report after the event, knew the exact location in early June and began working with about 500 Rainbow Family members in mid-June. By July 1, 4,000 cars were parked on meadows around the reservoir.
The 1992 congregation had medical facilities and 35 kitchens covering about 2,500 acres for the congregation. Campers were divided into smaller camps aligned with different values. (For example, there was a Sisters’ Camp, a Faire Camp, a Krishna Camp, and many camps for residents of certain areas. There is even an “A Camp” for people who drink alcohol, which the Rainbow Family discourages.)
The report counted 310 traffic violations issued by the Forest Service, the Delta County Sheriff’s Office and the Colorado State Patrol. The report showed 43 arrests, mostly over traffic problems and drugs. Two people were found dead of a prescription drug overdose. The report showed that three babies were born during the gathering. A combination of federal, state and local agencies said they spent more than $573,000 managing the event.
The Forest Service reported that about 500 members of the group stayed behind after everyone left to fill in 200 ditches that had been used as toilets and to plant shrubs and grasses that had been damaged during the gathering.
“The damage is truly minimal and in our estimation no long-term or irreparable damage was done,” Forest Service spokesman Matt Glasgow told Rocky Mountain News after the event.
The New York Times wrote of the first gathering near Strawberry Lake above Granby in July 1972. The event, held on both private and forest land, was billed as a religious festival and about 3,000 people attended more than 7 Miles to the remote location location. Colorado Gov. John Love vowed to prevent the gathering, but the blockade collapsed as thousands of “young people hiked across the mountains to get there,” the article said.
Local Grand County lawmakers hastily put together rules for sanitation and large gatherings in hopes of blocking the event. A local judge ruled in late June that no more participants could climb the remote plot, but was ignored.
“They’re going to have to carry us out,” one “determined young girl” told a Denver Post reporter. “And they won’t have enough jails to hold us all.”