Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Via Ferrata: Colorado’s Next Big Outdoor Vertical?

Via ferrata may be the biggest outdoor recreation business you’ve never heard of. Translated, “iron ways” started in the late 1800s as a secure way to climb and traverse mountainsides in the Italian Dolomites. Today, Colorado contains the largest concentration of via ferratas in North America.

Via ferratas give adventure seekers immediate access to jaw-dropping views on heart-thumping multi-hour vertical excursions. Dangling 180 feet above a raging box canyon river, as you do in routes in Ouray, via ferratas are an addictive thrill, mixing tight-roping bridges between cliff sides, scrambling up granite and sidestepping precarious rungs around rock outcroppings, all while manually clipping in and out of bolted steel safety cables.

Colorado’s via ferratas, now in double digits, sit on both public and private lands, making oversight and safety regulations an unfolding mashup of European and American standards that boggle the mind. State inspections are currently run through the Division of Oil and Public Safety, the same one that checks amusement park rides.

But the money is in the guiding, with some longtime climbing services now counting on via ferreta bookings for up to 90% of summer business. In Ouray and nearby Telluride, which installed the state’s first public via ferrata, anyone can climb. All you need is the gear—a helmet, harness and specialized EAS lanyard. And only in Ouray does a ranger check you in. Everywhere else, from installations at A-Basin ski area to the Royal Gorge, you must go with a guide.

Ouray native Logan Tyler, who owns climbing gym, gear and guide service Basecamp Ouray, just opened the state’s newest private via ferrata. “In March 2020, I had 55 cents in my bank account,” he says. “By August, revenue from just guiding the via had saved my business. The economic impact is substantial — way beyond my expectations.”

Tyler’s professionally designed and built via ferrata sits on Gold Mountain Ranch, just outside Ouray, where he struck a deal with a wealthy landowner. Twice the length of the town’s two public courses with 1,200 feet of vertical climbing and a cable bridge through an old mining site, a Gold Mountain half-day starts at $198. Getting his via ferrata through shifting state and county politics was a monumental feat. But as a pioneer in the industry, Tyler knows it’s only up from here.

As he puts it, “It’s an earned experience.”

Made in Colorado 2022 — Outdoor Edition 

LavaBox Portable Campfires 


Joshua Thurmond’s background as a rafting guide led to the launch of LavaBox in early 2021. 

A fellow board member at the Colorado Whitewater Association asked Thurmond if he could come up with something better than the big, round fire pits used on overnight trips. “I said, ‘Yeah, I can make one out of an ammo can,’” he says. “I went home, made a whole bunch of them, and I think it was the seventh iteration that was the winner.’” 

That was the LavaBox. “It was a COVID crisis,” Thurmond says. “I wanted to do something totally different, and just went for it. I have no background in manufacturing and no background in driving sales.” 

Now assembled by a growing crew at an 8,000-square-foot facility, the compact, propane-powered product avoids fire bans. Thurmond also designed a grill and grate to round out the catalog. “Pretty soon, we had every retailer knocking at the door,” Thurmond says. “We just went from zero to hero out of the blue. Now we’ve sold thousands of products.” 

» Starting at $175

» Made by LavaBox, Denver  


Bedrock Bags 

Img 3179

Joey Ernst owned a bike shop, Velorution Cycles, in Durango when Andrew Wracher showed him some bike packs he’d made. “I was like, ‘If you make these, I will sell these,’” Ernst says. “He went home and started Bedrock in his spare bedroom.” 

Wracher and Ernst took the business partnership one step further by moving the manufacturing operation into the same space as Ernst’s shop in 2015. Sales immediately quadrupled as bike packing boomed in general, and their manufacturing business supplanted the retail business entirely. 

Thousands of bags later, the five-employee company “does a few things really well,” says Ernst, who has been in the bicycle business since 1997. “We have decades of sewing experience under this roof, even with just five people. Combining those two, as opposed to just being into bikes and then starting to sew or being into sewing and making stuff for bikes, allows us to come at it from a very holistic perspective.” 

» $50 to $300 retail

» Made by Bedrock Bags, Durango


Long Haul Folding Kayaks 

Long Haul Folding Kayaks

Master boat builder Mark Eckhart started working with folding kayaks while he was a firefighter in Westminster. He developed a relationship with Klepper, a German manufacturer, and repaired their boats when he wasn’t at the firehouse. “That all crumbled, so I started to make my own boats,” Eckhart says. 

He moved to Cedaredge in 1998 and has built “around 700 or 800” boats as of 2022, including numerous orders for the U.S. military. Beyond folding kayaks, Long Haul also makes a folding kayak branded the York. 

Eckhart says tried-and-true craftsmanship is a big differentiator. As most manufacturers moved to aluminum and plastic frames, Long Haul stuck with wood. “The wood frame, when they’re done right, is the best frame,” Eckhart says. “How many products do you buy that can last for 20 years? One reason for that is because the boats are built damn good.” 

» Starting at $3,200 retail 

» Made by Long Haul Folding Kayaks, Cedaredge


San Util Design 

San Util Design

Adam Nicholson moved from Denver to Winter Park to open the Trailhead, an outdoor shop, in late 2019. It closed for four months in the early days of the COVID pandemic, leading Nicholson to try his hand at sewing bags. “I borrowed my mom’s sewing machine and sat down at the kitchen table for days on end,” he says. “I got a little obsessed with it.” 

The endeavor morphed into San Util Design, and Nicholson went full-time with the business after a Kickstarter campaign in late 2021. He traded in his mom’s sewing machine and got two industrial machines and a 500-square-foot workspace. “In classic fashion, I go all-in with anything I start doing,” Nicholson says. 

San Util now offers tool rolls, six-pack beer totes, frame packs, and a variety of other bags and pouches. Nicholson says his products are “more utilitarian” than the big brands’ bags. “Why do I have nine pockets? I only use
one of them.”  

» $14 to $260 retail

» Made by San Util Design, Winter Park 


Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer’s Colorado, Frommer’s Montana & Wyoming, Frommer’s Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver’s Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected]