Business in Focus is visiting Sweetwater County, Wyoming once again. After reporting on the area’s major mining and industrial projects and highlighting the county’s burgeoning economic opportunities, we sat back down with community leaders to focus on the positive impact and increasing potential that tourism has within the region.
Sweetwater County’s stunning scenery and wide-open, unspoiled spaces are huge draws. The high desert that comprises the community—eighty-five percent of which is public land—is known as one of the state’s most dramatic landscapes. Visitors and locals alike revel in this unique outdoor playground.
“Sweetwater County is abundant in outdoor recreational opportunities,” says Kayla McDonald, Economic Development Specialist for the Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition (SEDC). “You have it all here.”
Lake Flaming Gorge, the largest reservoir in the state of Wyoming, delights tourists with its ninety-one miles of fishing, boating, hiking, and paddle boarding. The lovely byway that meanders around the pristine waters has earned the designation All-American Road—one of only thirty-seven in the United States—and is a destination in its own right with its wealth of spectacular views. Tourists can explore these via a full-day guided bus tour provided by Sweetwater County Travel and Tourism. The byway tour includes nine scenic stops as well as lunch and ice cream.
Killpecker Sand Dunes is one of the county’s most remarkable destinations. Centuries of erosion along two rivers have formed 11,000 acres of soft sand to explore, as well as otherworldly buttes and spires, including the Boar’s Tusk, which stretches a towering four hundred feet into the sky. The site is ideal for riding dune buggies, dirt bikes, and ATVs. Beginners learn the ropes along flat stretches of sand and smaller dunes, while experienced riders challenge their skills on massive, ten-story-tall dunes. Other tourists enjoy sledding, surfing, or skiing down the dunes. Playing Frisbee or beach volleyball or just admiring the stunning sunset views are other common activities. Hiking the dunes is also popular and is sometimes rewarded with a glimpse of the rare desert elk, found nowhere else on the continent.
Sweetwater County’s wild horses are another unique attraction. These majestic animals roam free through the beautiful high desert and can be viewed from the Pilot Butte Wild Horse Scenic Loop. The twenty-four-mile gravel road takes tourists along gorgeous vistas and overlooks where, in addition to the famous wild horses, travelers may spot a variety of wild animals, from rabbits and coyotes to desert elk, hawks, eagles, and more.
Many tourists enjoy exploring the county on a mountain bike. They find plenty of places to ride as the area boasts the top trails in Wyoming, according to singletracktrails.com.
Sweetwater County is also home to an award-winning downtown where Rock Springs charms visitors with quaint streets lined with historic buildings, locally-owned boutiques and shops, restaurants, and craft breweries. With more than seven hundred events held there annually, visitors will almost always find a special event to attend during their visit.
In addition to the hundreds of smaller events, Sweetwater County hosts several signature events each year. Wyoming’s Big Show is a weeklong extravaganza packed full of carnival rides, rodeo action, concerts, 4-H exhibits, livestock exhibits, dining opportunities and more. The annual River Festival includes a microbrewery beer garden, Cajun shrimp boil and spaghetti dinner, live music, fireworks, races—including the Run with the Horses Marathon—and a car show. Art on the Green, a 24-hour live painting and sculpting competition, is held on the same weekend.
Known as the ‘Home of 56 Nationalities,’ Rock Springs celebrates its diversity with International Day, showcasing the community’s rich and diverse history with exhibits, costumes, live entertainment, and food representing local ethnicities.
Sweetwater County’s location is ideal for the tourist industry. Two of the county’s towns, Rock Springs and Green River, are conveniently located along the intersection of I-80 and Hwy 191 in southwest Wyoming, a gateway to Wyoming’s National Parks.
“Visitors to Wyoming primarily enjoy a road trip around the state and the location of Sweetwater County offers a prime opportunity for travelers to get out and explore our high desert landscape as part of that overall road trip,” says Jenissa Meredith, Chief Executive Officer of Sweetwater County Travel and Tourism.
Local leaders are eager to support and promote the county’s tourism industry, and the industry continues to grow. “It is no secret that the incredible landscape, abundant wildlife, and outdoor recreation opportunities that we all know and love are also very attractive to visitors from around the country and world,” Meredith says.
“While our advertising efforts alone generated $65 million in visitor spending in 2022, total visitor spending typically reaches almost $160 million annually (calculated by Dean Runyan & Assoc.), which is money realized in the cash registers of our valued local businesses. Tourism is big business in Sweetwater County. It is truly an honor to work for a dedicated board, and with a talented team of marketing professionals, to showcase this great county.”
Funded by lodging tax dollars, Sweetwater County Travel and Tourism commissions a conversion and advertising effectiveness study to track the success of marketing campaigns. The study has found that the return on investment for every advertising dollar spent is $399. The average tourist party is made up of 2.7 people spending an average of $1,400 over three days in Sweetwater County while enjoying an average of 4.1 activities. An increase in advertising awareness between 2021 and 2022 has been effective as evidenced by a more positive opinion of the area.
Every three years, Sweetwater County Travel and Tourism commissions a lodging study to determine if guests at local hotels and campgrounds are business or leisure travelers. The first study, done in 2007, revealed that the leisure occupancy in Sweetwater County was eight percent. Today leisure travel averages have skyrocketed to over 30 percent.
“We take our jobs of marketing Sweetwater County as a tourism destination very seriously, and it has been exciting to see the visitor economy grow and thrive over the years,” Meredith says.
Sweetwater County Travel and Tourism launches a multi-media marketing campaign every spring to encourage summer tourism, and all year long, it stays active on multiple social media channels, develops tourism products, works to recruit events to the community, and hosts local tours.
In addition, it operates the Explore Rock Springs & Green River Visitor Center. Conveniently located on Hwy 191, where many travelers pass on their way to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, the center reminds tourists that there is a wealth of local attractions beyond those well-known destinations.
Sweetwater County Travel and Tourism is certainly not in it alone. There has been a team effort to increase tourism to the county, with multiple organizations pitching in for the good of the community. “The relationship between our organization and the chambers of commerce, our visitor centers here, and the travel and tourism board with Sweetwater County is a great relationship,” McDonald says. “We cross-promote for all of us.”
Additional ideas are on the table to attract even more visitors. This includes everything from renovating historic buildings in Rock Spring’s picturesque downtown to converting an old train depot into a train museum to attract train enthusiasts to Green River, which has already earned the designation Train City, USA. “They’re trying to be creative in attracting more tourists,” McDonald says.
Local leaders are also working to attract businesses that would bolster the local tourism industry, as well as the local economy as a whole. “We’re trying to get more of the recreational type businesses here,” McDonald says. These efforts come on the heels of a recent success regarding business expansion as firearms company KelTec recently announced a move to Sweetwater County and the acquisition of a 33,000-square-foot facility after the economic development coalition made a concerted effort to recruit the company. “That’s huge for us,” she adds.
With new businesses moving in and a tourist industry that continues to grow, Sweetwater County is on the rise. Whether it is to stop by and admire the stunning scenery and enjoy the outdoor activities or to take advantage of the related business opportunities, the area is getting noticed for good reason.