The Great Estes Park Duck Race

Shared Stories
on March 10, 2011

(ESTES PARK, CO) – Every year, on the first Saturday in May, the trap door drops on a wire cage suspended over Fall River that flows out of Rocky Mountain National Park and thousands of little rubber ducks drop into the water below.  It’s another dramatic, crowd-pleasing start of the annual Estes Park Duck Race.

            “This is one the great traditions of Estes Park,” said an enthusiastic Scott Thompson.  He’s what the Estes Park Rotary Club calls the “Big Duck.”  That means he’s chairman of the club’s Duck Race Committee, which conducts the race each year.

            “This is the largest general charitable fundraiser in the Estes Valley,” explained Thompson. “Last year these little yellow, rubber ducks raised more than $105,000 for 67 different charities and organizations that benefit residents of the Estes Valley.  We have 69 organizations participating this year and we hope to set a new record.” 

            The Rotary club is almost rabid about the race.  Go to one of its meetings each Thursday at Noon and you’ll see a good chunk of its members decked out in official duck race vests, pins, hats, ties, even yellow sweatshirts. The duck race committee is the club’s largest committee because it takes a lot of volunteers to coordinate everything and pull off a successful fundraiser.  It meets on an almost monthly basis dividing up duties for everything from convincing local merchants to offer prizes to making sure there are enough people working “security” on race day to keep people out of the river and ducks in it — and flowing toward the finish line.


How it all Works

            “So, how do thousands of little rubber ducks raise money?” you ask. Here’s how it works.

            Each of the 69 charities and organizations participating in this year’s race gets a stack of “duck adoption forms.”  They’ll sell them to friends, family, co-workers, Uncle Harry and Aunt Hazel for $20 each. Each organization is listed on the adoption form and the purchaser selects which organization he or she wants to help.  $19 of the $20 goes directly to that organization. The other $1 is retained by the Rotary Club to defray expenses. And this year, for the first time, people can adopt a duck online at


            The “adopted” ducks are all numbered and are dropped into Fall River outside Nicky’s Resort and Restaurant on Highway 34.  They float to the downtown area arriving at the finish line outside the Wheel Bar in Riverside Plaza usually about an hour and a half later.

            “The fastest race was 1997,” said Tom Anderson, keeper of the official stats on the race. “The first duck hit the finish line in just 35-minutes. The river was really up that year.”   Anderson said the longest finish time was exactly 20-years ago when it took the winning duck 3 hours and 30-minutes to show up. “It all depends on river flow,” explained Anderson, “needless to say we could have used a little more rain and snow melt in the river that year.”

            Finding the “perfect” weekend to stage a race so dependent on nature can be tricky. Hold it too early and the river hasn’t thawed out enough from winter and spring snows. Hold it just two weeks later than the first Saturday in May and the river could be flowing so fast you couldn’t stand in it to scoop up the ducks at the finish line. It’s too dangerous, say duck committee members.

            Each year, thousands of people converge on Estes Park to watch the race.  From the start line to the finish line, people line the river to watch the ducks roll by.  Visitors also shop the stores down Elkhorn Ave. that cuts through the center of town while waiting to see who wins.  The names of winners are posted on boards outside the Wheel Bar and mailed their gift certificates.


Who Benefits

            “This is a really easy way for any organization to raise money,” said Larry Williams, co-chair of the Organizations Subcommittee. “They simply sell the adoption forms and ask people to check their organization on the ticket and they’ll get 95% of that $20.”

            Last year, the Eagle Rock School collected more than $15,400 from the duck race.  More than $11,100 went to Estes Park’s 8thgrade class for its trip to Washington D.C.  The Caring and Pregnancy Center and the Estes Park High School Band Boosters walked away with more than $3,300 each.  Almost half (31) of the organizations collected more than $1,000 each by taking part in the duck race.

            “That’s all good and well for the organizations,” you say, “but what about the guy who bought the duck ticket.  What does he get?”

            “He has about a 1-in-7 chance of winning a prize,” explained Thompson. “We have businesses in this town that are truly community oriented.  They donate the prizes. We’re talking about giveaway items or usually discounts on the purchase of goods or services. Last year our merchants donated 764 prizes.  We had 5,269 ducks go in the river. Do the math.  That’s how you have a 1-in-7 chance of winning.” 

            To whet the appetites of potential duck adopters, the club also pays for some more glamorous major prizes. This year the top prize is a 46-inch Samsung LED TV.  Also on the list are a MacBook computer, a 32GB iPod with iLive wireless pod speaker system, an HP OfficeJet 6300 wireless all-in-one scanner, fax, copier, printer & router, plus seven other electronic items including a metal detector and a Radio Shack professional weather station.

            The first duck to cross the finish line at Riverside Plaza in downtown Estes Park gets the big TV.  The other major prizes are scattered about every 100 ducks that reach the end of their watery journey.


It’s a Community Thing

            “You know we couldn’t do this every year without a lot of help. Our club members, our merchants, the participating organizations, and all our major sponsors (who donate $500 each) are the ones who really make this race so successful,” gushed Thompson. “Heck, the Estes Park News donates over $6,000 worth of free space for this race.” Thompson said the Estes Park Trail-Gazette also donates free ad space and provides tons of coverage. KEPL radio and EPTV, the local cable channel, also provide free air time to promote the race.

            “The Rotary club doesn’t make any money off this race,” said Thompson. “Our local Rotary Foundation is one of the participating organizations, but the club itself gets nothing for its operating budget.”

            “After all,” he said, “this is what Rotary is all about isn’t it? We’re living the Rotary motto: Service Above Self.”



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