“Now THIS is Colorado,” reads the highway sign welcoming visitors to Chaffee County. And it’s easy to see why.
With the Arkansas River connecting the idyllic, artsy towns of Buena Vista and Salida, this is a mecca for whitewater rafting and fishing. With an impressive cluster of 14,000-foot peaks, it’s a land that calls also to high-altitude climbers. Off-roaders get their thrills on rough and rowdy tracks such as the one on Mount Antero, while other sightseers follow the winding pavement of Cottonwood Pass over the Continental Divide.
Did we mention mountain biking? And hiking and camping?
“If you want to be alone in the woods, this might not be for you,” longtime Buena Vista resident Laura Hart says.
But if you want adventure and don’t mind a crowd, look no further than Chaffee County. Here are helpful tips from locals:
P.T. WOOD — former Salida mayor, owner of Wood’s High Mountain Distillery
• Starting out: I love the crack-of-dawn tour up on (Monarch) Pass. Get up there and watch the sunrise with a baked good from Little Red Hen (1).
• Best stretch of water: The Numbers is probably my favorite in the whole world. Just super solid Class 4, beautiful whitewater for kayaking. And then the more casual day run is Browns Canyon (2). Low stress, high fun, and it’s really pretty in there as well.
• For mountain biking: Go up the Salida Mountain Trails (3). Just head up Frontside Trail (from downtown). There’s a kiosk with a map there. You can choose your adventure. Unkle Nazty is a pretty challenging, full-suspension type of descent. Or you can head out and wrap around to Cottonwood Trail, which is a longer loop I love.
• For lunch: Amicas (4) is one of my favorites: amazing salads, wood-fired pizzas.
• For later: If you’re looking for fancier, the Fritz (5). Benson’s for more of a bar hangout. High Side for live music.
• What else: There’s a number of spots up Chalk Creek, past Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort (6), that are either overnight rental cabins or vacation rentals that will have private hot springs with them. Cabins at Chalk Creek is one that comes to mind.
LAURA HART — mother, community organizer in Buena Vista
• Wild time with wildlife: Go up the road to St. Elmo (7). They’ve got so many chipmunks all over. They’re well-known for the chipmunk feeding. That’s something you have to do.
• Perfect afternoon: There’s a little restaurant at River Runners, which is a rafting company. Right on the sand, they do live music, and it’s like hanging out at the beach.
• On the water: People love to rent paddleboards (8) from CKS on Main Street and take them over to the lake. There’s some really cool eddies right there on the river at the end of Main Street that people like to bring kayaks and paddleboards to. It’s even fun just to watch.
• A great tradition: Farmers market every Sunday during the summer at McPhelemy Park.
• For ice cream: K’s (9) is the nostalgic thing to do, but my favorite is Louie’s on Main Street (10).
• What else: My family is avid off-roaders, and I love to pack the kids and get on the trails. You definitely want to make sure you know what you’re doing and are prepared. There’s a lot of people that come and think they can do a trail. They’re called mountains for a reason.
JENNIFER DEMPSEY — Salida Circus founder
• Ideal day: I would go rent a yurt at Joyful Journey (Hot Springs Spa in Moffat). Then I would come back into town and have a really delicious dinner at Little Cambodia. Then I would go hear music at (pour-your-own) 146 Taphouse (11), and I would have 12 different sips of beers.
• Fun hangout: Velveteen Lounge (12). It’s like you’re in 1920s Paris. You get all these designer cocktails, wine or beer, and they have all these cool events.
• Mark your calendar: The month of July will be the Salida Goes Surreal Festival. All through July there will be surrealism art shows at the SteamPlant and alleyway art installations throughout town.
• Shopping: Definitely The Beekeeper’s Honey Boutique. We’re full of consignment shops here. Free the Monkey, Ruby Blues, those are very interesting. Another place that families must stop by is Kaleidoscope Toy Shop (13).
• What else: Everybody who comes to Salida must stop by Box of Bubbles. Ken Brandon, he’s a native. It’s an art and community workshop space that he also lives in. It’s called Box of Bubbles because he wanted a place for people to come and talk about their ideas without their bubbles getting burst.