Salida Country & the Arkansas River

Route US 285 shoots straight north from Santa Fe, where I live, to where it intersects with I-70 near Vail at the core of Colorado ski country. It’s a moving panorama of beauty all along the two-lane highway, from the broad plateau that looks east towards Taos’ magic mountains to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. After a low pass, it skirts the upper reaches of the Arkansas River for about 60 miles until it climbs past Leadville at 10,000 feet. Along the way, 24 of Colorado’s 53 14,000 foot-peaks punctuate the scenery. With the greatest density of high peaks in the lower 48 states, it’s stunning.

Since I usually drive the road in winter, I decided to explore the Arkansas River valley from Salida to Buena Vista, its two main towns, with my wife and two friends at the height of summer. Until recently, they were ranching towns with some recreational tourism based on running the river’s rapids and scaling the high peaks. Salida’s outdoor cred has been soaring for some time — a friend likened it to Aspen back in the 60s — but lately its more northern sister, commonly shortened to BV, has jumped into Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry in a big way. Now the two vie to outdo each other in river-running / mountain-biking / mountain-climbing / beer-brewing bona fides.

The century-old Palace Hotel is Salida’s answer to Aspen’s mining-town era Hotel Jerome. Reopened three years ago after a complete renovation, the Palace is half a block from the river and across the street from the town park. Definitely the place to stay, but pricier than elsewhere. After checking in, we head to Laughing Ladies a block away. Since chef Jeff Schweitzer discovered Salida nearly 20 years ago and opened his restaurant, he has dominated the valley’s growing culinary scene. In fact, Salida provided enough inventive restaurants to surprise us each of the four nights we were there. The town is fun, funky, outdoorsy, and strangely reminiscent of a beach town: flip flops, board shorts and cruiser bikes trailing short freestyle kayaks. (With Monarch Mountain ski area just 20 miles away, I’m sure it turns rad backcountry skier in winter.)


We pack in a lot in three days: run a long stretch of technical Class III and IV rapids, the Numbers, in a small raft with a guide yelling paddling orders to get us through tight spots; hike the Alpine Tunnel trail above the ghost town of St. Elmo, then up switchbacks to the continental divide; soak in natural mineral hot springs below Mt. Princeton; and play in a huge, multileveled maze of swinging bridges, catwalks, trapezes and ladders called Captain Zipline’s Aerial Adventure Park. We also fit in a faintly torturous, Sisyphean hike up a 700-foot high sand dune, the second highest in Great Sand Dunes National Park (the second highest in North America as well).

Earl Richmond, the 30-something owner of Colorado Kayak Supply, a big outdoor sports store in BV, must be one of the small town’s biggest boosters. “We crush Salida in sports,” he said, “and we’re half the size.” He rips off all BV’s requisite attributes of a valid Colorado mountain town: a river park for kayakers, 25 miles of trails, 18-hole disc golf course, new whiskey and gin distillery, a brewery and a huge coffee roasters bar that is seriously packed at 3 in the afternoon. He’s proud that a longtime Vail restaurateur just moved to town and opened the Asian Palette restaurant.

Sound good? Then now is the time to go, before gentrification sets in and it actually does turn into a fledgling Aspen.