The first time I set foot in Buena Vista (pronounced BYOO-nah VISS-tuh) by the locals, or byooney, or easier, just BV) was July 2001. My father-in-law’s family had been coming here from Ohio since the 1950s and were peak-baggers before it was a thing, or before there was much in the way of trails. Just grab a topo map and head up! In their older age, and scattered all about the country, they decided to have a biannual family reunion in the place they had made so many memories growing up, at their favorite campground, Collegiate Peaks Campground. I had never heard of the place, but had been to Colorado enough times that when my wife said “want to go camping in Colorado”? My immediate answer was DUH! Of course I do.
I still remember the first time I saw the Arkansas River Valley where this sleepy little mountain town lies. As we drove down the final stretch of 285 where it enters the valley, nothing quite prepared me for the scene in front of me. Sure, you see mountains on the way here, Pikes Peak at Colorado Springs, the low hills along U.S. 24 thru the front range, Badger Mountain at Wilkerson Pass, South Park and the ring of majestic peaks circling that massive basin, Many of the peaks you see as you cross south park are actually IN the Arkansas River Valley, but they just look like average mountains sticking above the horizon. The valley is actually two thousand feet LOWER than the elevation of South Park if that gives a clue. As we wind our way down, down, down thru the twisting, turning, rock-choked valley of Trout Creek Pass, we begin to see the top of Mount Princeton, revealing more and more of its depth, breadth, and girth with each turn in the road. The final mile we emerge from the cut and the valley opens up, running perpendicular to the highway.
And then, there it is. A jaw-dropping floor of incredible peaks, reeling to the horizon in both directions. A broad flat plain undulates at the base, which serves to give full view of these mountains. The foothills are few in this part of the valley, and it is all the more sublime for it. In the center of the valley lies the Arkansas river, it’s headwaters about 40 miles north. A sparkling ribbon snaking it’s way thru rock and field and hill and dale and glade and plain, it is the life of the valley. The Arkansas is a Gold Medal trout stream, a special designation that signifies the ability to produce 60 pounds of trout per acre, and at least twelve 14″ or larger trout per acre. Translation? The fishing, and the view, is phenomenal here. As my fly fishing friend Brian says, “Trout don’t live in ugly places, man”.
The river also draws adventurers from all over the world for it’s world class whitewater rafting, kayaking, bird and animal watching, hiking, or just taking in an incredible sunset.
To me, Mount Princeton is the anchor of this valley. It is absolutely massive, and one of the most recognizable mountains in the valley, and I daresay the entire state.
Rising nearly 7000 feet above the valley floor and nestling hot springs, cabins, trails, mines, cliffs, waterfalls, streams, cabins, homes, and a dizzying array of flora and fauna in it’s shadows, it is truly an icon of Colorado.
Needless to say, this place made an impression on me. As we returned every other year to camp and spend time with our far flung family members, it slowly revealed more and more of it’s secrets, and my love affair grew and grew. This is my happy place. I have a few, but this one is in my top two!
Buena Vista lies in Chaffee County Colorado and is a veritable mecca of outdoor recreation. If you have a passion for outdoor sports or relaxation, chances are, we have it here. A list of activities within a a half hour drive or less from downtown:
Whitewater Rafting, Kayaking, Canoeing and SUP (Stand Up Paddleboarding)
Along with the miles of river, BV also has a whitewater PARK (I didn’t know this was a thing!), along with many lakes and creeks and streams from calm and placid to absolute class V/VI death defying, fast dropping, snow runoff streams for any skill level. There are tons of outfitters to choose from, and Browns Canyon is THE destination for family rafting trips. With many named rapids and my favorite in the whole valley, ZOOM FLUME! It’s a bit like diving down a roller coaster hill in a raft with water crashing in on all sides. Intense, and AWESOME! There is enough slow water to enjoy the scenery of Brown’s Canyon mixed with class III and IV rapids. For the more adventurous, run the Numbers. A stretch of over a dozen class IV and V rapids, this will really get your heart pounding! Oh yeah… tip your river guides!!! Many if not all of them live in tents & outdoors for the entire season for near minimum wage and they dedicate themselves to making sure you have a safe and fun adventure.
Rock climbing & bouldering. Visit the bouldering park in South Main!
Along with some great traditional rock climbing & rapelling areas, there is a newly created Bouldering park near South Main to test & develop your skills. There are even slacklines at the park! If you’re here in winter or just want something different, check out BV Rocks Climbing Gym for year round action!
Mountain Biking, Gravel Rides, or Road Cycling
Right against the rocky cliffs against the east side of town and less than a quarter mile from Main Street is the entrance to the Midland Trail Complex. From bomber downhills and technical climbs & descents to smooth flowy single track, this is an amazing resource for Mountain Bikers. This area extends into the massive Fourmile Recreation area with endless opportunity for biking, camping, four wheeling or just relaxing at the amazing overlooks. There are enough gravel in the area to tax the most demanding gravel riders as well and the elevation will own you, if you want it! The latest in high tech bikes can be rented at Boneshaker Cycles downtown.
This one almost goes without saying but if you want world class views and hikes of every type and variety, this is your place. From rivers edge to snowy peak, canyon walls to hidden aspen shaded lakes, we have it all!
Try your legs on Mount Yale or take the family for an easier stroll and picnic at Ptarmigan Lake. Stop by the visitors center for local intel on the vast array of trails, hikes and driving directions. Hiking is a year round venture here, so don’t think if you’re here in the winter you can’t take a hike. Hit the visitors center in town to check out options for winter hikes.
The same can be said for trail running as hiking here, we have it all, and a lot of pro athletes make this valley their summer training camp. The high altitude and plentiful sunshine make an ideal training environment. Many epic races are held here in the valley from the famous Leadville 100, Cycling & Gravel races, Triathlons, Marathons & Ultras. There’s something here for everyone.
For many families, camping is a cheap and fun way to reconnect with nature and enjoy the great outdoors. There are many beautiful develop campgrounds in the surrounding mountains, as well as RV parks in town, a rustic KOA with cabins & RV hookups, plus primitive sites. There are also lots of free campgrounds if you know where to look. Turtle Rock in Fourmile Recreation Area, Clear Creek Resevoir are a couple that come to mind. There are many others and so much public land that as long as you follow local regulations, you can find a pristine spot for free if you’re a little more adventurous.
Pro Tip: Clear Creek Reservoir has free spots along the creek and you’ll get an amazing show if you come during the Salmon run!
Fly Fishing & Angling the rivers, streams and lakes
As I already alluded to above, we really have fantastic trout fishing here. There is also great bass & other game fishing in the local lakes & streams. There is a very nice fishing easement for this very purpose about 2 miles west on CR 306. Head west from the stop light, turn right at the big water tank that says Buena Vista on it, and the parking area is about 100 yards on your right. This is very near our house and is a great spot to wildlife watch as well. You can also ice fish if you’re here in the winter time, check out Ark Anglers in BV to get the skinny on some fat trout!
For those who like to shoot clays, rifles or train pistol skills, there is a nice free shooting range, Chaffee County Shooting range 16 miles south on 285, right next to the landfill.
For those who love to hit the links, Collegiate Peaks may be one of the prettiest courses in the country and is just 1.3 miles west of the stoplight on Main.
My son cut his skating teeth in the bowl off Main St in town but is a little sad that they took the old wood ramps out and built a brand new concrete park. It is very nicely designed and is definitely a hit with local skaters.
This is the big one. We have the biggest concentration of “14ers” (Mountains over 14,000 feet tall) in the entire state right here in Chaffee County. This is your premier Colorado destination if you’re a peak bagger, or just want to give it a try. From lung busting technical ascents to easy (relatively speaking!) walk ups, we have it all!
My unofficial name for the Arkansas River Valley is “The Parade of 14ers”. Starting from Leadville 40 miles to the north all the way down to Salida 25 miles south, it’s an endless chain of massive, jaw dropping peaks. There are 12 14ers in Chaffee County and two more in Lake County. If you want to climb, you will not be disappointed!
The tallest mountain in the State is Mount Elbert at 14,439 feet, and is approximately 20 miles north of town.
Mount Yale is a personal favorite and the trailhead is less than five miles west up CR 306 from the stoplight on Main.
Keys to climbing a 14er:
Start early, preferably before daylight or close to it. Many peaks see monsoonal lightning in early afternoon so it’s good to summit early and start heading down before then. Wear solid hiking shoes, take lots of water and snacks, use hiking poles, and take it slow if you’re a beginner. Almost anyone can do it with some determination. Many compare the satisfaction of climbing a 14er to completing a marathon. You WILL be worn out at the end of the day and it’s a perfect time to hit one of the bars or restaurants on South Main to celebrate and re-hydrate!
Colorado’s history is rife with mining, the activity that opened so much of the west, and many abandoned mines dot the area, giving rise to towns that popped up overnight, and eventually went bust with the mines. There are still active mines throughout the state and gold panning is a fun activity to try with the kids or just to get some sun and river time. Check out Cache Creek nearby or hit the Rock Doc in Nathrop just a few miles south of town.
With the rise and fall of the mines, dozens of towns were abandoned or left to those few hardy mountain people who stayed and made their living off the land. There are several ‘ghost towns’ in the area that tell the stories of the miners and the families who lived and worked there. Some have become famous for their historic buildings and picturesque settings. St. Elmo is probably the most famous with an iconic main street, old mining equipment, and nowadays, a general store, ATV rentals, chipmunk feeding and more. This is a great spot to take the kids for an afternoon. The drive up is beautiful with some great waterfalls along the road, as well as passing right by Mt. Princeton Hot Springs and Resort with swimming, hot springs, food, and more. Highly recommended!
Shopping, Bars & Restaurants on Main & South Main
South Main is a premier, planned development that really helped put BV on the map. To quote their website:
“Built around a world class white water park The South Main Neighborhood is all about connecting walkable, sustainable urbanism to the outdoor lifestyle while designing and building a great place to live.”
Free concerts, bouldering park, great restaurants, hotels, shops, and located right on the river. It’s a fantastic spot to chill out after a day in the hills!
I love photography, and there is hardly a spot in the valley that doesn’t make you want to whip out your camera. Sunrises are special here, a slow creeping of color that makes it’s way over the hills, painting the valley in every shade of cream, mauve, reds and golds as clouds twist and climb in the thermals and microclimes of the Rocky Mountains, while swaths of gold prairie dance and sway in the morning breeze. Utterly enchanting.
Bird & Animal Watching
From Sand Crane to Buffalo, the valley is a treasure trove of american wildlife species. Bighorn Sheep and mountain goats live in the rocky cliffs on the east side of the river, while the valley floor hosts herds of Antelope and Elk. The high elevations are home to marmots and weasels, and the lucky visitor can glimpse Moose, Black Bear, or the elusive mountain lion. Other common residents are fox, coyote, prairie dogs, mule deer, bobcat, beaver, eagles, hawks, great horned owl, osprey, and Towhees, grosbeaks, tanagers, hummingbirds, wrens, creepers, and nuthatches. There are bison at a few managed ranches around the valley as well. If you visit in the fall, check the local streams for the salmon run. It’s awesome to see these freshwater beauties making their way in the streams and creeks.
Hot Springs & Resorts
The valley has been home to volcanic activity for time immemorial, and the upside is fantastic hot springs to soak after a hard days hike. Check out Cottonwood Hot Springs just a few minutes west of town, or head over to Mt Princeton Hot Springs & Resort. 25 miles south you can visit Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center. All are open year round.
4×4 Off Roading & ATV rentals
If you have a four wheel drive, there are hundreds of miles of back country roads, mountain passes and trails to explore, and if you’re geared up for challenging terrain, Carnage Canyon is famous for it’s epic course. You can also rent ATV’s at St Elmo and explore the surrounding mountains or drive up to Tin Cup pass for a great day trip.
Dog Park & Sledding
If you’re traveling with sparky, fido, or fluffy, there’s a nice dog park in town to let them run and do ‘dog stuff’. Many of the bars and restaurants in Colorado are dog friendly, in fact Colorado is one of the dog friendliest state’s I’ve ever visited. Always inquire ahead but expect plenty of opportunity to hang with your canine.
If you’re here in winter check out Monarch Dog Sled rides for a truly unique experience and to learn about the sport that opened the last frontier. Great for kids!
Something often overlooked, the high and dry climate, lack of pollution and low population in this area makes for heavenly stargazing. Visit one of the overlooks or head up into the fourmile recreation area to get some truly fantastic dark sky experiences. There’s nothing quite like watching shooting stars around a campfire in a mountain pine forest near a gurgling stream at 10,000 feet. This is heaven. This is what memories are made of.
Dotted with equestrian trails and plenty of stables to hook you up, there is year round offerings to ride the mountains. I always say the best way to see a mountain is from the back of the horse. You can spend all your time enjoying the scenery, and letting the big guy do all the work for you. Check at the visitor center for a list of stables in the area.
Another overlooked activity, geocaching. These days you can download an app on your phone and get out into areas you otherwise never would have discovered. This is how I found some of my favorite places in the valley in my early days of exploring here. If you don’t know what geocaching is, waste no time in checking it out on the google. This is a great family activity!!!
It’s a fact, lots of people are curious or even come to Colorado to check out legal cannabis. Our town has voted against recreational dispensaries (unless you have a medical card) but there are affordable and friendly places down the road in Salida, or upstream in Leadville. Everything from flowers to gummies and candies to drinks and salves, you can find what you’re looking for. Colorado was first to legalize and hence has some of the best prices and variety in the country. The budtenders are always friendly and helpful, and the vibe is always fun. And remember, if you’re a newbie, start low and go slow!!!
Royal Gorge Bridge and Park
Royal Gorge Bridge is an easy 1.5 hour drive south from BV. Visit one of the highest suspension bridges in the world and take in amazing panoramic views of the canyon or hike in the gorge. This one will certainly get your heart rate up if you’re squeamish about heights, but no worries. It’s safe and well guard railed for walkers and the view is awe inspiring.
Zip lining has become very popular in the last 10 years and we have some of the best. Check out Brown’s Canyon adventure park for a playground in the sky featuring zip lines, ropes courses, giant swings and more, right on rivers edge. You can also get day trips that combine the adventure park plus a half day of whitewater rafting. This makes for an adrenaline packed day of family fun and adventure and is an unforgettable combination.
The mountains come alight in fall with blazes of fiery yellow quaking aspen, stark white ghostly faces in the bark, drawn by claw and beak and sun and peak, Golden cottonwoods scrape canyon wall and riverbank aglow with the approaching winter sun, while the raven sits aloft gifting his sermon to those who have ears. Look! Listen! Marvel in silence and fading footprints…
And of course, what would Colorado be without it’s number one sport, skiing. There are several resorts within an hours drive of town. The closest is Monarch Mountain near Salida. The locals call it a glorified bunny hill, but I guarantee you can get your share of thrills here and for a fraction of the costs you’d see at the big places up north. Ski Cooper, the 6th oldest ski hill in Colorado, is located about 45 minutes northwest of town and offers awesome views and lots of history of the 10th Mountain Division’s World War II training camp. Of course there’s always Vail or Breck, but if you want that stuff you’d stay up there right? And take out a second mortgage for a lift ticket…
Leadville has a fantastic trail system for cross country skiing if that’s your vibe, and of course you can cross country ski just about ANYWHERE in the valley in the winter. You can also book guided back country tours and guides use snowmobiles to take you into untouched powder in pristine bowls and chutes for an unforgettable experience. Snowshoeing is another option for the snow junkies, and several places rent machines in the area and can direct you to great places to ride. We also have sledding for tamer winter fun, and the visitors center downtown can guide you to nearby hills for some free family fun.
In the late 1800s, the Chaffee county seat was located in the tiny settlement of Granite, 20 miles to the north. After a vote in 1880 to move the county seat to BV, Granite residents refused to allow the records to be moved. Late one evening, some local BV teenagers got drunk, stole a steam engine and flat car, drove up to Granite where they kicked in the courthouse door and stole all of the county records as well as everything that wasn’t nailed down and spirited it back to BV, where it was all hidden in local safes until the new courthouse was built on Main. Visit The Buena Vista Heritage Museum in the old Court house on Main, check out Leadville’s mining museum or check out the interpretive signage in nearby ghost towns. History is fun!
After compiling this list, even I was surprised at some of the things I discovered while researching for this article. The question arises what CAN’T you do here? Well, if you’re looking for a sandy beach you’re in the wrong place, though there are great places to hang out on the rivers and lakes and sun yourself. Most towns in the valley are relatively small places so there is not a ton of nightlife though each town does have some offerings and lots of great concerts and goings on in the summer. What else don’t we have? Urban decay, traffic jams, smog (although the occasional wildfire makes things interesting), air pollution or noise. What else can I say, Come and see, come and see!
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”
– Edward Abbey