I’ve heard a lot about the town of Buena Vista, a cool little mountain town alongside the Arkansas River in the foothills of the Rocky Mountain’s Collegiate Range. When trying to describe it, one RVing friend said “It’s a ‘food truck’ kinda town.” But often times when there is a lot of hype about a place, it can be a letdown. Not so for Buena Vista.
I’ve often said that towns where “a river runs through it” end up being among my favorites. Durango, Missoula, Boise, Asheville, Eugene. Even my college alma mater of Austin. So the fact that the entire town revolves around the river in Buena Vista is assurance I will enjoy the ambiance. Yes, it’s a heavily touristed town. But when the tourists are casual, laid back “river rats,” it doesn’t feel so annoyingly suffocating.
The town of Buena Vista centers around two separate downtown areas; Main Street, the old historic section, and a newer South Main area along the river. Both seem to thrive because of the river traffic. While the historic downtown area is lined with unique restaurants, coffee shops, and craft breweries (and yes, a couple of food trucks!) the newer, more rural South Main alongside the river has the greenspace for farmers markets and outdoor concerts.
The Arkansas River gets its start not too far north from here. The headwaters are just north of Leadville around Freemont Pass where the water rolls out of the rockies and ends up 1,469 miles later in the Mississippi. It travels through the Royal Gorge, changes its name to the Ar-KAN-sas River once it reaches Kansas, changing back to “AR-kan-saw” when it reaches the state by the same name. It’s the nations 6th largest largest river. It’s also Colorado’s longest river, of which 152 miles are protected by the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. If the Arkansas River is the bloodstream of Colorado, Buena Vista is the heart.
The Arkansas River is a whitewater mecca for kayakers and rafters alike. A voluntary flow program provides supplemental water during summer months to insure there is plenty of water flow for the fun. The town has engineered a Whitewater Park with “playholes” in the river with drops to enhance the hydraulics to create play waves and eddy pools. The park allows kayakers to practice their freestyle moves in a more safe environment, putting in and taking out in the same point. But the ones who really amaze me are those able to “surf” the waves on a stand-up paddle board!
This stretch of the river between Buena Vista down through Brown’s Canyon National Monument is the most commercially rafted river in the USA. So why didn’t I go rafting? Well, that water is c-c-cold! And I am more focused on hot water these days, having made it my goal to hit up as many of Colorado’s hot springs as possible this summer.
Just 10 miles down the road from Buena Vista in the San Isabel National Forest along the foothills of 14,196 ft Mount Princeton is the Mount Princeton Hot Springs and Resort. At an elevation of over 8,500, water flows out of the mountain at 135 degrees.
Although the hot springs offers four large pools, this is a bit of a bait and switch, as two of the four, (of which one is the “relaxation pool” that does not allow shrieking children,) are only available if you purchase their “Spa & Club” pass at twice the published price. I’ll not pay it just on principle.
But forget about the pools. The real draw are the “hot pots” down along Chalk Creek. Steamy hot water flows out from under the resort grounds into the river. People have arranged rocks to create small, individual sized pools along the edge of the chilly Chalk River. If the water gets too hot, just move a rock or two to cool off.
Buena Vista also has miles of hiking and biking trails within the Collegiate Range, also known as the Ivy League of high peaks with several of Colorado’s 14’ers. In addition to Mt. Princeton, there’s Mt. Harvard (14,420 ft), Mt. Columbia (14,073 ft) and Mt. Yale (14,196 ft,) with Colorado’s highest peak, Mount Elbert (14,433 ft) nearby. But there are plenty of local trails as well up in the hillsides overlooking the river. The most well known of these is the Whipple Trail, named for a local artist Barbara Whipple.
There was so much to love about Buena Vista. I really enjoyed my time there. But as always, something seems to urge me onward. In this case, my perfect little private boondocking cul de sac proved not to be so perfect after all. The only level part of the cul de sac was on lower ground, and it didn’t take but a couple of heavy afternoon thunderstorms to put me on edge, watching the pools collect around the Winnie. Being parked alongside a sheer rock face didn’t help either, knowing what happens when rainwater has no other place to flow but down.
The final straw was when a man in a pickup truck stopped by one morning while I was outside. “Be sure to keep your eye on the weather. This area is prone to flooding, and some pretty big storms are headed this way.”
I was packed up and gone by afternoon…