Virtually every state has its own Shangri-La—that off-the-radar destination that transports visitors into a special world. Colorado’s secret spot lies less than two hours south of Breckenridge, Frisco and all the towns of Summit County.
As with the mythical Shangri-La, visitors who enter the subtropical atmosphere of Buena Vista and Salida find their worlds upended. Hot springs erupt through fissures in the earth’s surface. Golf is played year-round. Rafts and kayaks dot the Arkansas River. And outdoor dining and concerts last into the wee hours of the morning. Paradoxically, all this activity is against a backdrop of fourteeners as far as the eye can see. After all, Chaffee County is home to 15 of Colorado’s mountains that rise 14,000 feet or higher.
What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing. The mountain peaks shield this banana belt from the ravages of western weather, while residents bask in the warmth, hoping the world doesn’t discover their slice of nirvana.
The first sign of bliss: Five miles west of Buena Vista, Cottonwood Hot Springs boasts three natural stone soaking pools with idyllic water temperatures range from 94 to 110 degrees. Not relaxing enough? Then head to your cabin with its private hot spring.
Down the road a spell, Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort near the town of Nathrop looks out upon the white walls of Chalk Creek Canyon, where visitors can soak in the creek or a pool and even enter the springs’ warm waters via a 300-foot-long water slide. Top the day with a massage of your choice before retiring to your lodge room or creekside cabin.
Approximately 25 miles to the south, the Salida Pool has something for everyone in the family: a naturally heated swimming pool, a separate hot pool and private pools for bathing au naturel.
The Arkansas River, which flows through Salida and Buena Vista, is renowned as one of the world’s best whitewater rafting venues. But fear not: there are sizable stretches of calm water, perfect for novice rafters. Experienced guides from a range of local outfitters assess the skills of rafting guests to match them with appropriate river currents.
Kayaks come in all shapes, sizes and colors, filling the river in Salida’s downtown play park. Rent an inflatable kayak, a “duckie,” and try your hand at navigating the holes (waves) to the cheers of onlookers at Riverside Park. Outfitters offer all of the equipment and lessons to experience the thrill and joy of kayaking.
Not surprisingly, mountain-biking trails emanate in every direction from Buena Vista and Salida. Top of the list, and not for the faint of heart, is the Monarch Crest Trail off Marshall Pass. Area bike shops can rent the wheels and give directions and tips for all rides; the crest itself requires a lift from a local outfit such as the High Valley Bike Shuttle to get you started.
Want to see the hills on foot? Befriend a llama, a gentle beast of burden that can be led by everyone from 3-year-olds to their grandparents. Soft and sure-footed, these troupers can carry a mountain picnic with hardly any environmental impact; they can be rented locally at Antero Llamas or Spruce Ridge Llamas either as pack animals or as part of a professionally guided tour.
The Salida Golf Club and Collegiate Peaks layout in Bueny—as the locals call Buena Vista—are nine holes each, but can be played as 18. These tracks are more casual than their big resort cousins, and tee times are easier to obtain.
For an afternoon respite or an evening dinner, Salida and Bueny offer numerous temping options, whether riverside, creekside, casual or elegant. Join the locals on the deck of Salida Café and Roastery, from which you can watch rafters and kayakers on the Arkansas and enjoy the cafe’s Mountain Phoenix Coffees and an imaginative salad, sandwich or grilled entrée. Live bluegrass and folk performances rock the café all summer long.
Bongo Billy’s Buena Vista Café, a venerable community landmark, features fine roasted coffees, outstanding baked goods, sandwiches and soups. Laughing Ladies Restaurant, in historic downtown Salida, takes pride in serving the freshest fish, meats and salads. For brunch, try the Grilled Salmon Benedict. The Twisted Cork Café is a vegetarian’s delight, yet carnivores are equally happy with the Asian and Southwestern fare. Run in tandem with the area’s own Mountain Spirits Winery, the Cork’s wine list complements any menu selection.
This laid-back mountain paradise naturally attracts artistic souls. From whimsical art at Brodeur Art Gallery and The Green Cat to Gallery 150 and its culture clash featuring wearable art and jewelry, Salida displays its creations masterfully. Earth and People is Salida’s newest gallery, filled with folk art from cultures around the world and the adventure photography of Nathan Ward.
Visitors can also step back in time and drive 20 miles southwest of Buena Vista to St. Elmo, one of Colorado’s best-preserved ghost towns. This 1880s gem once had five hotels, saloons, a newspaper and a school. Today, there are about three year-round residents; summer visitors frequent the general store, rent four-wheelers and follow the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad, a line that once hauled gold and silver from the Mary Murphy and other nearby mines.
Heed the chipmunk crossing in St. Elmo: these critters are not shy and will gambol up a pant leg. But they’re one of the few things in these welcoming communities that might momentarily disrupt your fun in the sun.
Lillian Ross has worked in New York publishing, Montana ad agencies and the Colorado ski industry. She also has been a travel correspondent for the Denver Post.