“We may not be as young as we were, but we’re still cool,” says the oh-so-mellow voice on the radio. That’s the slogan for Hippie Radio, the local station in Chaffee County, Colorado, home to Buena Vista, Salida, Poncha Springs and Monarch Mountain ski area, some three hours southwest of Denver.
I smiled when I heard the slogan, as a Rolling Stones song finished and a James Taylor tune began. This was my kind of place, a place where baby boomers fit in and, yet, oldsters and youngsters do, as well.
Here, you can ski in old jeans and still use those 185 cm K-2s you might not want to be caught dead with in those OTHER resorts (Vail, Aspen, Copper). Here, instead of the Gap and ye-old-tourist trap kitsch, you’ll find more than a dozen independent art galleries, antique and folklore shops, bike shops and indie cafes. You’ll thrill to more than 100 miles of Arkansas River for rafting, fishing, floating or kayaking, plus, more than a third of the state’s fourteeners are here in the Sawatch Range. Chaffee County is tasteful, eclectic and drop-dead gorgeous, dramatically set in a fertile valley surrounding the Continental Divide.
Located in central Colorado, the county is set smack in the middle of the Colorado Rockies. Besides the activities mentioned above, warm weather visitors can also ride mountain bikes (this is a mecca), ATVs or horses, go zip lining, play tennis or golf. They can laze in numerous hot springs (even float between rocks in a rushing river!). Wintertime brings world-class alpine and nordic skiing and snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and ice fishing.
You’ll find everything you might want for accommodations, including rustic inns and cozy B&Bs, campsites, guest ranches and luxury hotels. We stayed at a luxuriously and fully-equipped two-bedroom plus loft rental home (Riverside Hacienda) with an outdoor hot tub, right on the rushing river in the center of charming downtown Salida, just steps from popular clubs, bistros and the park. www.pinonvacationrentals.com
Monarch Mountain, owned primarily by four principals and 10 locals who share 25 percent, is a thriving ski and snowboarding area, despite the recession. This 800-acre resort has been owned by this group since 2002, and, with their wise investments and management, is booming. Plans are to spend another $8.5 million in improvements in the near future, pending approval by the U.S. Forest Service. The area is located in the San Isabel National Forest and operates on a special use permit. Open since 1939, it has an elevation base of 10,790 feet and its summit goes to 11,952 feet. Annual snowfall is all natural, and measures in at an impressive 350+ inches. Offering 14 percent beginner, 28 percent intermediate, 27 percent advanced and 31 percent expert trails, Monarch is unsurpassed in its expansive views of the Continental Divide – this just might be the place you can’t resist buying one of the photos those summit photographers are always hawking as you get off the chairlifts. We went skiing on a blissful spring day and were back in town in Salida, where some people were strolling in shorts and T-shirts, in just half an hour.
We loved that natural snow (Outside magazine claims that Monarch is “overpowdered”), the view and the lack of crowds, but we were amazed by the short walk from the car to the lifts, the no-line rental area, and the way all runs filter into the base area. As the slogan at Monarch says, “lose the crowds, not your friends.” Take in the new Starbucks in the lodge (supposedly the highest elevation Starbucks in the nation,) try one of the reasonable cafes, or bring a box lunch – at Monarch, it’s all OK. This is old-time Colorado skiing, but with all the modern equipment.
What Chaffee County is really known for, however, is summer. Springtime brings out the mountain bikers, who are hankering to try the new trails on so-called “S” Mountain, next to downtown Salida, or the Midland Trail in Buena Vista. Check out Absolute Bikes’ website at www.absolutebikes.com for up-to-date trail information.
River rafting is huge here, too, and just about everyone we met working at Monarch is a rafting guide in the summer months. The Arkansas River flows through Chaffee County, flowing through the downtowns of both Salida and Buena Vista, and provides whitewater rafting, kayaking, fly-fishing and river festivals. The river corridor is part of the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area, and the visitor center at Sackett and G streets in Salida provides passes and a wide selection of brochures, maps, books and guides about riverside camping and recreation. For Class III, IV and even V whitewater, check out the adrenalin-raising Browns Canyon. In a more relaxed mood? Many outfitters can set you up with float trips.
After all that exercise, what could be more soothing then a soak in outdoor natural hot springs? On a very blustery day after skiing at Monarch in late March, we melted into the hot soaking pool surrounded by large rocks inside the river next to the Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort, just outside the town of Nathrop. Mount Princeton is a full-service resort with accommodations, dining and a variety of hot springs pools and spa treatments. Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn and Spa, geared more to adults (read possible nudity), sits outside Buena Vista on the Cottonwood Pass beside a creek in the San Isabel National Forest. This spa has three geothermal, gravity-fed mineral stone pools, and offers a cold plunge, as well as saunas.
Right in the town of Salida, families enjoy the Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center, which has undergone recent upgrades. You’ll find a 25-meter, six-lane pool which ranges from 82-88 degrees, and a smaller, 4-foot deep pool at approximately 92-102 degrees. The aquatic center’s natural hot springs water is piped 5 miles from just south of Poncha Springs.
The 2011 Chaffee County Visitors Guide, available online or in print, quotes the New York Times describing Salida as a “haven” offering the “outdoors life, with no attitude.” That could well be said for all of this very pretty, laid-back and unpretentious county.
If You Go