A part of Colorado that’s overlooked by many visitors is the Arkansas River Valley, from Leadville along highways 24 and 285 south to Salida. Most people visiting Colorado in the summer pass through Denver and head west up Interstate 70. This is where the large and well known ski resorts are located, and provide plenty of summer activities too. However the area south of Leadville offers many recreational things to do, with cheaper lodging, and a more rural setting.
An alternative after visiting Breckenridge or neighboring cities in the summer is to travel south on highway 24 through Leadville, and continue south to Buena Vista. The scenic hill climb to Leadville has some great views, and past Leadville the highway follows wide valleys and the railroad into the Arkansas River Valley.
Traveling from Denver it’s a two and a half hour drive down highway 285. After climbing some steep hills into the mountains west of Denver the land opens up in wide fields before arriving in Buena Vista. The land along this stretch is a drastic change from the mansions overlooking the hills along interstate 70. Along 285 past Bailey you’ll still see large parcels of land with a single small home or trailer sitting solitarily, with horses occupying the rest of the land. The mostly two lane road passes small local bars, hardware stores, and fishing stores serving the nearby South Platte River. It’s a much more rural and slower feel than speeding through the steep canyons on I-70.
Small motels can be found in Buena Vista or Salida. There’s plenty of camping sites along the Arkansas River, and up into Independence Pass, (the shortcut to Aspen), and in Cottonwood Pass, although high elevation campsites such as the one we recently stayed at can get chilly at night.
Buena Vista is the best base for recreational activities. A small town in the center of the valley it makes a great location for hiking, rafting, or climbing activities. Several rafting companies can be found along the Arkansas River.
The Buena Vista Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center is downtown on highway 24 just north of Main Street. Of course they’re busting and the seams with brochures featuring the standard to-dos and happy to help tourists.
If you prefer a change of pace from the rural setting you can drive the jaw dropping highway 82 to Aspen. During the long summer days this easily makes a nice day trip with walking and dining in Aspen, or and overnight trip in Aspen or some cheaper nearby cities. Twin Lakes, at the junction of highway 24 and 82 on the Arkansas River Valley side offers camping and cabins too.
This is one of my favorite parts of the state. It’s very accessible, yet still a wonderful rural small town mountain area of Colorado, spared by massive development and growth.
Camping at Cottonwood Lake, just west of Buena Vista.