Few things fit better as a metaphor for Colorado culture than a pair of faded bluejeans.
And a trip to Salida? This is your favorite pair. Not the ones you get out to clean the garage or wear to work. Not the jeans you that are just a little too tight in the legs that you wear Downtown for a night out. Salida is that comfy, gregarious, out-West pair of denims that gallery photos and your best memories are made of.
This is the heart of Colorado and a place that most tourists from the Midwest, California and back East, thankfully, overlook. Just a little more than a couple hours from Aurora along U.S. 285 and then east on U.S. 50, Salida sits at the base of the Collegiate Range, some of the state’s most spectacular mountains and peaks. This is where the Arkansas River morphs from a playful water source into world-class roller coaster. Water that has trickled down to the Earth’s molten interior comes belching back to the surface as potent hot springs and pools. It’s a crossroads of some of the world’s toughest and genteel terrains. Lush woods and wide-open prairie. Home-cookin’ and edgy entrees. Wolf T-shirts and exquisite sculptures.
It’s easy to spend days and weeks in the area as a tourist. In the winter, easy and top-notch skiing is just 20 minutes away from the city center at Monarch Mountain. The area begs to be explored on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Snowmobiling? Hells yeah. Summer brings hiking, rafting, kayaking, endless places to ride a horse. And year-around? Some of the easiest, hardest but best trail and mountain biking in world.
But whether your adventure involves riding fat sticks in the Milkwood Basin or shotgun for a drive up Monarch Pass, coming back to Salida is a special reward all unto itself.
If you’re just here for the day, consider renting a bike on a brisk, sunny winter day with something over your legs and peddling up the town’s iconic S-Hill. It’s an easy ride along a path that seems to be immune to snow. From the river park just behind the downtown, the trail is only about 5 miles to the top of the hill where the moniker “S” beckons bikers and joggers of all ages. The climb is only 600 feet, and the view from the top is astounding. Mount Princeton only looks like this from this vantage point.
Coming down is fast and fun. Ditch the bikes or ride downtown for fuel. The area is chock-full of coffee shops and snackeries.
Our choice? Coffee and something frosted at Rise and Shine Bakery, 130 W. First St. in downtown. You just rode a bike so it’s OK. Or if you walked from the riverfront as well, reward yourself with a short stack of the most tender buckwheat pancakes ever at Patio Pancake Place back on the highway. It’s a breakfast and lunch joint, and there is no patio.
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite and sated it, it’s time to relax. You can do this two ways. Either head back downtown to wander the seemingly endless art galleries and shops, or go straight to the pool or a spa. Not far from Salida, hot springs bubble to the surface, and for decades, the town has piped back the water for public and private pools.
Our preference is to walk off the pain au chocolat or granola flapjacks before we try floating.
Pace yourself here. Salida is home to every type of artist and gallery, and you can’t even come close to hitting all the ones you’ll eventually love. You’re going to have to come back. The best way to do this is to peruse salida.com and surf to the galleries section in the nav bar. The galleries aren’t always open, and some are a good distance apart. Pick two or three you’re interested in and start there. You can just wander in and out of what’s open and what you can find, but these aren’t just tourist kitsch shops. There’s plenty of affordable, fun and remarkable artsy offerings, but there’s also a lot of world-class creation going on here. Just for the sake of sheer eye candy, we like to start or end at Gallery Brodeur, at 222 F St. Painter Paulette Brodeur is a mainstay in the local art scene. Her colorful, funky and innovative canvas work is as energetic as the best impressionist titles in the Orsay, but this is oh-so-Colorado. From there, the town offers endless places to ogle and buy ceramics, jewelry, sculpture, glass, lapidary, paintings, kitsch and T-shirts.
But don’t lose the day. Now it’s time to get wet and mineral.
Back on the highway, the town of Salida has created an oasis of relaxation: The Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center, 410 W. US 50. Uphill on Poncha Mountain, geothermal theory becomes steaming reality. Salida has long piped hot, mineral-laden water back to town for private and public soaks. Now, this clean and modern center offers a giant crystal-clear mega-pool for soaks, laps, classes or just splashing and play time. And the center also offers private hot soaks. The biking on the mountain and the hiking through the galleries becomes just a pleasant aftertaste as you sink up to your neck. If you plan to soak, this takes a little luck or some planning. It can be a busy place that caters to a town that loves its hot water playground. There are lap times, closed times, family times and workout classes. Generally, the pool center is open daily from 6 a.m.- 8 p.m. Rates are all over the place, but a visitor can get into the main pool for anywhere from $5-$11. If you forgot a swimming suit or a towel, it’s only a buck each to rent them. The star of the show here are the private pool rooms. Small cabanas and modern pools of very hot, very mineralized water. For $12 per person, per hour, you and one or two others can get your own soak. Reservations are recommended, especially on weekends. Sometimes they limit visitors to an hour, but you can get additional time if you can stand it and if there’s not a wait. For most folks, an hour of stewing is all you need to melt any stresses you drove up with. There is no chlorine added to the water, it’s mostly seasoned with odorless silica, salts and calcium, and employees drain, clean and refill the small pool between guests. It rocks. The rules? No one under 18. No booze or pot. No sickies. No soap. For all the details and contacts for reservations, go to salidarec.com.
Now it’s time for either coffee and dinner, or happy hour and dinner, and save the caffeine charge for the drive home.
Salida shines when it comes to places to eat and drink. Just about every establishment is well aware that Colorado is not only the skiing, outdoor capital of the planet, this is a state where beer has become art. Most restaurants offer the best that Colorado brews and ferments.
As to what to eat, there’s everything from Cambodian treats, edgy, amazing entrees to massive beef and elk steak dinners. The rosemary grilled buffalo under poblano pesto butter with crispy polenta at the Laughing Ladies restaurant downtown is a standout. Also noteworthy are the tapas and street tacos at Shallots, 137 E. First St. Easy does it with the wine, it’s a little more than two hours’ drive home, unless you get real and spend the night, not a bad option.
But after some cake and coffee, you can get the road-trip playlist cranked up and head back to the Front Range. Salida will be here for a return visit, maybe a longer one next time that includes camping and conquering fourteeners, kick-ass river rides, fly fishing and at the end of the day a trendy documentary or film at the local cinema. With something for everyone, Salida is inevitably a Coloradan favorite.