THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED
© By Janet and Stuart Wilson
With names like “Pinball,” “Toilet Bowl,” “Zoom Flume,” and “Staircase” the Arkansas River rapids in Brown’s Canyon might discourage the faint of heart. But not us. Of course we had the extra security of Lavonne, an experienced guide in our raft, and we wore wet suits and PFDs–otherwise known as life jackets. Still, the thrill more than lived up to expectations. Yahoo!
Some of the Arkansas River’s flow where it empties into the Mississippi Delta about 100 miles south of Memphis, started as snow melt 1400 miles west, atop Colorado’s highest peaks. By the time the river reaches Pueblo, Colorado, 150 miles or so from those 14,000 foot peaks, it has tumbled nearly 10,000 vertical feet. In the rush, it’s carved Royal Gorge and, in the upper reaches, a compellingly beautiful Alpine valley. This upper stretch of the river is the object of a unique inter-governmental program called Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area. It’s here that we went for our wet and wild raft ride with Whitewater Encounters.
After helping launch the raft at Fisherman’s Bridge boat access, Lavonne instructed us on paddling technique, “high-siding” and bumping (boulders, that is) before we headed down stream. Almost immediately a Red-tailed Hawk took flight from the river bank, and we soon spied a family of Red-headed Mergansers on a rock in the middle of the river. We came for the thrill, and for the scenery, but got a real bonus with abundant wildlife.
Around mid-day we pulled-out at Stone Bridge after working-up an appetite navigating the length of Brown’s Canyon. Fortunately we had time for burgers and fries before we met up with Fun Time Jeep Tours in Salida for our P.M. activity. Billy drove us in his vintage Jeep Wagoneer into high country north of town–an old mining district with a “ghost town” or two, old mines, wildflowers, mountain scenery and more wildlife–this time deer and Big Horn Sheep.
Mostly we traveled dirt roads traversable by any high-clearance vehicle, but a couple of muddy stream-crossings, and one very rocky climb required the Jeep’s four-wheel-drive. Billy said that one was named “Is it really a road?” One ghost town, Midway, was once served by a narrow-gauge railroad. When mines played-out the town was abandoned. All we saw was a meadow with a few scattered artifacts. Billy said the town disappeared for firewood in a couple of cold winters.
A few corporeal residents occupied another so-called ghost town. New and restored homes are scattered about Turret. Billy called them, “Texas summer places.” He said no electric lines reached here but homes had photovoltaic systems, and, believe it or not, propane was delivered! Our third “town,” Wolf City, retains a bunk house, boiler building and shop–all abandoned–plus a few ruined cabins. Artifacts left by former residents lie about. A pristine meadow and Aspen grove make for a serene high-country setting.
Leadville, Colorado View from our Jeep Tour
Not all old Colorado mining towns have disappeared. At the upper end of the Arkansas Valley, where the snow melt first gathers in rivulets and streams, Leadville survives. At 10,200 feet, this town, once named Cloud City, is the highest incorporated city in the country and is said to have been the center of the richest mining district ever in the Western U.S. Some of that wealth financed the erection of impressive brick structures, helping secure the town’s future as a tourist destination.
We approached Leadville from the south on U.S. 24. Only after turning the corner onto Main Street were we obviously in the historic town. We strolled up and down the street, stopping for lunch at Cloud City Coffee, and checking out antique stores and the 1879 Tabor Opera House.
Fishing and boating access sites, campgrounds and picnic areas are strung along the 60 miles of river between Leadville and Salida. Though they were obviously being used, even in mid-summer they weren’t crowded.
Salida, where we camped, began as a railroad town, not a mining town. Laid out in 1880 as the Denver & Rio Grande reached here, Salida was major division point and junction where one branch headed west over Marshall Pass to Gunnison and the other north up the Arkansas River to Leadville.
Downtown Salida today retains many buildings from the first decade or two of its history. We appreciated murals painted on brick walls and the generally laid back, not excessively tourist oriented ambience of the place. Rafters drifted by and kayakers practiced maneuvering as we walked along the river bank in the center of town. We thought, maybe we’d try kayaking next time. This is a place worth coming back to.
Originally published in RV Journal Magazine, Laguna Niguel, CA, USA