Image above: Rafting the Arkansas River
Though their names derive from the picturesque mountains that make up their backdrops, views of the high peaks are only some of the attractions offered by this pair of byways. Both also access a summer water sports paradise in the upper Arkansas River Valley, home to the burgeoning, river-centric towns of Buena Vista and Salida. The lofty Sawatch Range borders the valley on one side; on part of the other sits Brown’s Canyon National Monument, one of the state’s most popular rafting destinations. Add in ghost towns, trout-filled lakes, and whitewater parks, and you’ve got the makings of an epic road trip.
DISTANCE: 40 MILES FROM ASPEN TO THE INTERSECTION OF CO 82 AND US 24 (TOP OF THE ROCKIES); 57 MILES FROM THERE TO SALIDA (COLLEGIATE PEAKS)
The Car: Subaru Ascent
A capacious cargo area, stowable third-row seat, and generous 8.7 inches of ground clearance make Subaru’s newest, largest model a solid road tripper for families with pets and lots of gear. From $31,995 at Glenwood Springs Subaru
Thanks to the 2007 addition to the Top of the Rockies of roughly 40 miles from Aspen to Twin Lakes, the byway starts as soon as you strap your kayaks (or not) to the roof of your car and head east out of town. This stretch passes by the trailheads to Weller Lake and the Grottos, Independence ghost town, and the 12,095-foot summit of Independence Pass. As the route winds down the far side of the pass, it follows Lake Creek to the tiny town of Twin Lakes, named for the large, connected reservoirs nearby.
About three-quarters of a mile east of Twin Lakes, turn right to find the Red Rooster boat ramp, where you can catch a Twin Lakes Interlaken Boat Tour across the lake to an abandoned resort that’s now a National Historic Landmark. Built in 1879 as a playground for the rich and shuttered in the early 1900s, Interlaken contains several old buildings to explore, some more recently shored up. The two-hour boat tour provides historical background on the resort, but if you’d rather visit the site on your own, a flat, 2-mile stretch of the Colorado Trail provides hiking access from the southeast corner of the larger lake.
Get back on Highway 82 and drive east to the intersection with Highway 24. Turn right (south) onto the start of the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway, named for the 14,000-foot-high mountains that rise to the west: Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Princeton, plus Antero and Shavano. Once you reach Buena Vista, some 20 miles later, follow Main Street east to South Main Street and the Buena Vista Whitewater Park, where you can watch kayakers surf the standing waves. Pop into Eddyline Restaurant (926 S Main St) for wood-fired pizzas, loaded sandwiches like the Salmon BLT or New Mexican Cheesesteak, and a dozen Eddyline Brewery draft beers brewed nearby.
After lunch, head south on US 24, which joins with US Highway 285 a mile from Buena Vista. Continue south for 5.5 miles through the little community of Nathrop, then take a right on County Road 162 (Chalk Creek Dr). Pass the Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort (you’ll come back to it) and drive for about 16 miles up a beautiful valley between Mounts Princeton and Antero to St. Elmo, an 1880s ghost town. Pause for ice cream and sunflower seeds at the family-owned St. Elmo General Store (look for the hummingbirds at the feeders outside), then take the seeds across the street to Chipmunk Crossing, where the little critters will eat from your hand. Afterward, head back down 162 to the Mount Princeton resort for a relaxing soak in one of two large hot springs-fed pools or a handful of smaller, stone-lined ones alongside Chalk Creek.
Head back to 285 south and turn left on County Road 291 to reach Salida. Get a seat on the deck of the Boathouse (228 N F St), which juts out over the Arkansas River alongside the Salida Whitewater Park (more waves, more kayakers playing). Choose from 15 signature tacos and more than 20 craft beers on tap for dinner before heading less than a block to the historic Palace Hotel (204 N F St) for the night. Family owned and dating to 1909, the boutique lodge oozes Victorian charm among its 15 updated suites and sits across the street from Salida’s popular Riverside Park.
Enjoy the Palace’s complimentary room service continental breakfast before embarking on a morning raft trip through Brown’s Canyon National Monument with Independent Whitewater, River Runners, or any other of a slew of local rafting companies. Designated a national monument in 2015, the canyon carved by the Arkansas River passes through distinctive rock formations and boasts miles of hikes through protected habitat for bighorn sheep, black bears, bobcats, elk, and more. Most visitors see this popular attraction from the water, however, on the numerous raft trips run every day of the season. The canyon’s rapids range from flat water to class III+ (intermediate), and some half-day trips can accommodate kids as young as 7. Full-day outings and even two- and three-day overnight trips are also available.
Back on land, head north on the byway and start retracing your route. Stop in Buena Vista for a counter-service lunch at Biggie’s (234 Hwy 24 South), which serves hand-cut fries and loaded hot and cold sub sandwiches like the Biggie, which lives up to its name with steak, cheese, chicken tenders, cheese sticks, and onion rings. About 13 miles farther north on Highway 24, find AVA Rafting & Zipline. With locations throughout central Colorado, the company runs raft trips on nine rivers, but the Buena Vista location is one of only two that offer a via ferrata (Italian for “iron road”); the route consists of ladders, cables, and bridges bolted into rock to aid harnessed climbers as they safely navigate across the nearby cliffs. Half-day trips include a zip line ride to the via ferrata’s starting point; full-day trips include rafting in the morning.
Having quenched your thirst for adventure, drive back to Twin Lakes for an early dinner at the historic Twin Lakes Inn & Saloon (6435 Hwy 82), where house specialties include tempura trout and lamb Bolognese served over linguini. The building dates to 1879 and served as, at various times, a hotel, a stagecoach stop, and even a brothel. The trip back to Aspen over Independence Pass—timed for just before sunset, if possible—wraps up this road trip in scenic style.