Natures gorgeous playground in Chaffee County Colorado will impress outdoor adventurers. 80 percent of the land belongs to the public. The area encompasses Buena Vista (BV), Salida, and Poncha Spring.
The Arkansas Headwaters and More
The opportunities to live and play in the county flow around the gold medal headwaters of the Arkansas River, stretching 102 miles from Leadville to Pueblo.
Creeks, tributaries, and streams traverse wide marshy valleys and feed into the Arkansas, Gunnison, and Frying Pan Rivers creating some of the best whitewater rafting, kayaking, and fishing in America.
There are more alpine lakes than anywhere else in the American Rockies.
This area has the highest average elevation of any wilderness area in the United States with 12 mountain peaks reaching over 14,000 feet (a “fourteener”) and a string of 13,000+ foot mountains.
Winter brings over 800 acres of skiing, another 130 acres of hiking , and hundreds of miles of snowmobiling, snowshoeing and sledding.
Three hot springs offer healing water, massage, and lodging: Cottonwood, Mt. Princeton, and Salida. My favorite is the more rustic Cottonwood Springs because of its quiet, meditative environment and more natural setting.
I’ve just barely scratched the surface of this area, but I can recommend the dispersed camping west of HW 285 on FR 162 in the Cottonwood Lake and Creek area north of BV near St. Elmo if you arrive during the week to secure a spot.
There are more people in this part of the San Isabel and Gunnison National Forests and Collegiate Peaks Wilderness than I prefer, but the scenery makes it worth it – for a minute – if your schedule is flexible.
Unfortunately, Congress did not protect the land until the 1980s and it shows. Houses dot the national forest and wilderness area, and both campgrounds and dispersed camping areas overflow with people in the summer.
Excellent Stewardship of Land Despite Crowds
Kudos to the folks who visit and live in the area, and the government departments in charge of the region. Even though there is less elbow room, the environment is quite pristine.
Not only are the vistas and activities some of the best, it is also inspiring to see people take such good care of this great land.