Salida street art
Salida’s arts scene includes street art like this offbeat sculpture. | Photo by Sue Deans

Staff writer

At the Visitors’ Center on the way into town, a tourist asks a volunteer about a sign out front. “That art fair’s already happened, but there’ll be another one next weekend,” the volunteer says. “The whole town is an art fair. Every other store is an art gallery.”

The former railroad town of Salida has reinvented itself as not only an arts community – but also a center for whitewater sports.

Its historic downtown is indeed full of art galleries, along with restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues. The picturesque Arkansas River passes through, featured with a river walk and a whitewater park. Warm-weather visitors can rent bikes or kayaks, go rafting or just relax with a drink or a meal.

The town was founded in 1880, a stop on the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad. The area had been settled first by the Utes, who gathered near its hot springs. After the railroad pulled out in the 1940s and 1950s, ranching was a major employer.

As time went on, more and more people discovered the scenery and the white waters of the Arkansas, and tourism is now the city’s biggest employer. Rafters and kayakers enjoy the river from Salida north to Buena Vista, as numerous outfitters ferry their customers to and from the river in ubiquitous ancient school buses.

When it snows, Monarch Ski Area attracts the winter sports set. A dozen Fourteeners, mountains over 14,000 feet in elevation, are near Salida. The Sawatch Range is about 10 miles west of the city, and Methodist Mountain in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is visible to the south. Opportunities for hiking, bicycling, fishing, camping, tennis and golf abound.

Notable natives include novelist Kent Haruf, who chronicled life on the Colorado Plains in his books “Plainsong,” “Eventide,” “Benediction” and “Our Souls at Night,” before his death in 2014.

In June, the FIBArk Kayak Race and festival come to Salida. The acronym stands for First in Boating the Arkansas.

The race has been going on since 1949, when six boats tried to navigate the river 57 miles, through the Royal Gorge to Canon City. Only two of the 23 entrants managed to finish.

Since then the race has been shortened, going 25.7 miles downriver from Salida to Cotopaxi. It no longer passes through the treacherous Royal Gorge, but organizers say it is the longest whitewater race in the United States.

Although the downriver race at one time was open to all kinds of boats, now it focuses on kayaks, the only ones consistently able to navigate the rushing waters. But races for rafts and paddle boards also take place during the weekend festival, and land events such as running and bike races, a parade, concerts, and the Chain Drain, a disc golf tournament.

The Salida Creative District, designated by Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2012, includes galleries, studios, shops, restaurants, breweries and distilleries.

Salida WineFest is a fall event featuring Colorado wineries, food, art and music.

The Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center features pools fed by water from an underground hot spring in the mountains, originally discovered by the Utes. A 25-meter, six-lane pool with a temperature of 84 to 85 degrees and a smaller, hotter soaking and play pool of 97 to 100 degrees offer comfortable and healing waters.

You can’t miss Riverside Park and River Walk beside the Arkansas River in downtown Salida along Sackett Avenue at F, E and D streets. Both public and private events may be held in the park, from picnics to wedding receptions. Among the attractions are a bandshell, a bouldering wall, a volleyball court and a playground.

The Steamplant Event Center is housed in an old steam power plant building that was built in 1887 and kept generating power into the 1960s. The Salida Enterprise for Economic Development bought it in 1987 for $35,000, and in the next few years, the city developed it into a theater, a sculpture garden and a conference center with a ballroom.

Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area
Browns Canyon National Monument

Salida facts
Population: 5,236 (2010 Census)
Land area: 2.2 square miles
County: Chaffee (Salida is the county seat)
Altitude: 7,083 feet above sea level
Climate: The mountains around Salida help make it more temperate than some other areas in the region. Winter snowfall is usually about 50 inches, although higher elevations nearby may see as much as 400 inches, such as at Monarch Ski Area. Summer rainfall totals 10 to 12 inches, and the area sees 330 days a year of sunshine and low humidity. Snowmelt from the mountains helps irrigate crops in the Arkansas Valley. January averages: high 49 degrees, low 19 degrees. July averages: high 77 degrees, low 60 degrees. More weather >>