If you haven’t been to Buena Vista, Colorado in a while, take note that it’s changed—and you’re going to like it. This beautiful mountain town offers plenty of things to do to fill a weekend and makes for a great getaway.
Only a two-hour drive from Denver, Buena Vista sits at the foot of the Collegiate Peaks, an impressive bump in the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. The name comes from the 14,000-foot peaks named after Ivy League schools such as Mount Princeton and Mount Yale, which provide the picture-postcard views here. For years Buena Vista has made a name for itself as a departure point for whitewater raft trips along the Arkansas River, but now the town is becoming its own destination for quality time before and after hitting the rapids.
What’s new is South Main, an ongoing development project along the banks of the Arkansas River that seamlessly connects with the historic town center. Those coming here for a few hours of sleep before an early morning raft ride might only be familiar with the motels along Highway 24, the road that bisects this town of less than 3,000 people. However, an eastward turn on Main St. takes you towards the Arkansas River, where the Surf Hotel and Surf Chateau have been built in recent years. You’ll also find a whitewater park, restaurants, a small park with a climbing rock, and a neighborhood of new homes and vacation rentals.
The concept of South Main is a walkable community that allows visitors to walk from kayaking to beer to bed, or some variation on that theme depending on your preferences. Maybe you prefer coffee to river surfing or fly fishing to live music to bed. Or taking a Polaris Adventures ride on a Slingshot or side-by-side RZR before returning to the hotel for dinner on the patio overlooking the water.
The Surf Chateau opened in 2014, with 20 rooms either overlooking the river or facing a pleasant courtyard that leads to the river. The hotel’s design features river rocks that give the place both a connection to the environment and a European vibe. This year, the property expanded with the Surf Hotel, a 42-room boutique hotel with wraparound second and third floor balconies that evoke New Orleans, right next door. The hotel is also home to Wesley & Rose, a restaurant featuring breads made on site and Colorado grown-and-raised ingredients, plus a Colorado-inspired menu of cocktails, wine and beer.
In one brief late summer weekend in Buena Vista, I found there was only so much I could squeeze in here. After the drive from Denver, it was the perfect time to relax on the porch and listen to the river as the sun set. The courtyard of the Surf Chateau was quietly filling with people returning from their day’s adventures in the area. I chose Wesley & Rose for dinner, but Eddyline was my second choice and only a one-minute walk from the hotel (there are two Eddyline locations in town).
The next morning I started the day at the Midland Stop, which is proud of something called “third wave coffee,” but I was there for the delicious baked goods. I checked in next door at the Buena Vista Adventure Hub for my guided Polaris Adventures on a Polaris RZR, to take an off-road experience through the nearby wilderness. These ATVs are available for rental or with a guided tour. The thrill is seeing places you might not be able to access in a typical car. With Colorado’s famous aspen trees turning golden and orange for the fall, the views of the trees on the peaks to the west throughout the ride were spectacular. My guide, Beau, not only graciously took turns at the wheel but also shared stories on how the locals live (river surfing after work all summer) and dine here.
The Adventure Hub also has kayak and paddleboard rentals and tours available, and River Runners takes rafters out on trips from here. You can also rent this equipment at CKS Main Street, which hosts Paddlefest in the spring. The Trailhead sells and rents gear for rock climbing and alpine winter sports. During summer’s rafting season, look into Browns Canyon Rafting or American Adventure Expeditions.
After my Polaris ride, it was time for lunch on historic Main St. at The Buena Viking, a burger food truck on the patio of Deerhammer Distilling Company, recommended by Beau. This food truck is open during the summer primarily, with burgers fit for a world- (or mountain-) conqueror appetite. This portion of Main St. is a mix of up-and-coming businesses and old standbys, plus the Buena Vista Heritage Museum in the former Chaffee County Courthouse.
Next, I headed west on Main St. for the Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn & Spa, a natural hot springs that has retained its funky 70s style. Only a 10-minute drive from downtown Buena Vista, the springs are the perfect place for a soak if you’ve been bagging a 14er or snowshoeing.
For a night out, check to see who might be playing at the Surf Hotel, which has already hosted Leftover Salmon, DJ Logic, and Rapidgrass in a state-of-the-art concert venue, or head to the Lariat Bar & Grill on Main St. for live music, beer, a game of pool, or just a lively social scene.
Not sure when to go to Buena Vista? There’s no bad time to visit, as there are a lot of events year-round. The Rapids & Grass Festival in the summer takes over South Main for a weekend with music, beer, and soaking up the sunshine by the river. In August the city celebrates Gold Rush Days, best known for its burro race. I visited during the Autumn Color Run, and a couple of weeks later in September the annual 14er Fest was held.
As South Main continues to evolve in Buena Vista, each visit here is going to feel like a discovery of both outdoor activities and urban-style amenities.
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