Sitting alongside the Arkansas River east of Monarch Pass, Salida (pop. 5,236; elev. 7,083) is a one-time railroad town gradually and prosperously switching over to the tourist trade. Close your eyes to the sprawl of Walmart and McDonald’s along US-50, and head a dozen blocks north to the historic downtown, where dozens of historic brick buildings line up around a spacious riverfront park. Outdoor recreation shops like Absolute Bikes (330 W. Sackett Ave., 719/539-9295) and Salida Mountain Sports (110 N. F St., 719/539-4400) sell all the gear and clothing you could need, and can provide bikes and useful information on the area’s wealth of recreational opportunities. Historic downtown Salida also has some great food and drink options, including Currents (122 N. F St., 719/539-9514), serving grilled steaks, fish-and-chips, and veggie-friendly sandwiches along with good beers and cocktails.
The Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center (410 W. Rainbow Blvd./US-50, 719/539-6738, $11), next to the visitors bureau, is the largest hot springs in the state. The naturally heated WPA-built indoor pool and baths are open year-round.
East of Salida, river rafters can be seen riding the rapids of the Arkansas River for most of the next 45 miles. Over a dozen different rafting companies have operations along this beautifully scenic stretch, where steeply walled sandstone gorges alternate with broad meadows and sagebrush plains all the way to Royal Gorge and Cañon City.
Detour: Movie Manor, Great Sand Dunes, and Colorado Gators
Some 75 miles southwest of US-50, the potato-farming town of Monte Vista is home to the Movie Manor (2830 US-160 W., 719/852-5921, $90 and up), a unique combination of drive-in movie theater, restaurant, and Best Western motel. You can watch movies (for free!) from the comfort of your motel room, though the screen is so far away it’s about the same size as watching movies on TV. It’s fun, though, and unique, for sure—where else can you snuggle down beneath the covers, gazing out the window as the sun sets and the lights come up on the big-screen figures swaggering through their latest Hollywood hits against a backdrop of snowcapped 14,000-foot peaks?
Other good reasons to loop south from US-50 include the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve and the even more unlikely sight of some 400 alligators enjoying the geothermal hot springs at Colorado Gators Reptile Park (719/378-2612, daily, $15), an hour south of US-50 on Hwy-17, near the turnoff east to the Great Sand Dunes.