SALIDA, Colo. – Salida is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream come true.
“This is an incredibly beautiful place,” said Greg Felt, county commissioner.
From biking to hiking, to fishing and more, people from all over are drawn to this mountain town.
“I grew up in Northern California, I came here when I was 19 to work on the river,” said Felt.
“You have phenomenal access to mountain biking trails here on S Mountain,” said Dan Shore, Mayor of Salida. “If you go on the other side, my favorite riding is on Methodist Mountain. In the summer months when it gets up to 90 degrees in town, you drive 15 minutes up to my favorite trailhead which is Fooses Creek. This morning I was cross-country skiing.”
But there’s one special feature that sways some to stay.
“The Arkansas River runs right through downtown Salida, our historic business district,” said Mike Harvey, co-founder and owner at Badfish Standup Paddleboards.
Harvey and his friend started Badfish SUP in Salida in 2010 when paddle boarding was still a relatively new sport.
“It started on the coast and was basically an extension of surfing originally, but over time people started understanding the utility of basically a big surfboard and a long paddle that you can stand on and paddle on all kinds of water,” said Harvey.
He said river surfing really took off in Salida, after the addition of the whitewater park downtown.
“You can think of river surfing like surfing a treadmill,” said Harvey. “So in the ocean, a wave picks up, peaks and pushes you towards the beach. In the river, the water is flowing over a drop structure or over a rock or some sort of drop creating a stationary wave or a standing wave. So you go out and the water is moving under you, you stay in one place, but you surf back and forth on the face.”
Harvey helped design the whitewater park and admitted his initial motivations were a bit selfish.
“I just wanted to be able to whitewater kayak on a lunch break or after work,” said Harvey. “But what I learned quickly was that this project can mean so much more to the entire community.”
He said he got the idea after Golden installed a whitewater park in the 1990s.
“Like all really good ideas, this started over a couple of beers,” said Harvey. “A group of us were sitting around and thought that we could use a whitewater park here in Salida.”
Work began on Salida’s whitewater park in 1999 with the creation of the Arkansas River Trust.
“The idea is you take these river corridors that are in communities and you make them the central focus of downtown,” said Harvey. “So create walking paths and bank terracing, places people can sit, and then of course whitewater features.”
The work has been done in phases and continues to this day.
“In 2023, we’re going to do a new project right where we are standing,” said Harvey. “We’ve done it through public money, GOCO money, private fundraising, but it’s really become the beating heart of our downtown.”
Before the whitewater park, the river was not a popular place to hang out.
“Twenty plus years ago very few local kids spent time on the river. The river was a place to be feared and stay away from–it’s dangerous,” said Harvey. “Now, the kids are down here with boogie boards hanging out playing all day.”
Over the years, Salida has become better known for all kinds of whitewater paddling, but the Arkansas River has been calling out to water and adventure lovers for decades and brings hundreds to the area every Father’s Day weekend for the First in Boating on the Arkansas Festival or FIBArk.
“It’s the nation’s oldest whitewater festival so there’s a ton of interest in whitewater paddling here,” said Harvey.
FIBArk has taken place every year since 1949.
“It’s a remarkable festival, it celebrates the river culture here so there’s all kinds of racing both competitive and fun,” said Shore. “They do something called the Hooligan’s Race where people will construct a craft. It just can’t be a raft and float through this section of town.”
Of course, the water level is much higher in the summer.
“You’re seeing these things disintegrate in the water, people are swimming, I mean it’s carnage, but with all kinds of safety precautions,” he added.
The event showing off that a river that was once for no one, is now a river for everyone.
“When it’s really high in the spring that’s a time for experienced users,” said Harvey. “But, as the flows decrease over the summer, there’s this perfect time frame usually around late June and early July through Labor Day when the flows are very moderate, the temperatures are very warm, and almost anyone can get out here and enjoy it.”