Colorado's Top 10 State Parks

From the rugged Medicine Bow Mountains of State Forest State Park to the frothy rapids of the Arkansas Headwaters, Colorado has a state park system that makes other countries jealous. Funny thing is, many Coloradans don't know about these outdoor gems. Here, we introduce you to the best of the best.

May 2009

Golden Gate Canyon State Park
—Photo by Sarah Boyum

Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area

Beginning as a trickle in the mountains high above Leadville, the Arkansas River cascades southeast through Colorado, plummeting 4,650 feet over 150 miles before flattening out and exiting the state. The recreation area follows all 150 miles from Leadville to Pueblo, affording visitors dozens of entry points to enjoy the river, the most popular being Buena Vista, Salida, and Cañon City.

The Draw Hard-core rafting and kayaking. The Arkansas River is the most popular white-water rafting and kayaking spot in the United States, drawing 300,000 visitors a year to run the river, which boasts Class II to Class V rapids. A plethora of rafting outfitters run trips out of Buena Vista (check out the Arkansas River Outfitters Association), but you can kayak or raft the river yourself.

The Alternative Mountain biking. Hit one of Salida or Buena Vista's numerous trails near the Ark; the Midland Trail (12 miles, views of the Sawatch Range/Collegiate Peaks) and the Rainbow Trail (25 miles, views of the river valley and the Sangre de Cristos) are the best of the bunch.

Pit Stop Benson's Tavern and Beer Garden, a laid-back pub and burger joint in Salida, is a locals' favorite.

Only Here Gold panning remains a popular activity on the Arkansas, particularly at the Railroad Bridge Campground north of Buena Vista. Bring your own pan.

For the Adventurous Every June the Arkansas hosts FIBArk (First in Boating on the Arkansas), a 60-year-old white-water festival that culminates in a 26-mile kayak race from Salida to Cotopaxi (June 18 to 21.

When to Go The river runs year-round, but unless you're partial to ice-cold water, stick to the warmer months. Peak water flows in mid-June, as the snowpack begins to melt. Look for gentler rapids in July and August.

Get There There are many, many entry points along the 150-mile-long recreation area, but your best bet is to start in the towns of Buena Vista or Salida. For more information, call 719-539-7289.