Whether you’re stopping in Buena Vista for a lunch break on a road trip or spending a few days in this quaint Colorado small town, I highly recommend hiking the Barbara Whipple Trail System. It’s just across the Arkansas River from South Main and the trails are family friendly. Even if you just have 20-30 minutes, you can get a great view of the Collegiate Peaks, the highest concentration of 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado. This section of the Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains has 8 of Colorado’s “14ers.” Buena Vista was a railroad town in the late 1800s during Colorado’s mining boom. It’s often called the whitewater capital of Colorado, and even the United States because of its location to epic stretches on the Arkansas River including the Numbers and Browns Canyon National Monument.
It’s a town I’ve stayed in multiple times and often stop if I’m on a road trip as was the case with my latest stop. On a drive back from Rico, a historic mining town in Southwest Colorado, I stopped in Buena Vista for lunch and a hike.
I ordered the veggie sandwich at Sorelle Delicatessen and sat along the river at one of the tables at The Beach in the South Main District. As I ate lunch looking out at the Buena Vista River Park, I watched a few kayakers practice their skills in the rapidly running water as snowmelt is in full swing with the warmer weather.
I wanted to get in about an hour of hiking and my go-to spot in Buena Vista is the Barbara Whipple Trail System. I love it because of the views of the town and the Collegiates, plus there’s some interesting mining history on the trails. I warmed up walking along the river then crossed to the footbridge over the Arkansas River to get to the Whipple Trail System. I opted to do the North trail. When the Whipple Trail Steep Shortcut split, I went left. I didn’t take a bunch of pictures on the way up as I was in workout mode pushing the pace up the 0.9 miles to the old Midland Railroad Grade. As I traversed and climbed through the pinon pines and rocky terrain, I enjoyed the great view to my left of the mountains and town.
Once I hit CR 304 (Old Midland Railroad Grade), I went left and was happy for a little flat road.
I went past the trailhead for Broken Boyfriend Trail then turned around to power walk the dirt road to the Whipple Main Route. This was originally a stagecoach road with a 300-foot elevation gain in just over a mile to connect Buena Vista to the Midland Railroad. The steep and winding trail was called Hack Road. Carriages and wagons carried people and cargo from 1887 to 1918. As I hiked down, I imagined what the steep stagecoach ride must have been like in those days. I’m sure were mesmerized by the view, but I might have been one of those passengers with eyes closed and holding on to the side for dear life. After my quick jaunt to another era, I enjoyed the trail scenery and the expansive valley view with the 14ers rising in the distance. “See ya on the summit later this summer,” is what I said out loud to those snow-covered jagged peaks as I stopped to take a picture.
After descending a big chunk of the Whipple Trail, I followed it as it parallels the river.
If you’re wondering who the trail is named after, Barbara Whipple was a prominent figure in Buena Vista. She and her husband moved to the town in 1976 from Pennsylvania. She opened one of the first art galleries in town and co-founded the Arkansas Valley Council on the Arts. Most of her art was based on nature and she loved hiking along the river. She died in 1989 and the Barbara Whipple Trail was established in 1991.
I crossed back over the footbridge, taking in great views of the Arkansas River again, and made took an upper trail so I could wander through the South Main District.
After I cooled down, I stopped in the artisan gallery Sundance and Friends to pick up a new pair of slippers to replace ones I bought about 9 years ago and have loved. They’re handmade in Colorado. As I was checking out, the gal told me folks have been coming to use the trails around Buena Vista, but not spending any money. That got me thinking as I grabbed an ice coffee at the Midland Stop before hitting the road for the rest of the drive home. Especially this summer, if you’re going to enjoy Colorado’s great outdoors, or any outdoors across the country, spend a little money on a meal, unique keepsake or even just a drink in small towns to help them survive. If you find yourself in Buena Vista, I hope you’ll hike across the river and enjoy the view.
Author Jennifer Broome has hiked extensively across Colorado from easy, family-friendly trails like this one to summiting multiple 14ers. For more family friendly hikes, check out blogs on Castle Ruins in Morrison and the Troll in Breckenridge.