After leaving the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in southern Colorado, we continued our road trip from Santa Fe, New Mexico on up into the scenic mountains that give Colorado its nickname – Colorful Colorado. With the sand storm behind us (something we never see at our home in Maine), my mother and my two daughters and I began driving up the winding Poncha Pass which would ultimately take us over the mountain pass and into the town of Salida, where we were to stay on our first night out. After passing the summit, the road wound back and forth down through tall aspens and pines, with Poncha Creek tumbling along next to the highway. As we let the incredible scenery wash over our eyes, we marveled at the sudden change in landscape – from the severe, flat desert with yucca plants and a sand storm, to the lush forest where we drove now; only a short thirty miles or so away. As we rounded a bend in the road, we came upon a large sign welcoming us to the county, which read, “Now THIS is Colorado.” We could not have agreed more!
Once we got settled into our hotel in Salida, we went back out into the crisp, Colorado mountain air and let the last bit of sunshine that day shine on our tired faces. Salida is a small town of just over 5000 residents, with one large main street running through town; yet for such a small town, it has every modern convenience one might find in a large city. As we drove down the road looking for a restaurant, we passed a Wal-Mart, several fast food restaurants, and other stores and businesses that gave the impression that Salida is well into the twenty-first century.
We dined that evening at the Windmill Restaurant, just down the road from our hotel. While the ambiance was a charming rendition of the old west, the food was only average at best, which did not measure up to the high prices. Still, we were hungry, so we enjoyed our meal. After an evening swim at the hotel pool, we went to bed early with because the next day held more adventure.
We awoke the next morning to another perfect Colorado sky. There was not a cloud to be found and the temperature was a perfect sixty-five degrees. We began driving north again on Route 285 out of Salida. We drove past farms and ranches, all growing in abundance in this fertile, protected, southern end of the Arkansas River valley. Our next destination was Buena Vista, a town I visited often with my family as a child. Buena Vista is at the foot of the Collegiate Peak Range, a group of mountains named after some of the Ivy League schools, such as Mount Princeton, Mount Yale, and Mount Harvard, to name just a few.
At Buena Vista, before exploring the small town, we turned west on Route 306 and drove past the majestic Mount Princeton, along the banks of Cottonwood Creek, to the Rainbow Lake Resort. While we did not plan to stay at the resort, we my mom and I wanted to show my daughters the lake, the cabins, and we decided to take a quick hike back into the woods to find a tree where my husband and I once carved our names. Alas, the tree could not be found. It had been more than a decade, and we assumed it had fallen prey to some of the prolific beavers in the area.
After leaving Rainbow Lake, we drove back down the mountain to Buena Vista and took a walk around the small park in the center of town. The park has playground equipment and a cool, still pond, complete with ducks and geese swimming lazily. We visited the old fashioned saloon where my husband and I spent one of our first dates together, and then we went to our favorite Mexican restaurant in the area, Casa del Sol. Casa del Sol is a quaint, colorful restaurant with tasteful, cozy Mexican decor, and excellent food to match. We sat at a table in one of the back rooms which looked out onto the courtyard, complete with multi-colored tables and a fountain in the center. We wanted to linger for much of the afternoon, but we had a schedule to keep, so we soon headed north once again, our next stop being Leadville, Colorado, a town with one of the highest altitudes in the continental United States.