Imagine for a moment that you’re in eastern Colorado, gazing westward, straining your eyes to see the first hints of the mountains. Except this time, you don’t know there are mountains, or at least not exactly where they are. The first glimpse of Pikes Peak looks like a little cloud, but with each step to the west, it grows a bit more. Soon, the mountains seem to thrust straight out of the prairie, looming like a wall. Zebulon Pike had this exact experience in 1806. His party reached what would become Colorado in November, and his notes describe the peak first as a cloud, then as the “Grand Peak.”

Just a week after his first sighting of the peak that would be named after him, Pike’s attention was dramatically pulled to his more immediate surroundings. A band of Pawnee warriors returning from battle rushed Pike’s party on the Arkansas River; since the warriors outnumbered the soldiers nearly four to one, the tension spiked dramatically. In spite of Pike’s offering of gifts, the warriors mobbed the party and a bloodbath might have easily ensued—and would have changed the course of Colorado’s history.
Instead, Pike’s men threatened to use firepower and the warriors melted back into the landscape.

Pike and his team continued their way west along the Arkansas, pausing in modern day Pueblo to build a stockade. The expedition had been charged with finding the headwaters of the river, so they hoped climbing the giant peak would give them a better vantage point to track the river’s path. Miscalculations took Pike up Mount Rosa, rather than mighty Pikes Peak, and clouds on the day of the climb prevented the team from seeing anything below the summit.  The search for the river’s source continued.

Now in December, Pike and his team abandoned Pueblo and continued toward current Cañon City, finding their way to the entrance of the Royal Gorge. Pike misjudged the gorge, assuming it to be the headwaters, and turned off the path of the Arkansas. The explorers spent the remainder of the winter lost, hungry, and bitterly cold.

Had the group recognized the Royal Gorge for what it is, they would have continued west to present day Buena Vista and been treated to views of the Collegiate Peaks to the west as Pikes Peak rested behind them in the east. Since the explorers saw the Arkansas in its coldest months as they struggled to survive, they likely didn’t take the opportunity to wonder at the beauty and opportunity its path afforded.

Today, we’re lucky to be able to join towns up and down the river for the best of Colorado summer activities. Modern day Pueblo offers great art and food, with historic neighborhoods, galleries, and famous Mexican food.  Summertime offers the perfect chance to enjoy the Riverwalk or the Colorado State Fair. Every fall, Pueblo hosts the Chile and Frijoles Festival, a celebration of the city’s best food… although visitors can also catch a great variety of other culinary traditions, including Greek, Slovenian, and African-American.
Just up the road, Cañon City is a year-round haven for mountain bikers with the Oil Well Flats trail system. At the beginning of May, the city hosts the Music and Blossom Festival. Wine tasting is always available at the Winery at Holy Cross Abbey, and visitors can enjoy touring the Royal Gorge by historic train out of the Cañon City depot.

To the west lies Cotopaxi, the place to find a rafting outfitter for a trip down the Arkansas or through the Royal Gorge. Just south of Cotopaxi, visitors can camp and hike in San Isabel National Forest.

Poncha Springs and nearby Salida sit just upriver. In addition to Pike, Poncha Springs hosted another historical figure, Kit Carson, and received its name from him. Poncha Springs is a great mountain biking and hiking destination with trails that connect to Salida. Salida hosts the nation’s oldest whitewater festival, FIBArk, over Father’s Day weekend. Salida offers even more hiking and biking trails with access to four national forests, the Collegiate Peaks, and Browns Canyon National Monument, Colorado’s newest monument. Visitors can also enjoy golf or Artwalk, the city’s summer art festival.

Buena Vista is just a stone’s throw north of Salida.  This is the land of 14ers—more than ten 14,000-foot peaks rest in the area just west of the town, including Princeton, Yale, Columbia, and Harvard. The Collegiate Peaks Scenic and Historic Byway runs through town, guaranteeing an impressive view any time of year. Buena Vista is another prime spot to get into the Arkansas—the river here offers some of the country’s best whitewater rafting.  Fishermen can enjoy Gold Medal opportunities or try their hand at fly-fishing. Thirty minutes outside of Buena Vista, visitors can check out St. Elmo, a ghost town with its own fascinating history and a general store that is open through the summer.  Four-wheeling is popular along historic mining roads and railroad sites.  After a full day of enjoying the best of Colorado’s outdoors, visitors can relax in the Cottonwood Hot Springs or spy elk, bighorn sheep, and deer at dusk.  To round out the summer, Buena Vista holds Gold Rush Days every August, complete with professional burro racers, gunfighters, and gold panning.

A trip up the Arkansas ends at Leadville. Leadville is one of Colorado’s best historic sites with 70-square blocks of Victorian buildings, the 1870s-era Tabor Opera House, and the annual Leadville Boom Days in August.  Visitors can enjoy the paved Mineral Belt Trail to hike and bike through the milder months, or can opt for a ride on the Leadville, Co & Southern Railroad to marvel at Colorado’s two highest peaks.   Educational opportunities abound at the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum.  Finally, the beautiful Twin Lakes offer excellent fishing in addition to stunning views of picture-perfect Colorado scenery.

Summertime in Colorado is a truly gorgeous thing, and the Arkansas River offers gem after gem of outdoor, cultural, adventure, and scenic activities.  Nearly every town along the river offers a festival during the summer or fall, providing opportunities to learn about Colorado’s Wild West past while enjoying great food and mountain fun.  Whether you take a long drive up Highway 24 or make the short drive down to Pueblo, there’s always another good spot on the river to savor Colorado.