How Colorado's Best Mountain Town Balances Its Beauty and Dangers

Some of the attractions of Buena Vista Whitewater Park.
Some of the attractions of Buena Vista Whitewater Park. YouTube
Earlier this year, Elevation Outdoors magazine named Buena Vista, in Chaffee County west of Colorado Springs, the best mountain town in the Rockies, and the choice makes perfect sense. Not even the finest set builders in Hollywood could create a lovelier representation of an ideal small community (population 2,617 as of the 2010 census), and its location serves as the gateway to the highest concentration of fourteeners in the state, not to mention the Arkansas River, which boasts some of the most exciting rafting and kayaking anywhere.

But such beauty comes with a price. Several people have died trying to scale the surrounding peaks in recent years, and the fast waters flowing through the area have proven to be lethal as well. On June 29, Boulder's Michael James died after being swept into the Arkansas from Buena Vista Whitewater Park, where he had been using a stand-up paddle board.

Phillip Puckett, Buena Vista's town administrator, stresses that "it's a very sad situation any time someone loses a life or gets injured. It hits us hard. We have amazing natural resources that many, many people enjoy, but unfortunately, these things do happen."

When they do, Buena Vista officials can't unilaterally make decisions about policy changes like those recently imposed on Clear Creek through Golden, where temporary restrictions on swimming and tubing were instituted on July 1. Puckett cites the whitewater park as an example: "Over the years, the town, in conjunction with local nonprofits and through some fundraising events and developments, has partnered in adding enhancements and treatments in the river with approval. But we don't own the river in that section. It's not our jurisdiction to say, 'You can't tube' or 'You can't use stand-up paddle boards' or things like that."

Instead, such determinations are made at the county level, in conjunction with other agencies. "In Chaffee County," Puckett points out, "80 percent of our land is public. It's under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management or other entities." Thus far, those entities haven't issued specific restrictions for use of the river near Buena Vista, though that could change.

click to enlarge Buena Vista at its most gorgeous. - YOUTUBE
Buena Vista at its most gorgeous.
The same concept applies to fourteeners. "They're amazing assets to our area and an amenity and an economic driver," Puckett notes. "Just like the river, there's a lot of public space in the mountains where people can go if they want. It's their personal decision to enter it."

Lots of folks do just that. The third annual 14ers.com analysis of the most popular Colorado fourteeners, released last August, calculated 334,000 hiker-use days in 2018. That figure doesn't necessarily translate to 334,000 individuals, since some people scale multiple fourteeners in a single day. But it represents more than a 22 percent increase over just two years, with around 89,000 hiker-use days associated with peaks in Chaffee County's Sawatch Range. Among the most popular fourteeners close to Buena Vista are Mount Harvard, Mount Yale, Mount Princeton, Missouri Mountain and Mount Antero.

The vast majority of hikers don't run into trouble on their journeys. But the Colorado Mountaineering website reveals that 57 people lost their lives on Colorado fourteeners between 2010 and 2017, including two each at Missouri, Harvard and Princeton (Matthew Lack, the opening executive chef at Arcana, died while rock climbing on the latter in April 2017), and one each on Antero and Yale.

The Arkansas River has claimed numerous victims other than Boulder's James, as well, including Eric Ashby, who vanished into the waters in June 2017 while searching for a $2 million treasure allegedly hidden by New Mexico author Forrest Fenn. Ashby's body was later found in Fremont County and was positively identified in January 2018.

Given these risks, Puckett and other Buena Vista representatives focus on education and preparedness.

click to enlarge A look at Mount Princeton, the most prominent fourteener near Buena Vista. - YOUTUBE
A look at Mount Princeton, the most prominent fourteener near Buena Vista.
"First and foremost, there are rafting companies in business for a reason," Puckett says. "We're having peak flows right now after a very significant winter. There's a lot of water, and it's flowing very fast. But there are commercial avenues to explore, especially for people who are new to the river. If you're considering getting on it for the first time, there are a lot of professional entities you can tap into. If people are coming here on vacation, they should prepare themselves to utilize the resources that are here to help make it a safe experience."

He adds that people should be sure to wear safety equipment, including life vests and helmets designed for water use, "and being with a group always seems to be a good idea in case you need help. That's something you can apply to various other things, too, like hiking."

Adventurers looking to tackle a fourteener "need to realize it's not just a day hike," Puckett continues. "They need to start very early and bring the right supplies, including plenty of water. They also need to be prepared for the possibility of being injured. We have amazing resources here, but they are very limited, and you're entering the backcountry — so it should be approached that way."

Not everyone is ready for what they may encounter, he acknowledges. "Our local search-and-rescue teams are very busy, and along with our EMFs and local emergency services, they're very skilled, very well trained and very aware of the growing traffic we have on the trails and the river," Puckett says. "They're here to help. But it helps them — it helps everyone — if people do their part."

Puckett doesn't want the recent rash of deaths on Colorado rivers and fourteeners to prevent folks from enjoying the wonders that Buena Vista and its environs have to offer. "The more people who come here and experience it is a great thing," he says. "But you need to be prepared — and even if you are, these are still rivers and mountains. Going into it with that understanding is important."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts