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Buena Vista, Colorado:
The Peak Bagging Capital of America

By Brian Metzler

Buena Vista, ColoradI’m about two-thirds of the way up the Horn Fork Basin, and things aren’t looking good. The remote high-altitude basin is one of the most beautiful places in Colorado, but it’s the horizon I’m worried about. My altimeter reads 13,750 feet, but the building clouds say doom is near.

I consider turning around before the imminent thunderstorm can get any closer, but then decide I can make the summit of Mount Harvard and get back below treeline before putting myself in harm’s way. So I push on with a relentless pace, hoping to reach the 14,420-foot peak in about 25 minutes or less.

The previous three hours have been broken up between trail running and power hiking along the moderate incline of the trail that follows Horn Fork Creek. As I make the final push for the peak, I do my best to maintain my pace, knowing that the small window of acceptable weather is closing quickly. A short scramble up a boulder field leads me to the summit in due time, but I don’t stick around to enjoy the considerable views on this occasion. Instead, I touch the peak and skeedaddle back the way I came.

About 35 minutes of downhill running later and I’m back below treeline, sucking my CamelBak dry as rain starts to fall. On a better day, I could have reached Mount Columbia (14,073 feet) with a short excursion off the east side of Harvard. But my tired legs remind me that I will have covered 13 tough miles when I return to the North Cottonwood Trailhead. Suddenly my focus shifts to hot springs.

Buena Vista is a small town on the Arkansas River in central Colorado that in the summer months is a hotspot for whitewater rafting, trout fishing and peak bagging. The massive Sawatch Range serves as the valley’s western border and includes more than a dozen 14,000-foot peaks, including the Collegiate Peaks of Princeton, Yale, Harvard and Columbia just west of town.

The tall mountains are known as “14ers” by peak baggers, and the trails leading up to the summits vary from gravel fire roads and well-worn singletrack trails to Class III scrambling routes over seemingly endless boulder fields. Your choice of walking, power-hiking or trail running depends on the type of trail and your ability to breathe above 12,000 feet, not to mention the pending weather.

A select few die-hard peak baggers try to capture all 55 Colorado 14ers in a single season, others stretch it out over a lifetime. There’s no better place in Colorado to stage a weekend or weeklong peak-bagging party than Buena Vista. It has all the basic amenities (lodging, food, supplies) you’ll need, plus two natural (and only mildly commercialized) hot springs to soothe your sore muscles. While campgrounds tend to fill up on summer weekends, it never seems to be too crowded anywhere in town.

Aside from peaks, Buena Vista also has extraordinary mountain bike trails, Class III to V whitewater paddling on the Arkansas River, and flatwater paddling on Twin Lakes and Clear Creek Reservoir about 25 minutes north of town.

The lowdown
Buena Vista, Colorado

Getting there Buena Vista, Colorado (population 2,195) is located about 120 miles southwest of Denver. By car, it’s about a two-hour drive via Highway 285. The closest airports are Denver International Airport and Colorado Springs Airport, each about three hours away from Buena Vista.

Climate Because Buena Vista is located in the heart of the Arkansas River Valley at about 8,000 feet above sea level; the weather can be fickle throughout the year. During July and August — the prime months for peak bagging — temperatures in the valley usually hit the upper 70s to the mid-80s during the day and drop into the mid-40s at night. Summer rain storms are common during the afternoon hours, but most are short and pass within a few hours. However, if you’re planning to hike or run any of the peaks, you need to start early. Not only do those storms bring the risk of lightning, but the precipitation usually falls in the form of snow or sleet above 12,000 feet.

Accommodations Buena Vista has a handful of small motels and bed and breakfasts, including Super 8 Motel (888-605-8034), Best Western Vista Inn (800-809-3495), Alpine Lodge (888-322-4224) and Liar’s Lodge Bed & Breakfast (888-542-7756).

Visit www.fourteener.net for information about cabins, mountain home rentals, hostels and private campgrounds. There are also plenty of public campgrounds owned by various land agencies, but reservations are usually necessary and typically fill up quickly. Visit www.reserveamerica.com for more details.

Events, Guides & Etc. Colorado will play host to the first Balance Bar 24-Hour Adventure Race (www.balancebaradventure.com) July 19 at Beaver Creek Resort in Avon, about 90 minutes northwest of Buena Vista. The Collegiate Peaks Trail Runs (25m, 50m) are among the best trail races anywhere in the West, even though they took a one-year hiatus this year. The races should return the first Saturday in May 2004. The annual FIBArk whitewater festival (pictured above) is held every June in Salida, about 30 minutes down the Arkansas from Buena Vista. Nolan’s 14 (http://mattmahoney.net/nolans14/index.html) is a peak-bagging adventure run held in mid-August that covers 14 peaks from Leadville to Buena Vista.

The best places to load up on supplies and get local information are Steve’s Sporting Goods (719-395-3430), Buena Vista True Value (719-395-8067) and The Trailhead (719-395-8001), although Buena Vista also has a grocery store and several convenience stores.

Other Peaks Colorado’s two tallest peaks, 14,433-foot Mount Elbert and 14,421-foot Mount Massive are located about a 30-minute drive north of Buena Vista on Highway 24 near Leadville. Both are 12-mile roundtrip trails that take about six hours to hike.

Drive northeast of Buena Vista on Highway 285 to the town of Fairplay, and you’re within reach of the 14,000-foot summits of Mount Sherman, Mount Lincoln, Mount Democrat, Mount Bross and Mount Cameron. Sherman is an 8.5-mile roundtrip with a relatively gradual approach, while the other four peaks can be combined into an 8.5-mile loop that can be power-hiked in less than six hours. (Cameron isn’t considered a separate 14er because it’s technically just an adjunct peak of Lincoln.) Visit www.coloradofourteeners.org for a complete list of peaks, trailheads and other information.

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