Colorado, Colorado Destinations

Colorado Destinations: Chalk Creek Canyon, St. Elmo, & Salida

I’m trying something new this year, which is to do a little less research related to our travels. I’m still doing some; I like to know at least vaguely what’s going on and be educated enough to ensure we aren’t going to find ourselves in a situation we’re not prepared for. But I’m learning it’s also kind of nice to not entirely know what to expect and be surprised by what you see. Such was the case for most of our Memorial Day weekend trip to central Colorado.

Last week, I recounted day #1 of our trip. On day #2, we headed south out of Buena Vista before turning west onto Chalk Creek Road. Over millions of years, Chalk Creek has carved a broad canyon between Mount Antero and Mount Princeton. The light color of the rock in the canyon is actually a result of hydrothermal activity; there is a natural hot spring nearby and the hot water has leached most of the minerals from the rock, leaving behind soft white quartz that erodes very easily.

L-R: Mount Shavano, Mount Antero, Chalk Creek Canyon, and Mount Princeton, as seen from a pullout on Highway 285

Our first stop in the canyon was the Agnes Vaille Falls trailhead. Agnes Vaille was a Denver resident who worked for the Red Cross during WWI and then returned to Colorado where she had a passion for the mountains. After a tragic winter hiking accident led to her death, her close friend named this waterfall for her.

We could see the waterfall from the road, but the short rocky trail (0.9 miles/1.5 km round trip, 450 feet/137 m of elevation gain) brought us even closer. The official maintained trail ends at a viewpoint, but an unmaintained trail continues, crossing the creek twice as it approaches the falls. This area is prone to rockfall and landslides during and after heavy rain, so proceed carefully if you opt to continue. On this particular day it was dry, so we safely navigated to the base of the falls and were met with our first surprise of the day: Agnes Vaille Falls is tall! Despite some research, I can’t find exactly how tall. But it’s one of the taller waterfalls we’ve seen in CO.

Just up the road are Chalk Lake and Cascade Falls. Cascade Falls is less of a waterfall and more of a series of cascades. Both the falls and the lake are visible from the road, no hiking is required.

Chalk Lake

Across the road from Cascade Falls is one terminus of the Narrow Gauge Trail, which follows a stretch of the old Denver South Park & Pacific railroad grade through Chalk Creek Canyon. The trail is 2.2 miles (3.5 km) end-to-end and relatively flat, though it does have a slight downhill trajectory as you walk east. If you’re wanting to walk the entire thing, I recommend starting at the east end so the uphill comes first. If you’re wanting to walk only part of it, I recommend starting at the west end; despite the fact that you end by walking uphill, the views are best on this half of the trail.

Narrow Gauge Trail
Chalk Cliffs
Looking east toward the Arkansas River Valley
Chalk Lake from above

Not long after Cascade Falls, the road turns to dirt. It’s well-maintained, though, and any car can make the drive. This 2WD portion of the road continues about 7 miles (11.3 km) up to St. Elmo, an old mining town. A rather large one; as many as 2000 people lived here in its heyday. But once the mining industry declined and the railroad stopped servicing the town, most residents abandoned it rather quickly. A handful of people still live here, so technically it’s not completely a ghost town, but most still consider it one. In the summer, the general store is open. However, much of the town is private property and we heeded the signs asking us to please stay on the roads and boardwalks.

St. Elmo was our second surprise of the day: it’s the most intact ghost town I’ve ever seen, by far! In fact, it’s one of the largest and most well-preserved ghost towns in the US.

St. Elmo
St. Elmo main street
St. Elmo’s Fire Dept.
General Store
American House hotel parlor
Post office
Inside the town hall, with the jail cell visible through the open door in the back
Inside the schoolhouse

After thoroughly exploring St. Elmo, we made our way back down Chalk Creek Canyon, stopping at a pullout to have a picnic lunch with a lovely view.

Picnic with a view

Back to the highway, we turned south and headed for Salida (pronounced sah-lye-dah). This was our first time in this particular town, and we enjoyed walking around the downtown area and along the Arkansas River. And, of course, sampling some beer.

Downtown Salida
Arkansas River
Pint: lime sea salt lager
Flight L-R: kiwi vanilla rice lager, ginger lemon blonde, bock, Baltic porter
L-R: raspberry porter, blonde ale, brown ale, amber ale

This was the day I was reminded that two flights of beer is a little too much for my lightweight self. The far less intoxicated Pat (shoutout to his German genes, which have conferred upon him a robust alcohol tolerance) drove us back to our campsite afterwards, at which point I curled up in the car and took a nap until dinner.

Next up: whitewater rafting and hiking in Browns Canyon National Monument.

40 thoughts on “Colorado Destinations: Chalk Creek Canyon, St. Elmo, & Salida”

  1. So many lovely trails – and the bonus are always the sight of a lake, a beautiful waterfall or just endless views … and you had it all! And St. Elmo sure looks like an “upbeat” ghost town to me ☺️. Your flights of beer looks great … I’m not surprised you took a nap on the way back!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s nice to visit places without knowing everything about it, we do seem to lose some of the mystery with modern-day travel and the extent of information online etc.
    I chuckled at the concept of the well-maintained ghost-town – a little ironic! It looks like a fun little town – home to some tidy ghosts it seems!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s probably the most well looked after ghost town. The people who still live there must feel like they live in a museum. It does seem like a strange place to live though. The waterfall is a great find! Maggie

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow that ghost town of St. Elmo really is well preserved! I don’t think I have ever seen such great photos of a town with that kind of history. It’s so great that it has been well maintained and perhaps being on private property has helped keep it that way 🙂 Chalk Lake looks pretty inviting on a warm day!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. More beautiful photos. That heater inside the schoolhouse in St. Elmo is impressive. We have a Salida a few towns away from us. I used to pronounce it Sa-lee-da, but it’s pronounced like yours there, Sa-lye-da. There must be a reason, either that or California has Anglicized it too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m pretty sure I know right where that picture of the Arkansas River with the boaters was taken: right outside the Boathouse Cantina across the street from the city park? We love that restaurant and always try to get a seat overlooking the river so we can see all the people rafting and SUPping on the little rapids. Salida is a great town.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That ghost town was neat…as were the falls. I don’t know if I agree with the no research stuff. I recently went on a superb hike in a park I really didn’t think much of until I did some deeper research and found out many people consider it the most scenic spot of Lake Travis. They weren’t wrong and I almost missed it!~.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I mean, I’m still doing some research, because I don’t want to miss the highlights either. And I want to be properly prepared. But I tried to avoid looking at so many photos of things so I went into it with a little bit of mystery. It was nice to be surprised.


  8. I’ve never been to a ghost town, but I can see how they can inspire the human imagination. Taking a stroll down these historic – and slightly spooky – ghost towns that humans have left behind is like stepping back in time. I am glad to see you had a great time exploring it. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re so right Aiva, it’s a glimpse into another time when life was so different. It’s always interesting to imagine (and learn about) how things were back then. I hope you get to visit a ghost town one day!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. What a beautiful tribute to Agnes’s memory to name a waterfall after her. I love the ghost town! I’m really glad that they have maintained it so people can get a glimpse of life then. And your pictures of the mountains are stunning 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What a wonderful day! That ghost town looks pretty cool to visit. We watched a YouTube series about a guy that is restoring an old ghost town I believe in Colorado, but it’s in a lot worse shape. It is nice to not have a super planned trip, I did that with Newport this past weekend and it was so relaxing to go with the flow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh neat! There are so many ghost towns in Colorado, I will have to look this up on YouTube and see if I can figure out which one it is. Looking forward to reading about Newport! It’s such a ridiculously lavish place.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. St. Elmo looks well worth the visit Diana. Also, loved the Cascades. When #2 son was about 6, we would ask him about waterfalls and he would refer to ones like the Cascades as a “steep river”. Thanks for sharing. Allan

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thanks for giving us a glimps of all these beautiful places that we probably will never visit because of the great distance from Belgium. Nevertheless we enjoy your blogs very much Diana.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Well, Diana, your great photos captured the “spirit” of St. Elmo extremely well, but I was even more impressed how inviting the flights of beer appeared based on your photo. Perhaps, it’s your Oregon roots!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Like you, I’m trying to master the art of researching less and just going in without any expectations. Being a lowkey Type A personality (haha), I find it hard to loosen up and just go with the flow. But it definitely is very rewarding, as you end up being pleasantly surprised at how wonderful the place is! Looks like Chalk Creek, St. Elmo, and Salida turned out wonderfully for you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad others can relate to my struggle. I’m definitely a type A as well and it’s very hard to override those instincts. But this trip helped, as it turned out well even with a little less research.

      Liked by 1 person

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