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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.