While walking around Salida, Colorado, I was fascinated by the big “S” on the hill above downtown. It reminded me of another big letter I had once visited: the “M” above Missoula, Montana. In Missoula, there was a steep, switchbacking trail that led up to the hillside letter, and with Salida’s “S” so close, I couldn’t help but think there was a way to access it, as well. I drove to the end of “F” Street, past the Palace Hotel and over a bridge that crosses the Arkansas River, but for some reason, the road abruptly ended on the other side of the bridge. Who builds a bridge across a river, then doesn’t connect it with anything?
From the end of “F” Street, I could see another road at the base of the hill, running alongside the river and the railroad tracks. I knew that road must somehow provide access to the hill, I just had to figure out how to get there. So, I did a little exploring. I drove north on 1st Street (CO 291) for a few blocks, paralleling the river, looking for the first opportunity to cross. Across from the hospital, I found it: a road marked “Spiral Drive”.
It took a couple more turns, but I knew I was on the right track when I saw Tenderfoot Mountain, and the corkscrew road cut into the hill.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a road that looks quite like this on my GPS!
On the way up the hill, Spiral Drive passes directly below, then directly above the big “S”. The hill is steep enough here that it would be very difficult to walk up, or climb down, to it.
At the top of Tenderfoot Mountain, there’s a staircase…
… that leads up to an old building. I’m sure the antennas on top are off limits, but I saw nothing warning me to stay away…
… so I walked inside. Aside from a little graffiti, the room is empty. Its open windows provide some nice frames for the views of the surrounding mountains and valley.
Remember how I mentioned that Tenderfoot Mountain is right across the river from downtown Salida? Well then, it just makes sense that you have a great view of Salida, from the top of the hill!
There are 11, 12, 13, and 14-thousand foot mountain peaks all around Salida, but the most dramatic can be found to the northwest. If my bearings are correct, this cluster of peaks includes Mt. Shavano (14,229 feet/4,337 meters) and Mt. Antero (14,269 feet/4,349 meters — the 10th highest peak in Colorado). On the left side of the photo, you’re looking at the Monarch Pass area.
On the way up or down the spiral, be sure to stop and check out this painted tree. It’s a piece of art created by Curtis Killorn, a Salida artist and business owner. You won’t find his name, or an explanation of his artwork, anywhere nearby, and I think that says a lot about him and his creation. Instead of knowing why someone would take the time to paint a dead tree every color in the rainbow, you’re simply left with something beautiful, in front of a backdrop that’s also amazingly beautiful.
After receiving permission from Salida Public Works, our family rescued the remains of the tree – it will ‘live’ on in Salida.
We’d like to offer our thanks to the many people that we encountered on the trail who helped us carry the much-heavier-than-expected tree down to the lot – especially Nola & Steve, and Deb, Seth, & Bean – you all helped save the day!
Take CO 291 back to US 50, and continue east towards Canon City.
Moments after leaving Salida, Colorado heading east, US 50 plunges into a small canyon, and it stays there, more or less, all the way to Cañon City. The highway follows the Arkansas River almost the entire way, as both the river and the road squeeze in between hills that tower a few hundred feet above the valley floor.
There are plenty of places along Highway 50 to pull off and take in a view of the river. Most likely, you’ll also spot some whitewater rafters plying the waters. During my visit in early June, melting snow had the Arkansas River moving swiftly — perhaps too fast for beginners, which would explain why I didn’t see many rafters. The muddy water didn’t look very inviting, either, but I’m sure it clears up later in the summer.
Here’s a time-lapse dash-cam video of the drive up and down Spiral Drive, then on to Canon City via US 50: