If You Build It: Salida, CO Whitewater Park

Salida, CO, built a whitewater park that cleaned up the river bed and became a centerpiece of the small community.

DKN2MH Whitewater kayak slalom race, Arkansas River, Salida, Colorado, USA

Modern whitewater park design originated in Colorado, and Salida's quarter-mile course, completed in 2000 on the Arkansas River, is prime example of the archetype. Salida was designed by veteran engineer and paddler Gary Lacy, whose Denver-based Recreation Engineering and Planning is one of five Colorado firms specializing in whitewater parks. Lacy has spearheaded the lion's share of so-called "in-stream" paddling parks in the U.S., modifying existing waterways and adding shore-based features like bike paths and beaches to create urban outdoor hubs.

In Salida, Lacy took the unsightly Arkansas and reshaped it with four main features, creating a world-class playboating destination and transforming the town with a revitalized downtown and a sense of community pride. "I think back to different projects we done over the years," said Lacy in a newspaper interview, "and the catalyst most of the time was a paddler or visitor who saw Salida."

Parks like those in Salida, Boulder and Golden have proved to be ideal training grounds for the next generation of boaters—accessible places to hone skills before tackling Colorado's steep creeks. With burly, aerial-worthy play features available in Salida from May to July, the park has also turned out freestyle champions.

"It always seemed to me to be common sense, that people would be attracted to recreation in their own backyards," Lacy says. "But I had no idea that it would be as popular as it has become."

Click the links below to read about more of America’s best whitewater parks:

San Marcos, TX

Born from the remains of a decrepit dam, the Rio Vista Park includes several features and lights for night surfing in San Marcos, TX.


Charlotte, NC

The USNWC pumps 12 million gallons of whitewater to create Class IV whitewater rapids for rafters, kayakers, and paddle boarders.


Bend, OR

A boom adventure town, Bend, OR, built a whitewater park as part of a dam removal project.


Oklahoma City, OK

Legendary Olympian Scott Shipley spearheaded the $45 million River Sport Rapids in Oklahoma City.


Charles City, IA

Charles City reshaped a seven-foot-high dam to create a world-class wave in an unlikely location.


Wausau, WI

A 20-year-old whitewater park that focuses on beginner and intermediate paddling.


Columbus, GA

With features at all water levels and proximity to downtown, the Columbus Park is a centerpiece of the community.