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Oldest whitewater festival FIBark is Father's Day weekend in Salida, CO

Kayak Rodeo
Kayak RodeoClaudia Carbone

Long before there were wine fests, music festivals and bike races in mountain towns, there was FIBark, which stands for “First in Boating on the Arkansas.” The country’s oldest whitewater festival started in 1949 in the quaint little town of Salida in the middle of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. It’s one of the most unique mountain town events and definitely one of the most exciting.

With the mighty Arkansas River running right through town, paddlers navigate their crafts through fast-flowing currents and rapids of the spring runoff of the Continental Divide, just as they did that first June 65 years ago.

Today, every conceivable kind of race and obstacle course that can be run on whitewater takes place—including the newest rage standup paddleboarding (SUP)—but the classic Downriver Race is still the most prestigious, longest and most challenging whitewater race in all of North America. Kayaks and open canoes negotiate through “whitewater hell” from Salida's Whitewater Park to Cotopaxi 26 miles down river.

The Hooligan Race is perhaps the most fun to watch as river rats dressed in costumes ride anything that’s not a boat, trying to stay afloat in the Whitewater Park to the delight of the crowds on the river banks. The Freestyle Kayak Rodeo gives paddlers of all ages the chance to show their tricks and maneuvers while competing in the river holes and standing waves at the Salida Boat Ramp. The finals on Saturday evening are a big spectator draw.

Throughout the years, more and more events have been added to the now four-day festival. Besides water races and activities, there are foot races, mountain bike races, an opening day parade, a massive carnival with food booths, and what some fans think is the best part—daily outdoor concerts at Riverside Park’s amphitheater. Families bring picnics and spread out on the lawn for the Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening shows. Sunday, the music starts at noon and runs until 5 p.m. For a complete schedule, visit www.fibark.com.

While in the historic town of Salida, check out why it has been named one of “America’s 100 Best Small Art Towns.” You’ll find a variety of art galleries and a growing community of artists who have chosen Salida to showcase their nationally recognized work. The historic downtown district is totally walkable, with plenty of very good restaurants from pizza joints to fine dining. Check out Laughing Ladies and Amicas Pizza.

For lodging, the Palace Hotel is a lovely boutique hotel restored to its Victorian splendor right in old town Salida. Rooms include a continental breakfast. Be able to carry your luggage up a flight or two of stairs as there is no elevator. Other lodging options are chain hotels, motels and cabins along Highway 50.

This year’s FIBark will be June 12-15, 2014—Father’s Day weekend. For complete information, visit www.fibark.com.