Visiting Colorado¶s Spanish Peaks Area

Paul Richardson 2010

The picture on the cover is taken from ³on the scene.´ The picture above is taken from my living room on the north side of Colorado Springs in the Black Forest. The first picture is a few miles from the peaks. The one above is about 110 miles from the peaks. We are fortunate during the cooler months of the year (usually October through April) to be able to see the Spanish Peaks clearly. During the warmer weather the air can hold more moisture and the visibility is cut down enough that rarely do we see them. The Indians named the peaks Wahatoya, which is translated as ³breasts of the earth´ or ³mothers of the earth´ depending on what source you read or hear. The reason for their description is obvious I think as they do look from a distance like the breasts of a woman lying on her back.

While I have been in the vicinity of the peaks many times over the many years I have lived here I have mostly seen them on the way over La Veta Pass into the San Luis Valley. The valley has lots of things to see including the Great Sand Dunes National Park, the Fort Garland (Kit Carson was commander for a time) historic site and the Stations of the Cross sculptures in San Luis. There is also a National Wildlife Refuge in the valley near Alamosa where various species of cranes stop on their long migrations each year. The valley also gives beautiful views of the Sangre de Christo Mountains with many of them being ³fourteeners.´ Recently my son, Mark asked if I would like to go camping in the La Veta area with him and Sam, my grandson. My schedule allowed it and I would have gone even if it didn¶t. We left on a Sunday afternoon as Mark is a nurse and needed a few hours sleep after his 12 hour shift the night before. We drove down I 25 through Pueblo to Walsenburg where US 160, The Navajo Trail crosses it. It is aptly named as it takes you through southern Colorado to the Navajo reservation and Monument Valley. Do you remember the John Ford westerns filmed in the Monument Valley area? We only traveled a few miles on 160 before turning south on Colorado 12, the road to La Veta. La Veta is a nice little town that appears to be prospering. It is well kept, has a vibrant main street with stores, restaurants, inns, etc. Mark had picked out a campground for us and it had available sites for us so that we even got a choice. We picked next to a gurgling stream with a spot for the tent under a cluster of giant spruce trees. We set up Mark¶s tent. It was a three-man expedition type that had been used by he and his wife in many areas including a trip up Mount Rainier in Washington. The campground was called Bear Lake and yes bears visited on the last morning there looking for food. Caused a little excitement but no harm to anyone other than faster heartbeats for those who saw them. We didn¶t but enjoyed hearing the stories of those on both sides of us who did. On the first day of our explorations we did go away from the La Veta area for the morning so that Sam could experience the sand dunes. We didn¶t know how it would be since a wildfire had been burning in the area for over a week. The National Park and Forest Service people had decided to let it burn itself out and it

appeared to be working. It had gotten to the steep slopes of the Sangres and would have been very difficult to fight in any event. It is called the Medano fire after the creek that runs through the sand dunes park. Every kid I have taken to the sand dunes has enjoyed playing in Medano Creek. It is very shallow and spread out over a wide area, wider in spring due to the snow melt runoff. They love to play in the sand, build castles, dams to make the water flow were they want it or just sitting in it and letting it cool them on a hot summer day. Sam was no exception. The only downside that day was that the mosquitoes were out in force. Luckily I had one of those OFF clip on ³fogger´ fans and I escaped with only a few bites by the time I went back to the car to get it. By then Sam and Mark were already in the stream playing.

Mark and Sam

This is a pic of the top of the dunes showing that a few hardy people put forth the effort to do it. The high point is almost 750 feet high, the highest dune in North America. I had done it once in the past but with Sam and a hot day it was not on the agenda for this trip. You need to start out early in the morning to get it done before it gets hot, and the sand does soak up the heat very well. We did take Sam up the first rise so he could experience running down the slope. His small feet didn¶t work too well as he would sink in and almost stumble with each step. See the sand flying up from his right foot. You can see he is concentrating on not falling on his face. He is two and a half. After visiting the dunes we headed back over La Veta Pass explore other areas. We stopped in Cuchara the little village near the now closed Cuchara Ski Area. It is a very nice area but the owners closed it down due to slow business and lack of consistent snow in some years. They didn¶t have snowmaking equipment. It is difficult to compete with the bigger ski areas near Denver and it doesn¶t have the trails or terrain to compete with Aspen or Telluride. It does have a lot of nice condos and homes in the resort area. One home we saw was very unique. It was built in trees with great views of

the mountains. There were two separate three story buildings built into the side of a hill with an ³enclosed bridge´ between them on the top floor. It reminded me of the skyway system connecting buildings in Minneapolis so that people can navigate the cold weather downtown in the winter more comfortably. We speculated on the layout because each building looked to be at least 4 or 5 thousand feet in living area. Perhaps it was for family privacy during large gatherings. The drawbridge in the middle of the connection was a dead giveaway. Just kidding. Mark and Sam checking out the action (or lack of it) along the main street in Cucharra. The Dog Bar and Grill is perhaps the most notable feature. Mark said on a previous visit with friends they had gone there on a weekend night and were surprised to see that every one of the locals in the place had their dogs with them. The place apparently lives up to its name.

The grill has a nice big deck to the left which would be a good place to sit in nice weather.

The next day we explored around the area. This area of Colorado is famous for its dikes. There are three dike systems in the area. The following description is from the website. ³The Great Dikes were formed during the same period of volcanic activity as the Spanish Peaks, Mount Mestas and Silver Mountain. At the time these vertical granite formations were formed by molten rock, they were located several thousand feet underground, below and

among many layers of sedimentary rock. Over time, as the ground rose and the softer rock was eroded away, these igneous intrusions were exposed. There are essentially three different sets of dikes in the area. One set emanates radially from the West Spanish Peak. The second set emanates radially from Silver Mountain. The third set crosses the landscape in a roughly N80E direction. The dikes in this third set are roughly parallel to one another and are the longest and oldest of the dikes. This third set of dikes was formed about the same time as the Sangre de Cristo Uplift, the event that pushed up the Sangre de Cristo Mountains between 2 north-south running fault lines about 27 million years ago. The Spanish Peaks, Silver Mountain, Mt. Mestas, the White Sisters, the Sheep Mountains, Iron Mountain, and the Black Hills in Huerfano County, along with their associated radial dike systems, were formed about 25 million years ago.´ An edge view of one of the radial dikes from West Spanish Peak helps you understand that they are literally walls of granite standing upright.

The dyke on the right was visible from the Spanish Peaks Wilderness area trail to W. Spanish Peak. The trail starts at Cordova Pass, elevation 11,500 feet. We had wanted to get to the base of West Spanish Peak but the clouds moving in and intense thunderstorms of the previous afternoons convinced us that we had best turn back. Lightening safety is a paramount consideration when hiking in the mountains.

We decided to drive down the east side of Cordova Pass which is a gravel road that goes to Aguilar on I 25. We encountered a portal through a dike that had been cut since it was across where the road needed to go. They had apparently blasted the hole and then built up a masonry arch to support the dike remaining above the hole. It is called the Apishapa Arch. It was built by the CCC in 1934.

Other scenes near Cordova Pass were some more on the West Spanish Peak trail in the wilderness area.

From the trail down to the right. Note more dikes. One afternoon we went over Cuchara Pass (less than 10000 feet) because it was raining hard and we didn¶t want to go back to our camp until that stopped. After crossing the pass we ran into an intense hail storm that covered the highway turning it white. We kept going as stopping was not an attractive option. Soon we came to a place called Monument Lake as the storm was abating. Monument Lake is a resort owned by the City of Trinidad, Colorado a little over 20 miles to the east. Trinidad is the last town in Colorado on I 25 before you enter New Mexico. We were hungry and decided to stop for a late lunch (3:30) there. It is a very nice operation from all appearances with a large lake, boat rentals, small adobe ³cabins´ and lodge rooms for people to stay. We went into the restaurant which was very nice and completely empty but for us. We looked at the menu and ordered. The service was excellent and the food was very good, too. The setting was especially nice. The pictures following are of the dining room and lake.

Leaving Monument Lake we drove back toward our camp. The hail had mostly melted. We noticed some rocks had ended up in the roadway, especially a larger one that would have landed in my lap if we had been driving by when it fell. So sometime in the 2 hours or less we were driving to Monument Lake and then back to the spot the rock had fallen. Glad we missed that experience. When we got back to camp we decided to take a twilight hike around Bear Lake. Very nice and Sam led the way on this one except for crossing the streams a couple of times on flexible logs lying across the stream. There Mark carried him.

Bear Lake at twilight

Mark stops Sam from walking into the lake to check the temp. I will close with a few miscellaneous pictures of the campground, more Monument Restaurant.

Sam checking the contents of his backpack before we leave the campground.

If you get the opportunity this is a good area to spend a few days or more visiting.

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