Highway of Legends Yields Fall Colors, Local History

September 21, 2014

It's not too late to do a fall color drive in Colorado. In fact, sometimes the late colors can be the best of the season.

Even if the show is pretty much over for the aspens in the mountains, you still may see bright golds, oranges and even tinges of red if you head south to the Cuchara Valley.

Take Interstate 25 south from Pueblo. In Walsenburg, head west on U.S. 160, then south on Colorado Highway 12 toward the towns of La Veta and Cuchara.

One of Colorado's less-traveled roads, the Scenic Highway of Legends curves around the Spanish Peaks and culminates in Trinidad, just this side of the New Mexico border in southern Colorado.

If the visitor center is open in Walsenburg, stop and pick up a map. It will tell you more about what you're seeing. But even without a map, you can drive it and appreciate its beauty, if not all its history.

The scenic highway technically stars in LaVeta, where you’ll find the historic Fort Francisco. Take an hour to stop and see the fort, which was a supply fort in its day. Be sure to ask about and see their letter from President Abraham Lincoln.   

  The paved highway is lined with some amazing geologic wonders, such as Stonewall, a massive rock formation that juts 250 feet above the earth – part of the Dakota Sandstone formation, which is millions of years old. You’ll also see the Dakota Wall, part of the same formation, and Devil’s Stairsteps, a series of about 400 stone dikes that radiate out like the spokes of a wheel from the Spanish Peaks.

The peaks form the hub of the Highway of Legends. These two volcanic domes tower above the surrounding terrain.

Several scenic lakes dot the byway, including the lovely Monument Lake.

An interesting side trip on this route, and one that may deliver a treasure trove of fall colors, is Cordova Pass. 

Jose Cordova dreamed of a road that would connect the town of Aguilar, east of the Spanish Peaks, with the town of Cuchara, west of the twin mountains.   A prominent citizen of southern Colorado at the turn of the 20th century, Cordova wanted to bring residents of the two towns closer together. Only 30-some miles apart, it took days to get from one to the other.

As a Las Animas County commissioner, he relentlessly sought funding for the road and won it in 1928. It became a joint project of the WPA (Work Projects Administration) and the Civilian Conservation Corps, and was finished in 1934. Cordova died in 1929 and never saw the road completed, but it was named for him.

In 2002, the unpaved byway was added to the Highway of Legends route. Cordova Pass offers views not seen from the main highway.  Here, you feel almost like you could reach out and touch the Spanish Peaks (at over 12,000 and 13,000 feet).   To explore this byway, turn east at Cuchara Pass and follow the Cordova Pass Road. It's about five miles to the summit.   At the top, there are restrooms, a picnic area and hiking trails. Even though you're probably already puffing at 11,000 feet in altitude, the trails are relatively short, flat and easy-going -- some even handicapped accessible.

From the summit, continue east to the Apishapa Arch, a hole in the rock created by dynamite, not nature. You can drive through it.

From here, you should backtrack to the Highway of Legends.  You’ll pass tiny towns with rich histories, including Coaldale, where you’ll spot the remnants of 350 coking ovens.

This drive takes most of a day, especially if you stop to hike. Pack a picnic lunch or cooler and make sure your gas tank is full because there's limited access to food and fuel up here.

But it’ll be worth the trip. And who knows? You might find a few fall colors and historic gems along the way.

WEB EXTRA

IF YOU GO

For more information, visit http://www.colorado.com/articles/colorado-scenic-byway-highway-legends

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Linda DuVal
Linda DuVal

 Linda DuVal is the former travel editor for The Gazette, a freelance travel writer and winner of several Lowell Thomas awards. She is the co-author of Insider’s Guide to Colorado Springs and writes a local Web site, Pikes Peak on the Cheap (www.pikespeakonthecheap.com).

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