Huerfano County, Colorado
Huerfano County Mountain Passes
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Huerfano World - July 15, 1993
Medano Pass A Cool and Scenic County Getaway
by Nancy Christofferson
Contributed by Louise Adams
Of Huerfano County's 12 mountain passes, Medano is probably the most scenic.
Medano Pass, usually pronounced Mad'-en-aw but sometimes corrupted to Medina
(and worse), crosses the Sangre de Cristos less than 10 miles north of Mosca
Pass, as the crow flies.
The crows can do it, but people can't. Access to Medano is off Highway 69
about eight miles north of Gardner, a half mile beyond the Pakacho (formerly the
JM or Leavell) ranch. The left hand turn toward the west is marked "Medano
Pass" with a US Forest Service sign. The road is designed for four-wheel drive
vehicles and terminates in the Grand Sand Dunes National Monument.
Like Mosca, Medano Pass is an ancient Indian trail leading from the plains
into the Sand Dunes and beyond. Unlike Mosca, however, the Medano road and
region has become the subject of mystery and legends.
In ancient times the path ascended an unnamed creek on the east slope of the
mountains, descended Medano Creek and continued west across the San Luis
Valley. Through the years, however, the Great Sand Dunes have gradually shifted
north and Medano Creek is often absorbed by the sand. Its flow continues
underground during most seasons but does run over the sand in spring run-off and wet
weather. This disappearing stream once mystified settlers.
The creek is not the only thing to disappear. Legend has it that an entire
herd of sheep (evidently of a slow moving variety) once vanished in the dunes.
Other tales tell of horsemen sharing the same fate, of ghosts in the
moonlight, horses running on webbed feet and mysterious music.
Also told is a story of lost treasure. It seems some boys robbed a bank back
in Missouri, crossed the plains and Mosca Pass safely, but ran into problems
when their exhausted oxen got bogged in the sand. Supposedly, the threesome
cached the cash, some $20,000, south of the Medano road, straggled on to
Alamosa to board a stage and were ultimately shot to death robbing yet another bank
in Kansas. The fate of the money is unknown.
Medano Pass first gained fame when Zebulon Pike and his band of explorers
fought through the heavy snow in January 1807.
Remembering our grade school history, Pike was dispatched west by President
Thomas Jefferson to explore the lands of the Louisiana Purchase. He was seeking
what the Americans considered the western and southern boundary of the
purchase, the "Red River." Unfortunately, the location of this river was unknown
and, even worse, the Spanish considered their northern boundary to be the
The expedition reached Colorado in early autumn, sighted the Spanish Peaks to
the southwest and Pike's Peak to the northwest. They continued up the
Arkansas and headed north to scale the mountain which would bear Pike's name. They
did not make it to the summit.
After stumbling around upriver around Salida, losing many of their riding and
pack horses in the Royal Gorge and generally wandering around, the group
finally realized that winter had arrived with a vengeance.
With their few supplies remaining loaded on sleds, the men, mostly hatless
and shoeless, staggered South through he snow until exhaustion and a blizzard
forced them to ground. As the firewood dwindled, Pike and one companion made a
heroic effort to find food, returning a day and a half later with buffalo
Revived, and with the weather clearing, the group entered Huerfano County via
Promontory Divide on Jan. 24, 1907. They saw and recognized the Spanish Peaks
to the southeast.
Pike believed the illusive Red River to be across the mountains to the west.
In front of him, he saw the low spot that was Medano Pass. One of his men,
Hugh Menaugh, was suffering so much from his frozen feet he was left in a camp
with supplies and firewood. This campsite was near the later Bradford post
office on Highway 69.
Pike didn't name a mountain after himself -- someone else did that later --
but he did name the pass Pike's Gap. The original Spanish name, Medano, meaning
sand dune, survived anyway.
Despite the snow, Pike and his men got over the pass with little difficulty
and reaching a stream three days later, Pike promptly declared it to be the Red
River. It was Medano Creek. Later, he reached the Rio Grande and again
decided this was the Red. He got lost a lot for such a famous explorer and ended up
in Chihuahua, Mexico, trying to explain his trip to Spanish officials.
Another person who tried to name the pass after himself was the mountain man,
"Old" Bill Williams. When Gunnison was exploring Huerfano County in 1853, he
crossed Medano, clearing much of it for wagons. He was followed by the fifth
and final Fremont expedition which crossed that December in fair weather. He at
least knew where he was this time.
One thing all people using Medano Pass can agree on is that it is beautiful
but windy. The prevailing west winds buffet the mountains and find egress
through all three of the "M" passes, Mosca, Medano, and Music to the north.
Medano Pass saw heavy traffic during the late 1800's and early 1900s as
prospectors bent on finding their bonanzas poured over every available trail and
pass. Many gold camps were located on the western slopes of the Sangre de
Cristos before the turn of the century, though few lasted for long.
One Ulysses Herard and his parents had tried homesteading on the old Baca
Grant in the San Luis Valley but were unable to obtain clear title to the land,
so in 1875 moved east onto Medano Creek. Here they built a home of handhewn
logs which would serve the Medano Pass area as the Herard post office from
Herard was known for his hospitality as well as his hunting capabilities. He
claimed to have killed 100 mountain lions, presumably one at a time, but
especially liked to tell of his fight with a grizzly bear. This happened when he
rounded a curve on the narrow pass and ran right into two bear cubs. Naturally,
mom was nearby and rushed to the rescue. Herard somehow managed to kill the
grizzly with a hand ax but not without injury, including to his ears after
listening to the bear's angry growls and screams echoing through the canyon.
Today, Medano is a great place to go fishing, hiking or just soaking in the
scenery. The trip to the summit is long, narrow and steep. The trip down the
other side is about the same, plus the road becomes sandy about two miles this
side of the dunes. If one continues on down, plan on reducing the air in the
tires or the vehicle will become completely bogged in the sand. Air to refill
them is available at the park service maintenance buildings. Part of the trip is
in Medano Creek.
Huerfano World - September 2, 1993
Sangre de Cristo Pass once Huerfano's Superhighway
by Nancy Christofferson
Contributed by Louise Adams
One of the most important of Huerfano County's 12 mountain crossings was the
historic Sangre de Cristo Pass, used by Indians, Spaniards, mountain men,
explorers and stage lines.
Part of the noted Taos or Trapper's Trail leading from Bent's Fort to Taos,
the road ascended the Huerfano River from the Arkansas to the old community of
Badito, branched left (southwest) up Oak Creek and crossed the east side of
Sheep Mountain and the west side of Mount Mestas to Sangre de Cristo Creek. The
old pass meets the present North Veta Pass and, roughly, is the same route as
Highway 160 west of the summit and entering the San Luis Valley.
In September 1779 Juan Bautista de Anza, leading his army back to New Mexico
after defeating and killing Chief Cuerno Verde (Green- horn) and many of his
Comanche warriors, followed an obvious trail made by Indians over Sangre de
Cristo Pass. The pathway was believed to have been made by Comanches on their way
to raid Taos and other northern New Mexico settlements.
Upon his arrival in Santa Fe, De Anza proclaimed this the easiest and best
route north to the New Mexican frontier, replacing Raton Pass as the favorite.
De Anza, in fact, named it Sangre de Cristo, meaning Blood of Christ, not for
a red hue but for the golden shades of aspen leaves turning. The new pass was
of great advantage for the Mexican settlements in the Rio Grande and San Luis
Valleys who were looking forward to peaceable trade in the Great Plains after
the Indian problems had been suppressed.
Forty years later, Governor Don Facundo Melgares learned of French trappers
operating in Southern Colorado, still under Spain's flag as a part of Mexico.
Believing the Frenchmen to be spies, since intercepted letters described Sangre
de Cristo Pass as "an easy footpath," Melgares dispatched a small force to
the area to build a fortification to protect the pass from foreigners who might
be considered an invasion.
An adobe fort was built on South Oak Creek, about midway between the summit
of the pass and the Huerfano, and manned with six "badly armed militia." In
1820, they were attacked by "100 white men dressed as Indians," a highly
unlikely story but a good excuse for the one survivor who made his way-back to New
Mexico. The fort was abandoned and fell into ruins. The exact site is known to
few and is disputed. Two things are definite, it was built near a spring and it
is on private property.
When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the nation opened its
doors to "foreign" trade. The Santa Fe Trail from Missouri to New Mexico was
established and the Sangre de Cristo Pass route was a branch of this famous
In 1822, Major Jacob Fowler with eight Missourians came west, feeling out the
new market. After building the first residence on the later site of Pueblo,
ht led his men down the Taos Trail and camped at the old Spanish fort. As only
Fowler could put it, there they "Was like to frees." The major not only liked
to explore the west but also various spellings.
The next day they began up the pass "and along a Ridge leave High Peeks on
both Sides till We took up a High Hill and threw a Pine groave Whar the Snow is
three feet deep - and at about five miles from Camp We Came to the top or
Backbon of the mountain Which devides the Watters of the arkensaw from the Delnort
Heare the Wind Was So Cold We Scarce dare look Round." Translators assure us
this is Fowler's crossing of Sangre de Cristo.
Whether for his spelling or his pioneering spirit, Fowler's later writings
caught much attention. The pass became popular with trappers, traders and
travelers heading for Taos or Santa Fe on horseback. It was the quickest route. A
story is told about Kit Carson's wife, Josefa, being thrown off her horse into
a snowbank near the summit.
In an ongoing search for an intercontinental railroad route, the government
sent a surveying party under Captain John W. Gunnison to explore the Huerfano
area for a suitable, all-weather mountain crossing. He made his way up the
Huerfano, also noting the old Spanish fort, but found the way too rough for
wagons. The path was so tilted in places his wagons had to be roped on the high side
and his men threw their weight onto the ropes to keep the vehicles from
overturning. They attempted to grade part of the trail for wheeled traffic and,
indeed, finally got over the mountain after improving about six miles of the
road. Although Gunnison did a favor for Huerfano County, he gained fame by being
killed by Indians in Utah farther along on his surveying trip.
Using Gunnison's route, wagons began crossing the pass. A weekly stage
carrying mail from Canon City to Fort Garland was in operation about 1860. In 1866,
William "One-Armed" Jones won the contract to transport the weekly mail from
Pueblo to Santa Fe, via Sangre de Cristo Pass. Ten years later, Barnum and
Sanderson obtained the mail contract between old Cucharas and Lake City via
Badito and the pass. Barnum died at Summit House on Sangre de Cristo in 1876.
Besides the stage station built atop the pass, there were large corrals
With the construction of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad over the nearby
La Veta Pass in 1876, traffic on Sangre de Cristo Pass lessened. For a while,
Henry Sefton's toll road connected La Veta Pass with Sangre de Cristo, offering
a quick way from the San Luis Valley to the Huerfano, but competition with
Mosca Pass and Middle Creek toll roads left the Taos Trail high and dry around
the turn of the century.
And "Windey," according to Fowler.
Huerfano World - November 11, 1993
Venerable Veta Pass Visited
by Nancy Christofferson
Contributed by Louise Adams
Economically, the most important of Huerfano County's 12 mountain passes is
La Veta, for without its usage by the railroad, there might not have been a
town of La Veta, and Walsenburg could still be a village.
Actually, there are three La Veta passes, broadly speaking. North Veta, at
9,413 feet, is the present pass on Highway 160. La Veta, the central of the
three, at 9,382 feet, was that developed by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad
for its narrow gauge route in 1876-77. About seven miles farther south, Veta
Pass, 9,100 feet, was later opened by the D&RG for its standard gauge tracks
around the turn of the century.
La Veta Pass was first brought to public attention by Juan Bautista de Anza
who in September 1779 noted its presence after he crossed Sangre de Cristo Pass
following his victory over Cuerno Verde (Greenhorn) and his Comanches. The
two passes converge west of their summits, to follow Sangre de Cristo Creek into
the San Luis Valley. De Anza saw the low crossing branching east from Sangre
de Cristo, and realized its potential as an easy entrance into the Spanish
Peaks country and the plains beyond.
In 1852, when Gunnison was surveying for a route for the intercontinental
railway, he too made note of the branch over La Veta Pass, as well as picking out
two passes farther south, Wagon Creek (Veta) and Indian Creek.
A woman diarist wrote of crossing one of these in the fall of 1866,
describing the road as "frightful." This was probably La Veta Pass.
And, of course, the roads were undoubtedly frightful, or worse, since they
were merely trails.
The first concentrated effort to improve La Veta Pass was about 1874 when
the Abeyta and Sangre de Cristo Toll Road was built. This was also known as the
Baldy Scott Toll Road for its bald-headed owner Henry Sefton's favorite alias
The name Abeyta reigned for several years as the proper designation of the
crossing, until maps began showing it as Veta in 1873. In 1872, it was referred
to as Abaja, meaning low, by the Rocky Mountain News, and George Crofutt, in
his popular tour guides of the 1880s, called it Abata, meaning it was
misspelled. The name Abeyta was retained for the toll road (and north and south Abeyta
creeks) even while Veta was used for the railroad and mountain, Veta Peak
(now Mount Mestas). It might be noted here that a proper pronunciation of Veta in
the Spanish of those times would sound like "Bayta." It is a moot point,
since Veta was, and is, often corrupted to "Beatty."
According to a Pueblo Chieftain article of June 1874, Veta was the right
name. The writer stated "Veta is a Spanish noun meaning vein of ore, vein in wood
or marble. The physical appearance of the principal mountains in the locality
strikingly impresses one with the appropriateness of the name applying to Veta
Creek and Veta Pass." Abeyta, he added, was merely a Spanish surname.
So be it. When the D&RG finally laid its tracks over the summit, Veta Pass
was well known to newspaper readers. D&RG Founder William J. Palmer had been
touting the route for years while rounding up financial assistance to actually
In 1876, he had it. Tracks were laid from old Cucharas, which had been on the
north-south D&RG line since 1873, west to Walsenburg, and rapidly onward. By
1877, the summit of La Veta Pass was crossed, the depot built, and the grade
reached out for Alamosa.
Even before the tracks reached the summit, tourists and reporters were riding
work trains to the terminus so they could see the engineering marvel called
Mule Shoe Curve. The Mule Shoe carried the trains from their westerly course up
Abeyta (Abata, Veta) Creek and turning, crossed the Baldy Scott Toll Road
onto the shoulder of Dump Mountain, now heading east, and up a winding four
percent grade to the summit. At the time of its construction, La Veta Pass was the
highest point ever attained by a railroad.
While the more scientific minded rode these rails to experience the
engineering achievements, others rode it merely for the scenery or the thrills caused
by the rapid ascent and steep drops below them. Passenger trains made this
ascent at about eight miles per hour; freight trains at about six. Descending
caused even more thrills and chills since runaways were not uncommon. By the
1890s, passenger service was sporadic at best. Freights constantly crossed, mainly
bearing ore from the San Juans and merchandise to those mining camps, and long
strings of double-decked cars bringing sheep and produce from the San Luis
Valley bound for eastern markets.
When in 1897 regular passenger service was resumed, D&RG officials had
already decided to move the grade and build to standard gauge. The new grade, built
in 1899-1900, left the old about two miles west of the town of La Veta and
went up Middle Creek to Wagon Creek Pass. This was basically the same route as
the Middle Creek Toll Road, constructed about the same time as the Baldy Scott,
but not as well maintained. Since the route already had two names, Wagon Creek
and Middle Creek, the D&RG called it Veta Pass, probably to make travelers
think they were crossing the more celebrated summit a few miles to the north.
The Wagon Creek crossing was both lower and shorter than the old La Veta Pass
Neither the Abeyta or Middle Creek toll roads closed when the railroad came
in. Both were still in use in 1893, when petitioners asked the county
commissioners to purchase and improve them, and the Middle Creek road was still in use
in the late 1890s. Not everyone could afford to ship or travel by rail, and
those moving herds of cattle or loads of lumber found the cost steep on the toll
roads. Instead of buying Baldy Scott's road, the county obtained the rights
to use the old narrow gauge grade. By the 1920s, the state owned the road and
began developing it through widening and grading. During the 1930s the road
was paved and became one of the heaviest traveled roads across Colorado. This is
not to say it was a good road, for it remained steep, curving and narrow. It
was common to spot wrecks of cars and especially trucks down the hillsides
from the curves they failed to maneuver.
Winter weather was always a problem on the passes. In early days, blocked
tracks meant delayed mail and late arrivals for passengers, not to mention frozen
sheep, but seldom did the trains remain trapped for long. One notable
exception was in 1881 when freight was caught in a heavy snow for over a day. As a
result, the engineer lost a foot to frostbite, but he continued to work for many
The same conditions are a delight to certain people. La Veta Pass was the
site of a ski area in the 1950s and still draws winter sportsmen. North Veta Pass
was completed in the mid-1960s and the community established on La Veta Pass
declined. The restaurant, school and sawmill were closed, joining the old
stone depot of 1877, in ghostly stillness. Recently a family renovated the
abandoned Lone Pine Inn but La Veta Pass, once traveled by hundreds, now attracts
only the history buffs, a few sightseers and cross country skiers.
Huerfano World - January 23, 1994
by Nancy Christofferson?
Contributed by Louise Adams
Huerfano County has been drawing "tourists" for centuries, but unlike today,
the early travelers spent some time appreciating the local resources.
What drew the earlier visitors were the lush river valleys with their wild
fruit trees, abundant wildlife, vast grasslands and convenient mountain passes
to allow them to get, yes, somewhere else.
The 12 passes of Huerfano County are north to south along the range, Medano,
Mosca, Manzanares, Pass Creek, Sangre de Cristo, North Veta, La Veta, Wagon
Creek (Veta), Indian Creek, Cucharas, Cordova (Apishapa) and, zipping back to
the north, Ophir Creek on Greenhorn Mountain. The most important of these,
Medano (9,900 feet), Mosca (9,713 feet), Sangre de Cristo (9,459 feet) and the
three "Vetas," have been discussed in previous articles.
Manzanares Pass, said to be named for Pioneer J.M. Manzanares (often
misspelled as Manzaneres), leads from the upper Huerfano near Malachite south to the
old mines on Greyback, near the abandoned town of Russell just west of the
summit of North Veta and La Veta passes.
Not a great deal is known about Manzanares. It was used by fur trappers
heading for Taos from the Arkansas River, the Wet Mountain Valley and beyond and
later by those traveling to Taos with various trade goods. The way was rocky and
steep, but a wagon road was graded in the 1880s.
The only concerted effort to improve it was around the turn of the century,
when the mines on the upper Huerfano were producing. During this time, numerous
gold and silver mines were worked and a camp named McMillan existed on the
north flanks of the Sierra Blanca. Freighting in supplies and heavy equipment to
the community, consisting of a hotel, sawmill, post office, company
boardinghouse, blacksmith and other facilities, was difficult enough, but shipping the
ore out was even worse. The narrow road (familiar to those hiking to Lilly
Lake) invited turnovers of the heavily loaded wagons and once navigated and
better roads attained, the freighters were still some 50 miles from the railroad at
For this reason, some effort was made to widen and otherwise make passable
Manzanares Pass, for once across, the roads of Greyback Gulch led to the
shipping facilities of the Denver and Rio Grande at Russell. From the Huerfano River
to the summit of Manzanares (9,800 feet) was but six miles, and the descent
down Placer Creek was seven miles. When mining abruptly ended at McMillan in
1904, the need for the road basically ended as well.
Pass Creek Pass (9,400 feet) is familiar to all of us, because it's still
How Pass Creek Pass got such a redundant name is unknown, since in the early
days it was generally referred to as the Ute Trail.
Legends say the Spanish mined in the Pass Creek canyon and that there is,
somewhere, a rock bearing the autograph Jean L' Archeveque supposedly carved back
in the early 1700s. One source says this Archeveque was known as one of the
murderers of LaSalle.
Remember New Mexico Governor Melgares who had the Spanish Fort built in 1819
on Sangre de Cristo Trail? During Melgares' survey of the area to determine
the best site for the fort, "The Road of the Narrow Gap" was discovered near the
summit of the Sangre de Cristo path, branching north to Pass Creek. Melgares
noted the road took them to the Huerfano River where all the roads in the
region converge "from the valley of the Huerfano, Valleys of the Soldiers [Spanish
Peaks] and Valleys of the Sierra Mojada [Wet Mountains]." He evidently failed
to note the road over Mosca Pass to the San Luis Valley also came in at the
The old Ute Trail along Pass Creek, added to the attraction of the other
nearby trails, drew Tom Sharp to Pass Creek in 1868. Sharp built a trading post on
the north side of the Huerfano River and set up business as a merchant and
stockraiser. His adventures with Ouray and his Utes are well-chronicled.
Early travelers across the Ute Trail reported finding chunks of copper along
the way, although no vein was discovered. Following this tip, Sharp
established the town of Malachite (named for a type of copper) north of his trading post
in 1880. By January 1881, the Huerfano Herald reported the town "is largely
laid out, but as yet thinly populated." The community boasted a store, post
office, dance and meeting hall and several dozen residences spread out around it.
Sharp also constructed a stamp mill in anticipation of the boom, which failed
The largest mine on Pass Creek was the Copper Bull. In 1882-1883 some $30,000
was expended on developing the mine in which five veins were discovered and
worked. In 1902 Charles 0. Unfug, general manager, announced the organization
and incorporation of the Copper Bull Mining Company in St. Louis, MO. Soon,
interest was rekindled and the mines reopened. That fall more buildings were
erected at the Copper Bull and A.S. McIntire became manager. In January 1904 the
force of mines was increased and in September 1905, a wagon road was built to
Well, the mine petered out around 1910, but the improvements made to Pass
Creek road, added to expedite the shipment of ore, remained for the use of
settlers up and down the canyon. Around 1902, it was made a county road. Despite the
flash floods in the summer of 1936 which tore out all six bridges along the
way, the road outlived its older and more prestigious sister, Sangre de Cristo
Pass, the Taos Trail. Besides it's a very scenic drive!
Between Pass Creek and Indian Creek Pass are the three "Veta" passes, North
Veta, La Veta and Veta (Wagon Creek).
Early explorers of the area, including de Anza in 1779, Melgares in 1819 and
Gunnison in 1853, noted in their writings the existence of these as well as
one seen to the South. This was Indian Creek Pass (9,715 feet).
Melgares' survey called it an old game crossing. In their usual fashion,
Indians followed these trails, not only in pursuit of game but also because they
understood the animals generally traveled the easiest route.
Another reason for the Indians using this route was the existence of the
Sulphur Springs, especially for those with rheumatism or other joint problems, for
the iron arsenic and other minerals were beneficial and soothing.
If the Indians liked it, the trappers liked it. "Uncle Dick" Wootten, known
best for his toll road across Raton Pass, told a story of trapping on Indian
Creek, probably in the 1860s. As he lay sleeping one night, "not two yards from
our feet I saw a black object which looked to me as tall as a telegraph pole."
A good mountain man, he was sleeping with his gun, which he raised and fired.
The object disappeared and by light of day, Wootten found he'd bagged himself
a large grizzly!
In 1896, when La Veta Pass was the route of the narrow-gauge railroad and
Wagon Creek Pass boasted a much-maligned toll road, many Huerfanos signed
petitions to have Indian Creek Pass a county or state road. Surveys were made but
good old political procrastination kept it from development. When the railroad
was gauged to standard width and moved to Wagon Creek (Veta) Pass, the old grade
over La Veta received the upgrade to county and state improvements.
Indian Crook road is in the San Isabel National Forest. It is navigable only
by motorbikes or four-wheel drive and at the summit one finds an exceptional
view of the barbed wire fence surrounding Forbes Park.
Indian Creek, along with Cuchara Pass, may be the most notable for having
just one name.
Cuchara or Cucharas Pass (9,994 feet), both versions are widely used, is a
relative newcomer compared to the ancient trails over the passes to the north.
Although at least one historian wrote that Juan de Ulibarri led his Spanish
and Pueblo Indian forces across Cuchara Pass in 1706, later authors agreed he
did not. The problem was in early translations of Ulibarri's diary, the
reference to "Las Tetas" that his men passed on their west flanks, was thought to
mean the Spanish Peaks. Later authorities think "Las Tetas" are small rounded
So if Ulibarri didn't cross it, who did? Animals, Indians, trappers did, but
the first mention of the pass was by Gunnison in 1853, who said they had
"camped across the trail of a party of hunters from Taos who had crossed Culebra
Pass to the head of the Cuchara." This could be a different route, possibly the
one near Trinchera Peak from the San Luis Valley, but we'll assume it's
The pass connected the fertile valleys of the upper Cucharas and Purgatoire
Rivers, settled in the 1880s by stockraisers and potato farmers. Although Henry
Daigre of La Veta is known to have paid to have the road upgraded in the
1870s it remained in poor shape, being susceptible to washouts and falling rock.
Even the residents of the
upper Cucharas at Nunda (now Cuchara) were not always able to traverse the 12
miles to town and enjoyed writing letters to the editor about the road, 100
years before this practice regained its popularity.
Another indication of the condition of the Cuchara Pass road in 1885 was that
the mail route from La Veta, south 12 miles to Nunda, 11 miles to Stamford,
and four miles to Stonewall, twice a week, was by horseback. But then, maybe
the folks along the way just didn't get much mail. The route may have been
minimally maintained but remained open and was used by homesteaders' covered
wagons, timber and potato wagons. Eventually it was made a county, then state road.
It was open for automobile travel as early as 1916, but it may have taken
quite some time, and a few extra tires, to make the trip. The route has been
changed several times and the road we know today, paved in the mid-1960s, is
farther west than the original.
Branching off at the summit of Cuchara Pass is the Cordova or Apishapa Pass
road. Apishapa may best be known as the most-often misspelled pass in the
Known to fur trappers (who evidently had even more trouble pronouncing
Huerfano County names than present-day tourists) as Fish Pass in the 1880s, Apishapa
remained little more than a track until the 20th century. The name Apishapa
is said to be an Apache word for "stinking water," referring to stagnant ponds
in the river whose headwaters this pass crosses.
Improvement of the pass began in 1933 by Civil Works Administration crews to
turn the way into a passable road for forest access, both for tourism and
Apishapa became Cordova Pass in 1935 when the Works Progress Administration
completed grading the road for automobile travel and dedicated it to Las Animas
County Commissioner J.J. Cordova who was credited with getting the project
done. Cordova was changed back to Apishapa in the 1940s and back to Cordova in
Cordova is the highest of Huerfano County's 12 passes at 11,005 feet and is a
beautiful drive during the summer and fall months.
Ophir Creek is not strictly a pass, but a road crossing the Promontory Divide
which defines the boundary between Huerfano, Pueblo and Custer counties.
Like Cordova/Apishapa/Cordova, Ophir Creek was a "relief" project of the
1930s, when the unemployed were put to work on government sponsored building and
improvement work. At the time the road was started, in 1934, there were 740 men
in Huerfano County employed on these projects, with a weekly payroll of
This was a CCC project. The CCC, known variously as Citizens Civilian
Conservation and Civilian Conservation Corps, was open to young men from all over the
United States and drew many local youth. They were kept busy with erosion
control, roads and bridges, forest projects and building structures, notably the
county's Forest Service offices and residences in La Veta and Gardner.
The CCC started work on the road in December 1934, working up "Cottonwood
Creek, through Devil's Hole and over to Ophir Creek." When the CCC camp was
established in Gardner in 1936, the work was ongoing. It was completed several
years later and is a scenic trip except during hunting season when RVs park bumper
to bumper at the summit.
A possible 13th pass is Muddy Creek. This was identified by Lt. E.H. Ruffner
of the Hayden Survey in 1873 for the crossing of Promontory Divide between
Custer and Huerfano counties, roughly at the same location as Highway 69 travels
With the growing popularity of the Scenic Highway of Legends, and increased
traffic over Cuchara and Cordova Passes, many travelers may think they are
seeing some undiscovered byways. Let's not tell them they're a couple of centuries
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© Karen Mitchell