The Highway of Legends

21 Sep

If you knew me, you’d understand that there was no way I could accept those blue photos!

Frank and I took the Highway of Legends (Route 12) tour yesterday. Most of it was wonderful … the only downside was that the last portion of the trip was a little unsettling. I’ll explain later.


The Wahatoya … West Spanish Peak (as it’s now known) is in the foreground

First off, I found out why they call it the Highway of Legends. The Native Americans felt the two mountains south of town were holy. They were named “Wahatoya“, meaning “breasts of the earth”. It’s really a sight – two mountains that are all alone, separated a bit from the rest of the eastern slope. From what I read, the Ute, Comanche, and Apache all used the mountains as a navigation tool … as did fur trappers, gold hunters and the American settlers. The Indians believed that giants lived on those mountains. Whenever they got angry, they’d toss great rocks in the air … the evidence of which can be found in the rockslides easily spotted at the base of the mountains, as well as the boulders that crop up out of nowhere.


Much better when it’s not taken in “blue”!

As you get closer to West Spanish Peak (Wahatoya is so much more interesting), you notice all the rock formations. Something else I learned … they’re called dikes. Here’s a replacement for the blue photo I posted earlier … it’s the first big dike you come across as you head out of La Veta south on Route 12. The colors all around the dike are magnificent! This is La Veta’s version of Fall. I showed these photos to neighbors here in the park, Dan and Terri. They told me that I should go back in a week … that all of the greens in the photo will have put on their Fall wardrobe.

Another legend involves one formation of dikes called “The Devil’s Staircase”. He evidently used these to ascend from the center of the earth to cause havoc with the locals. Nowadays, I think he’s relocated his main staircase to somewhere in Washington D.C.


The Devil’s Staircase … this is the first step out of the basement.

The first photo shows the main rock in the Devil’s Staircase. Highway 12 runs right underneath it. There aren’t any nearby cars, so it’s hard to get a true perspective on how immense this rock formation is! The peak of that rock has to rise more than 100 feet in the air!  The second photo let’s you see the “staircase” … the other rocks that crop up further along the ridge.


The rest of the Devil’s Staircase.

And we’ve only just begun the trip!

Next stop, Cuchara. It looks to be nothing more than a tourist trap, with a couple of restaurants, some trading posts and Frank’s favorite place – The Dog Bar! We’ve been by twice and they were closed both times. I’m going to give them a call to see when they’re open – the patio is “dog friendly” … we’ll try to do lunch there one day next week when we try to catch additional color changes to the trees.

dog bars

Don’t worry Frank … we’ll make here for lunch before leaving Colorado!

And by the way, La Veta has an entirely different feel to it … nothing like a tourist trap! You can sense the artistic influence. And that sense goes beyond the galleries. The people are an unusual mix here. I picked up coffee at the local shop on Main Street before heading out yesterday. There were a couple of ranchers in there talking about the weather, sitting next to a woman doing some pretty intense writing on her laptop. The guy standing in line behind me was an outdoorsman of some sort, with his camouflage gear on. And sitting on a bench in front of a library (or community center, whatever it is) across the street were two old ladies, taking a break from walking their dogs,chatting up a storm on a Sunday morning. Just a very cool feel to the place.

Anyhow, on with the trip.


Aspen, in all their resplendent beauty!

You really start to ascend in elevation once you pass Cuchara. The scenery along the way is breathtaking. With every turn comes a new set of dikes, or an expansive grove of aspen. It reminds me of one of my favorite John Denver songs, “Starwood in Aspen“. It’s easy to see how he was drawn to this part of the country, especially at this time of year.

north lakes

The dikes about North Lake

Just before you reach the summit, you come across North Lake, one of the water sources for Trinidad, about 25 miles to the southeast, and the end of the Highway of Legends. The lake comes into view quite suddenly … on the other side of one of those “mountain highway” curves. The lake itself is a magnificent blue … but then your eyes are drawn to the dikes in the mountainsides all around it. The second photo is a closeup of the dike you see in the first photo. The colors of the rocks change as the light hits them. You see browns, tans, charcoal grays. I’m really struck by their beauty.

north lake dikes

A closeup of the North Lake dikes.

Not too far past North Lake … and the neighboring Monument Lake … you come to Cuchara Pass, just under 10,000 feet altitude. (The sign says, “9,995 feet”.  Me?  I would have made a five foot tall pile of rocks, put the sign on top of them, and changed it to an even 10,000 feet!)  From here, the south opens up to a vista where you can see all the way to New Mexico. There’s a huge pasture to the west, bordered by an evergreen forest that’s interspersed with groves of aspen. Frank and I stopped here for a bit (Frank was anxious to leave some “p-mail” for the next hound that might use this patch of ground for a rest stop.) There wasn’t much traffic going by … aside from that, the only thing you could hear was the wind. And the occassional steer bellow. The first shot was taken facing due south. The second one shows the meadow and the tree line behind it. The third one captures one of the aspen groves … it’s already lost a lot of its color, but the bark is beautiful in its own right.

cuchara passs

Cuchara Pass … 10,000 feet in altitude.

From here on down into Trinidad, I didn’t take many photos. The mountains started giving way to valley and more towns cropped up as we approached Trinidad. I missed one shot I really wanted to take … there’s a house that’s built on a bridge that’s supposedly quite famous. I found out after the fact that I was looking on the wrong side of the road … and my navigator wasn’t much help. The other minor disappointment was that we didn’t see much wildlife. No elk, no bear, just a few deer. The photos that I did take heading into Trinidad were just “so-so”.

cuchara pass2s

The pastures of Cuchara Pass

We stopped for gas in Trinidad and started to head back up I-25 towards Walsenberg and then over to La Veta on Highway 160. While stopped, I was trying to find something about that house on my cellphone browser (yes, I’m making it into the 21st century!), when I read about an alternate route that connects from I-25 back to Highway 12. The article I read said that it was just as beautiful as the original Highway of Legends. Frank didn’t have any plans back at camp, so we decided to give it a go.


Aspen along the Cuchara Pass pastures

What the article didn’t mention about this “alternate route” was that you’re an idiot if you traverse it in something other than a 4-wheel drive! We headed off the interstate and went through Aguilar, one of those little towns that were built up around the cattle industry years ago. So far so good.

A few miles past Aguilar, the paved road turned into dirt. “No big deal,” I thought. Almost all the county roads in Colorado are dirt roads. Besides, the scenery was pretty cool. Pasture land turned into woods which turned into forest.

The road started become more and more … ummm, what’s the word? Rustic? Unimproved? A setting for a Ford truck commercial? It basically changed from dirt and pebbles to rocks and not much else.

You know how you’ll be going somewhere and the thought comes to you to “turn around“? And you keep going, thinking, “it’ll be okay“. And then you go a little further … and you hear that little voice say, “you sure you don’t want to turn around?” My response?  “No, the map says you have only 14 miles to go to hit Highway 12. I mean 14 miles vs. 25 miles of backtrack. Hell, at least 10 miles of that is bad road we just went over! Besides, it can’t get worse than this!” (Please tell me, I’m not the only one that has stupid thoughts like that on the road. Please!)

Yeah. Right. Okay. The road did get worse … and started to rise. And rise. And then the switchbacks came. The road is now maybe 1 1/2 car widths wide. At this point, I tell Frank, “Look … I’m not going to do anything stupid (well, at least anything ELSE stupid). If we come to a place that’s washed out, or where I might screw up the oil pan, I’m going to turn around, okay?”

Frank dared me to keep going. He didn’t say it, but I could tell from the look in his eyes that he’d be very embarrassed to go back to camp and tell Dan and Terri’s cute little lab that we turned around!

I should have taken a hint from the looks we got from the guys in the conservation truck that was parked at a wide spot in the road. But we kept going. In total, it took us an hour and a half to go 10 of those 14 miles to Route 12. At times, I probably could have gotten out and walked to the top faster than I was driving!

cordova passs

Here’s the sign … just to prove we were there!!!! :o)

We finally broke into a wide area of parking and picnic tables. It turned out to be the summit at Cordova Pass. And as it also turned out, that was the only photo I took along that route. I’ll tell you, there were a few places along the way where I would like to have taken photos – and would have if I wasn’t afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get the car back going if it had stopped. I believe in the laws of inertia! :o)

We headed back down the other side of the pass and it wasn’t too much further before we were back on Route 12. We stopped for a minute … I wanted to check the tires and had forgotten to do that at the summit. Everything was fine.

After Frank stopped kissing the ground, we got back in the car and headed north, backtracking the road on which we started out. Frank asked about the Dog Bar, but it was still closed, so we headed directly back to camp and a lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Dan and Terri were outside their RV when we pulled in. They knew we were going to do the tour and asked how I liked it. I said, “Well, the first part of the trip was great, but then …” and told them about doing the alternate route. I think I got three sentences into it when Dan cut me off, having finally grasped what I was telling them.

Wait a minute … you went up over Cordova Pass??? In … in … your car???? Geezus! You didn’t think to turn around at any point?”

“Oh yeah, a few times … and they started coming with more frequency as I went further down the road. You know how it is.”

Terri said, “Yes, he knows exactly how it is!” Great … I was let of the hook! At least I’m not the only one!  Muts be a male thing.  Or perhaps Scot-Irish. After all, my people were the pioneers back in the day!

A funny thing to add … I showed Dan and Terri some of these photos this morning and Dan started to tell me about a great place to go for a vista shot looking back over the La Veta valley. At one point, he said, “Now the road is unpaved, a little rou … oh hell, what am I saying? You went across Cordova pass in a Hyundai!” I think Frank puffed his chest out a bit at that comment. Unfortunately for him, the lab was duly unimpressed!


A treasured gift from Dan the woodcarver.

One last thing.  Upon sitting down at the picnic table once back at camp, I found this cool little thing! Dan’s hobby is woodcarving … he had heard me playing my guitar in the tent the other night (when I thought everyone would be inside their RV’s and I’d be alone).  He said he sat on a neighboring picnic table for a half-hour, enjoying my playing.  As a thank you, he carved this little guitar and placed it there for us to find when we returned from our day trip!

Very cool!  It will take up a very special place of residence – hanging from my rear-view mirror, along with my rosary beads and Maximilian Koble medal.  I tell you, I’m meeting more and more nice people the further we go on our journey.


Posted by on September 21, 2015 in Travels


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2 responses to “The Highway of Legends

  1. jeanie maginness

    September 22, 2015 at 8:49 am

    As always, your writings are impeccable and descriptive. Love your Starwoods in Aspen part..
    Almost made me feel as though I was there. Makes me feel like I am as close to John Denver (whom I always adored) as I can possibly be.
    I’ve been on dirt roads with my best friend many times where the thought of turning around kept haunting me.
    In Costa Rica, the idea of turning back was always present even before we began.

    Liked by 1 person


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