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|July 2 - July 8, 2009
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The Two Brothers
Adventure and peace meld in Spanish Peaks Wilderness
by Dave Philipps
Spanish Peaks Wilderness: These mountains have gone by many names.
The American Indians called them “Wahatoya,” or “Breasts of the World,” from which all water in the world flowed. The Spanish knew them as “Dos Hermanos” — “The Two Brothers.” The mountains were important guideposts on the Santa Fe Trail and remain the ambassadors of the Rocky Mountains, the easternmost peaks, visible from as far off as the east side of Colorado Springs, 110 miles away.
On a sunny Friday morning this month, we had these famed mountains to ourselves, and, it seemed, the entire Spanish Peaks Wilderness, a 19,200-acre slice of scenic backcountry in the San Isabel National Forest.
In a state where skiing, fourteeners, rafting and ATV trails attract the crowds, this area has none of the above, including the crowds.
It’s a pristine alpine landscape with a rich geology, abundant animal life, great camping and stellar scenery.
“There might be other places in Colorado that are more precipitous and more challenging, but there are few places I’ve been to in the state that give me a sense of peace and adventure at the same time and the sense this is a very special place,” said Conger Beasley, author of the 2001 book Spanish Peaks: Land and Legends.
“I’m going to be cremated when I die, and I certainly want a portion of my ashes to be scattered there in the Spanish Peaks,” he said.
Beasley, who lives in Missouri, first encountered the twin peaks on a drive to California in the 1970s and was awestruck by the way they rise abruptly from the valley floor.
Formed 26 million years ago by volcanic pressure, they stand apart from the nearby Sangre de Cristo Range, and are known for the dikes, or natural rock walls, that extend from the mountains like spokes on a wheel. That is how most people are introduced to the Spanish Peaks.
But though the peaks are fewer than 20 miles from Interstate 25, relatively few people explore further.
“It really isn’t heavily used, compared to other areas, even on this forest, and that’s one of the neat things about it, that you can go into that fairly small wilderness area, 19,200 acres, and find an isolated place where you’re probably not going to see anybody else,” said Paul Crespin, district ranger for the San Isabel National Forest.
Our journey began June 4. Traveling south on I-25, the mountains were visible before we reached Pueblo. By the time we turned off U.S. Highway 160 to head into La Veta, the peaks dominated the landscape.
Turning left on Cordova Pass Road, at the summit of La Veta Pass, we wound our way toward treeline on one of the best forest roads I have ever driven — my CD player didn’t skip once. After 6.5 miles, we reached Cordova Pass, the best trailhead for access to the Spanish Peaks Wilderness.
The wilderness is relatively new, designated by Congress in 2000 with surprisingly little controversy, considering how wilderness designations often pit off-road vehicle enthusiasts and mining interests against environmentalists.
We camped at the Cordova Pass campground, three campsites at 11,248 feet that offer sweeping views of the Sangres but little protection against the biting wind, and hit the trail at 7 the next morning.
There are about 50 miles of trails in and around the wilderness, most of them one-way treks that require hikers to double back or leave a shuttle car elsewhere along the road.
They range in difficulty from the gentle, handicapped-accessible Vista Point Trail to the rugged West Peak Trail, which goes to the top of West Spanish Peak.
Hoping for panoramic views from the top of the higher of the two peaks — 13,623 feet versus 12,708 feet — we chose the West Peak Trail. East Spanish Peak may be lower, but it involves twice the distance and elevation gain.
A glance at the trail register at Cordova Pass showed that about one or two groups a day enter this wilderness, but our day must have been a busy one. We saw four people.
The West Peak Trail is not for the faint of heart. A gentle forest climb ends at treeline, and the “trail” then gains 1,600 feet of elevation in a mile, a steep scramble over loose talus, poorly marked with cairns, fading in and out of existence. It took us 2.5 hours to reach the summit, and we crossed just a few small snowfields.
From the summit, the Southwest lay before us like a map out of a history book. The Utes and Comanche, Spanish conquistadors and French trappers, American gold seekers and settlers — they all looked up at this spot, a guidepost in an age before road signs, a majestic marker that told them their journey was a little closer to an end.
To the west, the white-capped Sangres formed an imposing barrier to the San Luis Valley beyond. To the north, the Cuchara Valley, broken by now-tiny rock dikes, was green and mostly unsettled, like it always has been.
— The Gazette/MCT
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