Go West, young man, go West! The Colorado Front Range was a small taste of what was to come for us. Pikes Peak was just the first of the Fourteeners . . . soon we would encounter a whole string of these gargantuan mountains. Only a short drive away, heading due west from Manitou Springs. But first we would need to cross the wide expanse of a high mountain basin, a barren land with few signs of habitation. We had a bird’s eye view of sorts standing on the lofty elevation of Wilkerson Pass, at the eastern edge of what is known as South Park.
It’s a broad, high, grassy, mountain-rimmed basin 40 miles long by 30 miles wide, sandwiched between Pikes Peak and the Collegiate Mountains. The area was once a traditional hunting ground for the Utes, and sometimes certain Plains tribes migrated here seasonally to hunt. It was first visited as early as 1803 by a Kentucky trapper, James Purcell. In 1806, the Zebulon Pike expedition entered the valley. In the ensuing decades it was traversed by occasional fur trappers and other explorers, including the Fremont Expedition. In 1879 the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railway entered South Park, and the area became a shipping and transportation center, servicing the mining districts to the west. Today, it is still mostly empty land, with the occasional ranch dotting the landscape. Mostly, it is utilized as grazing land primarily for cattle. With the exception being the gold medal fishing waters of three major reservoirs all connected by the well-known South Platte River, which has its headwaters in the mountains on South Park’s western edge.
The view from wind-swept Wilkerson Pass is memorable. With the clear dry atmosphere compressing the distance, from this high perch you can easily see the snow-capped mountains of the Collegiate Range on the horizon—all reaching more than 14,000’ of elevation.
Today evidence of habitation in South Park is sparse. Preserved from a time when hardy settlers managed to eke out a living on this empty stretch of land, the Buffalo Peaks Ranch gives a view of what life was like out here. There are a number of buildings still standing, including a main ranch house, 3 bunkhouses, various corrals and livestock pens, a barn and other utility buildings. No doubt, all decaying shadows now of their former selves.
With South Park behind, the elevation begins to climb ever so subtly. Highway 24 passes through the small settlement of Hartsel, skims past Antero Reservoir and then crests Trout Creek Pass. That’s when things really start to get interesting. You suspect something is on the horizon, but nothing has yet materialized. Even though you know you’re close, something awaits on the other side, there’s nothing that can prepare you for the view that’s up ahead.
“Massive” is an appropriate word that might come to mind at first sight. “Holy Moley” might be your words of exclamation. Whatever you’re thinking or saying out loud, it’s a good idea to take the turnoff for the Scenic Overlook–you’ll need a place to pause and soak in the view . . . scenes like this need some time to digest.
It’s simply overwhelming.
Standing there, perhaps with mouths gaping open, you can see a fair section of the Collegiate Range, a successive wall of peaks from north to south. Most astounding of all, Mt. Princeton with its two immense shoulders, is literally in your face. Welcome to the Arkansas River Valley!
Sometimes referred to as “the backbone of the Continent”, the Sawatch Range towers above the Arkansas valley. The early surveyor Dr. Ferdinand Hayden called the range one of the grandest of eruptive masses on the continent. Fifteen fourteeners rise in the Sawatch—more than California and more than any other Colorado range, including the three highest peaks of the Rockies. It is the highest mountain range in the contiguous 48 states. The Range averages about 20 miles in width and stretches for 90 miles. The Continental Divide is an integral part of this portion of the Rocky Mountains. More impressive for their massiveness and altitude than their ruggedness, the name “sawatch” comes from the Indian word meaning “blue earth”—a very appropriate and fitting appellation. They knew how to name their landmarks!
Literally in the shadow of Mt. Princeton with a population of about 3,000 lies the small town of Buena Vista. Established as a supply town in 1864 to serve the rich mining camps north toward Leadville and south up the Chalk Creek Canyon that cuts between Mounts Princeton and Antero, this Upper Arkansas Valley town also brought in farmers and ranchers, attracted to the availability of a year-round water source. In its heyday, Buena Vista was a Saturday-night town, home to dozens of saloons, as well as the Palace of Joy. Things have taken a dramatic turn from those bygone days—today Buena Vista has a wholesome character, a town of families and retiree.
And that’s what sold two good friends from our college days to make Buena Vista their new home. Living in a small Illinois town, Alex and Joan Ware were always the mountain lovers. Having spent many summers in Colorado throughout their married life, in recent years they began focusing on Buena Vista as their possible full-time residence. Last fall they finally bit the bullet, found a house to their liking, packed up their worldly possessions, and landed here for good. They have not once looked back. Buena Vista has won them over and they, along with their little dog Gracie, seem to be ecstatically happy living here.
We couldn’t resist stopping by for a day or three to share in some of that joy.
It turned out that those three days were much too short—as they introduced us to some favorite trails—big hikers as they are. (Gracie even being the most enthusiastic one of the three!)
If you’re ever looking for a great place to enjoy the Colorado mountains, I’d highly recommend you think about choosing Buena Vista as a base. Plenty of campgrounds to choose from, great views to go along with them. There’s great fishing in the Arkansas River, and white water rafting is quite the popular draw. Scenery to set any photographer’s spirit soaring, with an endless variety of views to choose from. But the hiking trails were what got our juices flowing—Alex and Joan knew just what we would like. Chris and Alex headed out for a little leg-warmer the first afternoon of our arrival. Two more fantastic trails awaited on each of the days we were here.
The Alpine Tunnel Trail takes you up in the elevations, after driving some high country rough roads to get there. But the views afforded from this trail are proportionate to the effort expended to get there. It’s a trail to set your spirit soaring . . . as our lungs worked overtime adjusting to the thin air at this high elevation. Still, there’s nothing to compare to the Colorado high country!
The Alpine Tunnel was a true wonder of its time. Built in 1880-82 at an altitude of 11,500 feet, it tunneled under the Continental Divide and is at an even greater altitude than the great, modern Eisenhower Tunnel on Interstate 70. The Alpine Tunnel is 1,830 feet in length, 14 feet wide and 7 feet high. In these mountains this was the only way for the railroad to reach Gunnison, which then became the railhead of the Denver, South Park, & Pacific. It was used until 1910, and today both entrances are closed off. From our side, the opening appeared to be a big pile of rocks.
Another early rising next morning had us driving north toward the old mining town of Leadville. Joan had recently learned about a great hiking trail through wildflower meadows and was anxious to try it out. Being a wildflower fanatic myself, I was more than a little grateful that she had waited to hike it with us. By 9am we were on the well-trod path.
Now this is the Colorado we know and love!
For its second act, the trail entered wildflower meadows and our emotions reached even higher crescendos. It was as if we had entered someone’s secret garden . . . the variety and abundance of these flowers was so amazing. Bountiful species . . . a confetti of colors . . . a delight for the eyes and spirit. There would be no fast-paced hiking through this scenery!
So I warn you now, if flowers aren’t exactly your “thing”, then perhaps you’d best just skim through the rest and head to the end of this post. In truth of an explanation, no words are necessary from here on . . . I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. And give evidence of the day we had here on this high mountain trail at the base of the Mosquito Range.
Flowers aside (as if that could be true), it was a wonderful trail with a gentle grade and mountain peaks in every direction. As elevations increased, the variety of flowers changed, keeping our interest along the route. We followed the path as it led higher up, we determined to set our sights on a high mountain basin just under a 12,000’ elevation. Once there, we saw what was typical of this entire area around Leadville—evidence of the mining activity from the late 1800s. Amazing that relics such as this old mine can withstand the ravages of harsh winter conditions for well over 100 years.
The only thing better than finding a great trail is having good friends to share it with. Many thanks, Alex and Joan—looking forward to more hikes to come!I couldn’t depart this beautiful part of Colorado without at least one early morning outing. Convenient to our campground—just a short drive away—was the Heckendorf Wildlife Viewing Area. A wonderful location having acres of meadowlands, and with Mt. Princeton and Mt. Yale rising beyond. It was a favorite grazing area for elk in the winter months. With hopes of finding good light as the sun rose over the Buffalo Peaks to the east, I rousted myself up before dawn and made the supreme effort to be at that meadow at sunrise.
While just down the road stood an old wooden house from times long gone ideally backdropped by fourteener Mt. Yale. Just one more iconic Colorado scene.
If it isn’t a field of wildflowers that gets my heart beating faster, then I would say it’s those high mountain peaks. Whether seeing them from a great distance, or rising up near where I stand, mountains continue to mesmerize and fill me with awe. To be actually in them . . . to stand on a high alpine meadow . . . well, there’s just nothing that compares with being there.
So that was what motivated me to take the truck and head up to Cottonwood Pass. Leaving from the center of BV, the road is paved all the way up to the Continental Divide at an elevation near 12,000 feet. If you don’t mind lots of curves and some switchbacking, then this is one easy way to reach the Divide. Once there, you’ll have a panorama of mountain peaks as well as wildflowered tundra and alpine lakes. It is an amazing location, a place that I could never tire of. A place deserving of making the effort, a place to find serenity and wonder.
With more to come,
Melinda & Chris