Ever since I read Huerfano: A Memoir of Life in the Counterculture, by Roberta Price, I've been obsessed with the south-central portion of our state. Her experiences living in a hippie commune deep in the Huerfano Valley, outside of Walsenburg, fascinate me. So whenever I get out of town for the weekend, it's to go and crawl through her past life in our state, into Westcliffe and Walsenburg, La Veta and Cuchara, the tiny specks of Red Wing and Farasita. The Spanish Peaks and CO-12, the Highway of Legends. I'm reminded every time I return how spectacular the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are. How this is Colorado's less-traveled road trip, and the one I'm always glad to be on. Head out of Denver on I-25 southbound, and quickly blow through Colorado Springs and Pueblo straight down to Trinidad (about three hours from Denver), where the Highway of Legends begins. Get out and stretch your legs in downtown Trinidad before embarking on CO-12. The area, known for its infamous sex-change clinic, also has original cobblestone streets and a number of great bars and Mexican restaurants that are worth exploring.
The byway is only about eighty miles long, so you can take your time exploring the various little towns and wildlife areas along the way. To head out, leave Trinidad from the corner of Nevada and University, at the Colorado Welcome Center, and wind through town before passing Lake Trinidad and driving into Cokesdale, Madrid, Valdez and Weston, where there's a breathtaking view of the Sangre de Cristos, or Blood of Christ mountains — so named because the peaks turn red with the morning sun. After Stonewall, you'll start climbing toward Cuchara Pass (elevation 9,995 feet), where the landscape is quite dramatic. But don't get any ideas about owning your own little plot: Almost all of this area is private.
As you descend down the pass into the town of Cuchara, you'll come across Blue Lake and Bear Lake, as well as the Dakota Wall, an imposing sandstone formation, and the Devil's Stairstep. Once you hit La Veta, you're almost all the way around. This is a great Colorado town, perfect for wandering Main Street, checking out all the real-estate listings and dreaming.
Stay on 12 for a few more miles — you'll have postcard-perfect views of the Spanish Peaks and the valley — until it meets U.S. 160. Drive west on 160 to Alamosa (about an hour) and grab a room for the night. Don't miss the Purple Pig Pub (624 Main Street, 1-719-589-2220); it's usually a raucous good time. (I once put out both my knees dancing on tables there.)
From here, decide if you want to head south on U.S. 285 in the morning toward Antonito, where you can take a ride on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, the highest and longest narrow-gauge train in the U.S. (1-888-CUMBRES) — or if you want to head straight to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. If you take the latter route, go north on CO-17 from Alamosa to Six Mile Lane, which you'll stay on for sixteen miles before turning north again on to CO-150, which takes you to the park entrance. Be sure to bring lots of water and some cardboard for sliding down the dunes.
When you're ready to head back toward civilization, go north on 17 to 285, through Buena Vista and Leadville, all the way to I-70 at Vail (about two and a half hours). Robert Frost would be pleased.
Where to Go
Click here for full tour of the Highway of Legends.
All you need to know about the Great Sand Dunes can be found here or in The Essential Guide to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, by Charlie and Diane Winger.
Where to Stay With Pets
Best Hikes With Dogs Colorado has a good list of where you can take Fido on and off leash, and where he's welcome to stay.
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Events Not to Miss
Castles, Kites and Concert in the Great Sand Dunes
June 23, 2007
July 13-15, 2007
La Veta Studio and Gallery Tour
August 4-5, 2007
Trinidad Blues Fest
August 25, 2007