- Name: West Spanish Peak (13626 ft / 4153 m)
- Where: Culebra Range, Colorado
- Distance: 7 miles round trip
- Difficulty: Hard (2,500+ elevation gain and steep rocky hiking)
- More Information: Sangres.com
Two of the most noticeable mountains in southern Colorado are the Spanish Peaks located to the west of Walsenburg, Colorado.
These mountains also sometimes called the Twin Peaks were one of the early landmarks used by pioneers that traveled on the Santa Fe Trail through southern Colorado to Trinidad and over the Raton Pass to Santa Fe. Even before then the Spanish Peaks were of significance to the local Native-Americans with the Utes calling them the Wahatoyas which means “Breasts of the Earth”. When viewed from the plains it is obvious why the Utes would have thought this:
Besides the Native-Americans the early Spanish explorers also took note of these mountains and is ultimately where it got it name the Spanish Peaks from. The area south of the Arkansas River used to be part of the Spanish Empire in the Americas to include the Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range that the Spanish Peaks is part of. Legend has it that a Spanish expedition to the area to look for gold in the 1500′s found a gold strike on the side of one of the Spanish Peaks. The Spanish expedition enslaved some local Native-Americans to work the mine and after extracting as much gold as they could carry they killed the slaves and buried them in the mine after concealing its entrance. The expedition then traveled down the mountain to follow the Purgatoire River out of the mountains. Along the river the expedition was ambushed and killed by Native-Americans and thus the reason the river was given the name Rio de las Animas Perdido en Purgatorio (River of Souls Lost in Purgatory) by the Spanish and later shortened to just the Purgatoire River. With the death of the expedition the location of the gold mine in the Spanish Peaks was lost with it. Some people still believe the gold mine is still somewhere up there in the Spanish Peaks just waiting to be found:
Other researchers believe that the gold mine was actually located in the nearby Marble Mountain along the Sangre De Cristo mountains near the present day Westcliffe. Various Spanish helmets and other artifacts found over the years gives credence to an early Spanish presence in the area, but the stories of lost gold mines may just be that stories.
Enough with the history lesson and now back to the hike. In just about any other state these two mountains would likely be well known due to their scenic beauty, but in Colorado they lie mostly in obscurity because the highest peak doesn’t rise above 14,000 feet. In Colorado many hikers have a fixation on hiking up 14,000 foot mountains, known as 14′ers and thus miss the opportunity to climb some of the other great non-14′ers in Colorado. This is a shame because the Spanish Peaks Wilderness has a variety of trails with the hike up to the summit of the West Spanish Peak being the most popular. The trailhead for the West Spanish Peak is accessed by driving up Cordova Pass just outside of the small village of Chuchara off of Highway 12. Cordova Pass is a dirt road but it is in good shape and easily passable by a passenger car. Despite this being the most popular trail in the wilderness there was only a few other cars parked at the trailhead the recent Saturday I decided to go up.
The trailhead starts at 11,005 feet in altitude where hikers first pass through a pleasant pine forest:
The trail then exits the forest into this large meadow that has a beautiful view of the West Spanish Peak:
After crossing the meadow the trail then begins to switchback up the side of the mountain to reach the treeline pictured above. On the way up the trail there are few clearings where awesome views of the surrounding forest and the regions famous rock walls can be seen:
These rock walls that are often called The Great Dikes were pushed up to the surface when volcanic activity that created the Spanish Peaks occurred 25 million years ago. The dikes were a mixture of various elements such as granite and sandstone that mixed with lava that had leaked into subterranean chambers below the Earth’s surface. The lava cooled and hardened in these underground chambers until it was pushed above the surface with the creation of the Spanish Peaks and other nearby mountains.
Another great view from the switchbacks was of the Culebra Range portion of the Sangre De Cristo Mountains that can be seen rising adjacent to the Spanish Peaks to the West:
The Culebra Range is another one of these underappreciated hiking destinations in Colorado due to its distance from major population centers and the fact it has only one 14′er. The 14,047 ft (4,282 m) Culebra Peak which is pictured above as the mountain located the farthest to the left has the distinction of being the only 14,000 foot mountain in the US that is privately owned. Anyway after many stops to appreciate the view, the group I was hiking with reached the treeline after about an hour of hiking. The steep rocky face of the West Spanish Peak loomed over us:
The lower portion of the rock face had many wildflowers growing in the dirt that had accumulated between the rocks:
Many hikers finish their walk here at the treeline because the hike up to the summit of the West Spanish Peak can be intimidating due to its steepness. For people just hiking to treeline the views are outstanding anyway without having to hike to the top of the mountain. Here is the view looking down into the Chuchara Valley where one of the longer rock walls can be seen:
Here is the view looking once again towards the Culebra Range:
The mountain with the snow on it on the right side of the photograph is of Trinchera Peak that is the northern most 13′er in the Culebra Range. It rises to an altitude of 13,517 feet and is on my short list of mountains to hike up in the area. Unlike many other hikes in Colorado that feature good trails to the summit, the West Spanish Peak is just to steep to maintain a trail. It is literally just a gigantic pile of rocks that makes for loose footing and thus people need to take caution when hiking up this peak.
Since the loose rock makes constructing a trail challenging, the Forest Service has instead piled up some rocks in various places to denote a trail. Sometime the rock piles can be hard to spot and thus many hikers can be seen blazing their own path up the mountain. One of the prominent features to head towards while going up the mountain is this large rock face pictured below:
The path most people take up this mountain goes to the left of this rock face. Something I found interesting about the rock face was that some water could be seen dripping down it, but when I climbed the West Spanish Peak over 10 years ago this rock face was actually a small waterfall. In fact there was so much water flowing underneath the rocks that it was actually noisy. Due to the abnormally less snow fall this year the creek running underneath the rocks could not even be heard and the waterfall was just a trickle unfortunately.
Going past the rock face the hike up the mountain just continues to get steeper and the group I was hiking with was novice hikers so we had to stop repeatedly for breaks:
The breaks had less to do with the steepness but rather the altitude which the group I was with was having a hard time acclimating to. I have always advised people hiking at altitude to not overly push themselves and instead take plenty of breaks to avoid altitude sickness. I really didn’t mind having to take more breaks than I am used to while hiking because the views from the mountain of the Culebra Range were just absolutely spectacular:
Here is the view looking back down the big pile of rocks we were hiking up during one of our breaks:
Here is a picture of Highway 12 where it passes through one of the gaps in the Great Dikes on its way to Chuchara:
When we reached the point in the below picture the summit was in view and the mountain became less steep:
My hiking party made one final push to the summit and needless say everyone was excited when we reached the top and saw the summit cairn for the 13626 ft (4153 m) West Spanish Peak:
From the summit we noticed that the top of the West Spanish Peak was actually quite a long ridgeline:
Here is a picture of the rest of my hiking group enjoying the views from the summit:
They were quite excited to hike up their first 13′er and even more excited about the incredible views. The below picture has a great view of the various Great Dikes running north towards the 11,569 foot Mt. Maestas:
The charming little town of La Veta could be seen down below the Spanish Peaks as well:
Here is a closer look at La Veta:
Off in the distance to the northwest the impressive summit of the 4,345 ft (4,372 m) Blanca Peak:
Blanca Peak is the highest mountain in the Sangre De Cristo Mountains and the 5th highest overall in Colorado. From the west side of the summit I then began to walk over to the east side to take some pictures of the 12,683 ft (3,866 m) East Spanish Peak that was backdropped by the Great Plains behind it:
From the ground the Spanish Peaks look similar in size but from the summit of the higher West Spanish Peak it is easier to see how East Spanish Peak is nearly a thousand feet shorter:
Regardless the East Spanish Peak is a stunning mountain that I have plans to hike up later this year. Finally from the east side of the summit I took in views of the forested land lying between the Spanish Peaks and the Raton Mesa far out in the distance:
This hilly forested land was once home to many coal mines that in the early 1900′s made southern Colorado an economic powerhouse. There was in fact more people that lived in this area 100 years ago then there are now. Over the decades all these mines eventually closed except for one that recently reopened. However, due to new technology to extract natural gas the region has seen small boom in the economy in recent years from drilling. From the top of the summit of the West Spanish Peak none of the area’s natural resource extraction was visible and instead the view was just beautiful.
Overall the Spanish Peaks Wilderness and the Culebra Range is a mostly overlooked hiking destinations for many people in Colorado which is unfortunate. The region is really beautiful with an interesting history and some great hikes. So for any Coloradans that haven’t made it to this part of the state I highly recommend taking a weekend and checking out what this region has to offer to include hiking up the beautiful West Spanish Peak.