Scenic Byway: Highway of Legends

A massive sandstone wall soars skyward from the grassy terrain. As it extends up a slope to the bald, gray Spanish Peaks, its pink, ochre and rust tones shimmer under the afternoon sun. Like spokes on a wheel, the Dakota Wall and more than 400 other rock formations radiate from the towering sentinels.

Throughout human history, these unique formations, called dikes, have inspired enchanting tales that spice stunning views along the Highway of Legends. Besides admiring the scenery, byway travelers can stroll through coal mining towns and Hispanic settlements, explore galleries and museums, shop, hike, fish and picnic. Autumn adds spectacular leaf-peeping.

Highway of Legends near la veta
A 500-foot-high volcanic plug, Goemmer Butte, rises from the valley floor near La Veta.

Anchored by Walsenburg and Trinidad, the Highway of Legends curves westward on Colorado 12. The 82-mile road climbs from semi-arid plains into verdant river valleys and San Isabel National Forest before cresting at Cuchara Pass.

At the northern entry point, the byway starts in Walsenburg, once known as “The City Built on Coal.” Nearby, Lathrop State Park offers water recreation on two lakes and hiking on high plains grasslands.

Pinyon pine and juniper woodlands dapple rolling hills framing the Cuchara River Valley. The twin Spanish Peaks tower on the southern horizon. The Utes called them Huajatolla, meaning the “breasts of the earth” or wellspring of life.

The highway then turns south to La Veta. Established in the 1860s as a fort, the community thrives on ranching and the arts. Visitors can experience both eras by touring the Fort Francisco Museum and browsing through the town’s shops and galleries.

Outside of town, odd geological formations capture travelers’ attention. Goemmer Butte, a volcanic plug, sticks up 500 feet from the valley floor like a sore thumb.

Profile Rock teases viewers to discern images of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in its curves and crevasses. This landmark is one of the area’s hundreds of dikes — unique walls created by volcanic action that forced molten rock into fractures in sedimentary rock. Subsequent erosion wore away the softer material, leaving fin-like formations standing up to 100 feet high and measuring 1 to 100 feet in width. Radiating out from the peaks, they stretch as far as 14 miles.

scenic byway colorado
Atop Cuchara Pass, a side road fringed with aspens leads to the west Spanish Peak.

As the byway parallels the Cuchara River, it approaches an impressive dike named Devil’s Stairsteps. According to legend, the devil left his fiery abode eons ago to survey the world. He climbed the steps to the top of the Spanish Peaks, admired what he saw and began plotting to seize the mountains and valleys. When God learned of his plans, he claimed the area as his own and forbade the devil from entering Cuchara Valley ever again.

Dense fir and spruce forests replace scrub oak woodlands as the road winds upwards. After passing through a gap in towering Dakota Wall, the byway reaches Cuchara. The town’s economic base evolved from potato growing and cheese making to mountain resort activities enhanced by San Isabel National Forest. Village shops offer antiques, handcrafted goods and gifts.

Atop 9,994-foot-high Cuchara Pass, the golden hue of aspens, in fall, dribbles down the slopes like honey. West Spanish Peak fills the scene with its stately pyramid shape. A 6-mile side road (County Road #6 to Cordova Pass) leads to the handicap accessible Salazar Trail, and the awe-inspiring Vista Point. At this elevation, several dike “wheel spokes” radiating from the “hub” can be viewed at one time. To the south unfolds a vista of Trinidad, the basalt-capped mesa called Fisher’s Peak and New Mexico.

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As the byway descends, it passes two high-altitude lakes cradled in forests. Anglers hook rainbow, cutthroat, kokanee and brown trout in North Lake. According to lore, Monument Lake was created from the tears of two chiefs who cried in desperation when they failed to find water for their tribes.

A 250-foot-high dike heralds the entrance to the ranching community of Stonewall. From here, the byway turns east into the rich farmlands of Purgatoire River Valley. In the 1860s, New Mexican settlers built Cordova Plaza and other quaint Hispanic villages along the river.

highway of legends spanish peaks
A dike – a rock wall created by volcanic action – climbs a slope up to the Spanish Peaks.

Several mining and coking camps thrived in this coal-laced region in the early 1900s. Ebony slag piles and the remains of 350 coking ovens border the byway at Cokedale. The former mining camp looks much as it did in its heyday. Locals reside in tiny square houses whose four-sloped roofs peak in the center. Signs identify the former bath house, mercantile store and other company buildings.

Fringed by pinyon pine and juniper woodlands, the highway reaches Trinidad State Park. In addition to hiking, boating and fishing, it features a watchable wildlife area.

Following a three-quarter-mile nature trail in Long’s Canyon, hikers may see mule deer, collared lizards and cottontail rabbits. Wildlife blinds overlook wetlands, making it easier to observe great blue herons and other birds.

From the byway’s southeastern point at Trinidad, high plains stretch endlessly eastward. On the western horizon, though, the slate-gray Spanish Peaks shine like beacons, luring travelers to climb their slopes to shimmering lakes, dense forests and unique rock formations charmed with legends.

If You Go

The Highway of Legends curves westward on Colorado 12 from its entry points at Walsenburg and Trinidad. The total length is 82 miles; drive time is two hours. The route is great for dikes and other unusual geological formations, Native American legends, quaint coal-mining and Hispanic towns, and art galleries. The two-lane paved road is open year-round, with no vehicle restrictions. Golden aspens and scarlet red Gambel oaks make autumn a colorful time to explore.

Huerfano County Tourism, 719-738-1065

Trinidad Welcome Center, 719-846-9512