Poncha Pass Pondering

Having driven over Poncha Pass many times, I often wondered why I had never gotten off the beaten asphalt path of Highway 285, and stopped for a hike or a run. One explanation is that there are no brown Forest Service Access signs inviting me, and all of us, into the San Isabel National Forest! I pulled off at the gravel road a few hundred yards on the San Luis Valley side of the summit last Spring and though it looks like there were once information signs for the access road and the Poncha Pass Loop as it is called, they are no longer there. I parked and started running up the road but ran into mud, ice and deep snow, and though entertaining, I had to abort the mission that day after about a mile...

Last week proved the golden moment. Mountain monsoon storms were stalking parts of the valley and the highest peaks but I looked to have a good weather window on the Loop Trail. I parked in the lot a hundred yards from 285, and began my walking up the road. Temps in the low 70s, low humidity and warm sunshine made it feel like a perfect fall day. With the steady drone of summer traffic noise on 285 behind me, I began my run and came up and over the first small rise when...

There she stood. A free range brown cow staring me down. Often skittish, cows will usually turn tail and plod away. She began approaching, seemingly aggressive. Not unusual for a bull, but I must have been invading her space. I've never seen this behavior before. She had no calf to protect. I continued to run, she approached. Normally free range cattle get bored after a minute or two of watching me and return to what they do best, graze! She eventually stopped at about 50 paces but continued the stare down to intimidate me off her turf. I let her think so and even congratulated her out loud for holding her ground.


Soon, having come over another rise, I came to this sign. A fifth wheel was parked near where the pine forest started to the north. Complete with a fire pit and nice views, someone had set up home for a few days. I began reading the sign and studying the map. The Utes had this area to themselves in yesteryear. But, when a man was looking for lost horses in 1880, he discovered veins of silver. That broke the levee and someone shouted "Bonanza!!" The inflow of people was indeed a flood. Silver and gold in those days made people endure major hardships of work and weather in hopes of great wealth. The 'haves' also go crazy, using their money to dig mines, build towns and other infrastructure, including a long aerial tramway!

Only remnants of those places exist from 130 plus years ago but as I run, I think, and generally write blogs like this in my head. I could only imagine what it was like to have lived at 9,000 feet plus in those days. Summer and Fall would have been fine, dang near perfect most days, but the long winters? Yikes! The mining boys sure liked their taverns! Soon the mines got played out and the boom soon turns to bust and people move on, most anyway, except for a few people who figure out some way to live in what will become, as we call them today, ghost towns.

Roads and remnants of those days go all over the place! Times have changed, but one thing that hasn't changed, the mountains are for the most part, exactly the same as they were on an August day say in 1881. The people were kissed by the same warm sun, cooled by the mountain breezes, and entertained by cloud formations turning into storms over the mountains. As I thought about that, a bolt of lightning flew horizontal across a cloud to the southwest.

Storms can move in quickly so at roughly the 2 mile mark, I took another pic and headed back toward my car. Three people were playing on ATVs. We exchanged waves. Personally, my running shoes are my ATSs - 'all terrain shoes' and get me places where most people never go, occasionally bushwhacking off the road and into the forest. Never know what may have been stashed there by someone. I have found old rusty equipment, but usually have no idea how these contraptions actually worked for the miners.

From my height on the mountain I could see a herd of cattle moving across the road. The 100 or so mommas and calves wandered onto a sage covered hill about a quarter mile beyond. I ran, easier now that gravity was working with me, and kept an eye on the building storm. A few cool drops hit me but I saw no more lightning. As I came over the last rise there stood another cow directly in the road. White faced and the rest of her black, she watched me approach. Same thing. She was not giving up her road. I probably could have shooed her away but why? She also gave me the dirty stare that this road and pasture was indeed theirs. Though not as aggressive as the brown cow, she was not afraid. I gave her space because cows can be unpredictable and she had many hundreds of pounds on me. The sun broke through the clouds and lit up my car down below. Another truck pulling a horse trailer headed up the road. I waved at those guys, who for some reason, had their windows completely rolled up. The road was rocky and not kicking up dust so I have no idea why they were closing off the perfect weather while driving. I returned to my car, all smiles, and pulled out my chilled water bottle, took a relaxing drink and did the panoramic view of the upper San Luis Valley. Another successful day. I highly recommend this stop. Passenger cars can make it up the road without any problems. How far? Not sure...

The town of Bonanza can be accessed via a road that starts on the north side of Villa Grove, the first town on 285 heading south. I plan to go up there soon. Several websites have the history and good pics of the area in and around the town. However, the theme song for the TV show Bonanza was not based upon this town in Colorado. Just in case you were wondering.

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