Mountains. What is it about the human senses that want to go beyond the beauty of mountains as a backdrop to the horizon, and make those people with a 'climbing mentality' be determined to get to the top? The quote, "Because it is there," is attributed to George Mallory—an English climber—who was on his third attempt to climb Mt. Everest in 1924 when he perished along with his climbing partner Andrew Irvine. To reach 29,008’ requires major preparations in the land of perpetual ice, rock, and snow. And climbing equipment in those days was not as sophisticated as the technological advances of the last 75 years. It is amazing that they could even make the attempts in the 1920s. Such is the human spirit, as Mallory explained in an interview with the New York Times in 1923. "Everest is the highest mountain in the world and no person has reached its summit. Its existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of humans' desire to conquer the universe." The debate continues as to whether or not they made it to the top as they were seen through a telescope very close to the summit and then never seen again.
A Traveler's Blog
Do you want to visit Alamosa like you know a local? Here is your chance! Enjoy the following feature articles writtten by a traveler enjoying some hidden (and not so hidden) treasures around the San Luis Valley.
September 9th in Alamosa started as a cloudless 36-degree morning. My plan for the day was to drive to the Blanca Peak trailhead and power hike up as far as I could in four hours toward the summit. After reading several trail information websites (14ers.com is a good one), I affirmed that the trail to Como Lake would be a steep and rocky hike, and close to 4,000 feet of vertical in six miles from parking.
The Blanca Peak jeep road turns east from CO 150 (one of the roads to the Great Sand Dunes), three miles north of Highway 160. The dirt road crosses grasslands for over a mile before turning to nothing but ashen gray rock. This is a good place to park a car as hiking is faster than driving! This road is considered the most difficult 4-wheel drive road in the state. For Colorado - 'that be sayin' somethin!'
Way back when, a different time frame for each of us, I was in sophomore English when our teacher gave us an OPT. Fortunately, it was not a communicable disease, but an Occupational Preference Test, the only test I remember taking in high school that was not graded. The test showed how our answers to questions about preferences for situations and interests in life compared to the attitudes of people in various professions.
As I recall, a question would ask us about 'If you were in a band would you rather be the lead singer, the drummer, play guitar, be a roadie or the band manager.' The test seemed redundant in ways that made me think I was contradicting myself so I had no idea what my OPT would reveal about what profession I might choose. When we received the results we were given the top 3 possible professions for which our answers most closely matched the attitudes for people in those lines of work.
After reviewing weather.com recently and reading about their 10 best National Parks to visit in the Fall, I discovered several things. I have only been to three of the parks they suggested when leaves are changing but hope to visit the other seven in coming years. They left out the Great Sand Dunes. And, I realized the limitations to human language. The words used in all of the descriptions for each of the National Parks to describe leaves in their golds, yellows,oranges and reds became redundant and lost their meaning for me. Stunning, amazing, spectacular, magical, 'one of the best,' 'one of the most,' became insignificant. Good thing they posted pictures of each park. So, my challenge is to attempt to paint a picture of the beauty of the Conejos River valley in the Fall without using those words!
Warren Miller, famed ski film maker, when asked - "where is your favorite place to ski?" would reply with "wherever I am skiing at the time." I interviewed Nigel Brown, an Englishman in the beer business, and asked him "What is your favorite ale Nigel?" In classic British humor he answered, "My next one!" These statements should help one draw the conclusion that if the season is Fall, and there are leaves changing color somewhere, then that somewhere would be a good place to visit, in contrast to being at a tropical beach in October and wondering, "it's Fall,where are the colors changing?" Head up the Conejos River Valley for a Fall experience!
Edgar Allan Poe wrote to our senses and in his stories occasionally provoked images of absolute sheer terror. Seeing colors in the San Luis Valley on the mountainsides and in the river valleys are made for the opposite, images of absolute sheer joy of contrasting colors of Mother Nature's artwork in three dimensions.
I have not yet been to the Dunes this Fall, but I have seen pictures of the golden cottonwoods on the east side of the dunes as they follow the course of Medano Creek up into the mountains. Worth a visit to hike or jeep up toward Medano Pass.
Now, to the main course of this post, the Conejos River Valley. The drive on Highway 17 from Antonito west toward La Manga Pass parallels the river all the way up the valley. Whether the sun is beaming brightly, or the sky is overcast and perhaps raining, the aspens on the mountainsides and the cottonwoods and willows along the river are plugged into Mother Nature's electrical sockets as they appear to give off their own light. Like most canyons, the light of the lower southern sun angles in the Fall change during the day providing different scenic opportunities. Take pictures with your camera but snap a few in your mind's eye. They will be as equally valuable. Several stops along the way are available on public roads that will take you down to the river where the water runs slow, cold and clear. Cool breezes tickle your skin and mess up your hair, rays of warm sunshine kiss your cheeks and reflect intensely off the river's surface. Stick your hands in the water and feel the temperature as it numbs your fingers. Breathe deep and catch the smells of vegetation along the banks. Collectively, all the plants have a smell that is distinctly Fall. Close your eyes as you take in the odor. These smells remain with you as a good memory. Look upstream, look downstream and see the contrasting light playing off everything! Look for shadowy figures in the water of darting trout as they escape your river bank presence. Check the skies for a variety of birds. Migrating geese will usually announce their passing! Drive up river and stop again. So what if its only a mile!
The colors of the leaves attract all the attention in the Fall for the visual. But I also enjoy the wildlife refuges out on the San Luis Valley floor. I like the look of the tans and browns of the drying grasses. And their smells. The wildlife you see may surprise you. And off in the distance on the peaks, powdered sugar from the first snowfalls of the season.
I intentionally kept this post short, left out unnecessary words to provide time to get on your trike, bike, or in your car and head up the Conejos before immediately. Fall is almost over. Actually, until a windstorm comes, the trees along the river can often hold their leaves and their color into early November.
One Colorado mountain town has a sign between the post office and their one tavern that reads - "On this site, September 15, 1890, nothing happened.' Good humor, though something had to have happened, if for no other reason than someone was there to document that nothing happened.
From the western movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—a story about the fictitious town of Shinbone coming of age in an unnamed western state over many years—an eastern newspaper reporter and his editor listen to Jimmy Stewart recount his journey as a young lawyer in the territory and how he came to serve as governor, then become a US Senator for several terms and become a vice presidential candidate. The turning point early on in his career, which led to his fame, had been a gunfight where he shot and killed Liberty Valance, one of the stereotypical bad guys that stood in the way of progress in our western territories. When Stewart's character recounts that the shooting was not all his doing, the editor states matter-of-factly that "This is the west sir, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
What does this have to do with Fort Garland, Colorado? Historical facts and legends have passed through Fort Garland. But history in the west in the 1800s has been skewed, skewered, shrouded, and exaggerated and in the process, created legends and making historical facts less than accurate.
Forts have been a part of westward expansion since Europeans hit the eastern shores of the United States. Forts became homes to soldiers and settlers and a place for protection from 'bad elements,' whether it was American Indians having to attack a fort to protect what they believed to be their territories and livelihoods, or, it was often foreign countries in political struggles with new Americans fulfilling the loose, misunderstood, and controversial concept of 'manifest destiny,' whereby American Settlers believed they had the right to expand the new country all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Which meant overrunning Indian tribes and moving the survivors to reservations, fighting with Mexico and booting out claims by France, Britain, Russia, and Spain. In perspective, New Mexico and Arizona were still territories and not states until 1912. Fort Garland opened in what was then the territory of New Mexico until 1861 when the Colorado territory was created.
Forts began in the San Luis Valley when Fort Massachusetts was built in 1852, six miles north of the present day town of Fort Garland. Built of wood and located next to Ute Creek, Fort Massachusetts proved to be too swampy and isolated to help settlers in the valley, and too vulnerable to attack from the Ute Indians who were not happy about their valley being invaded. By 1856, a new fort was planned and being built. Occupied in 1858, Fort Garland was built with adobe, as the local Hispanic populations had been using adobe successfully from New Mexico northward. As artisans of the craft of adobe construction, they were recruited to help build the many buildings that became Fort Garland.
Fort Garland's role in American History became significant for several reasons. I am lucky enough to have two ancestors who wrote diaries. My great great grandfather served the Union in the 30th Iowa infantry division. He enlisted in August of 1862. Earlier that year in the month of March, the Confederacy, in an attempt to help fund the war effort against the Union, sent an army up the Rio Grande Valley through New Mexico territory from El Paso, Texas toward the gold mines in present-day Colorado. Two-hundred Union Soldiers stationed at Fort Garland made a cold snowy trek south through the mountains to aid other Union Forces in stopping the Confederates. The Union was successful at the battle of Glorieta Pass east of Santa Fe. The Confederates were stopped from ever reaching gold and they were stopped well short of another goal of securing the southern parts of New Mexico, Arizona, California and the port of San Diego, and making all of that strategic land part of the Confederacy. Had the Confederacy been able to secure those goals and fund the war effort, the US might not be a united country. My great grandfather fought to take Vicksburg, Chattanooga, all the battles for Atlanta, and go on Sherman's (Uncle Billy they called him) March to the Sea. Had the South been able to secure more resources, Union Soldiers would have faced perhaps, a very different, well supplied army.
My great grandmother, as a young girl, was moving to the midwest from the East coast in July of 1863 and passed through Gettysburg where two weeks earlier, yes, the Battle of Gettysburg took place. Her grandmother had hidden in the cellar for three days and when she emerged after the battle, she found three unexploded cannonballs lodged in her house. My great grandmother became a Methodist missionary in the fall of 1887 and was sent to Tucson. Had Arizona become part of the Southern Nation, northerners may not have been allowed. So Fort Garland has played an indirect role in my history. NOTE: I make reference to Southern Nation as I had been to a 150th anniversary battle reenactment in Resaca, Georgia (battle took place in May of 1864) in which my grandfather fought and I talked to a southern re-enactor. He was wearing a US brass belt buckle upside down. He told me that Confederates would strip dead Union soldiers of their buckle and wear it upside down for Southern Nation. A US belt buckle is on display at Fort Garland museum.
Fort Garland played another critical role one year after the battle of Glorieta Pass preserved the West for the Union. Beginning in March 1863, people in the nearby valleys and the SLV were being murdered for no explainable reason. The bodies were also being mutilated. Finally, after one attack, one person was able to escape and identify the killers. Felipe Espinoza, his brother, and a cousin were carrying out the murders to avenge deaths of relatives and because they felt that their lands which were Spanish Land Grants recognized by the United States Government were stolen or squatted upon illegally. As the story (legend?) goes, Felipe Espinoza had been a child in Vera Cruz Mexico during the Mexican War of 1846-1848. The US Navy spent several days shelling the city from the Gulf of Mexico and when Felipe had been away, six members of his family had been killed in the shelling. Escorted by a nun, a young Felipe had to identify the badly mutilated bodies of his family which later manifested into a killing spree of his own, vowing to kill 100 anglos for every family member, including the governor of the Colorado Territory at the time!
Soldiers from Fort Garland were on the hunt for the Espinozas but their efforts proved unsuccessful until the commanding officer at Fort Garland recruited Tom Tobin, whose history parallels Kit Carson in his abilities as a trapper, a scout, a fighter, and bounty hunter. Tobin was able to track down the Espinozas in October of 1863 and put an end to the killing spree. (Tobin's daughter married Kit Carson's son.)
After the war, Kit Carson became the commanding officer at Fort Garland in 1866-67 before retiring for health reasons. He died a year later but leaves his legend, legacy and name on many things; a town, a mountain, a National Forest, a county, etc. His life and legend had been highly inflated by the dime store novelists at the time who were giving readers in the East nearly unbelievable tales of Carson's adventures in the West. Though he had done his share of Indian fighting, he was instrumental in helping the Utes make an attempt at peace with the settlers and miners moving into the San Luis Valley in large numbers. The history in the San Luis Valley in the 1870s became a serious clash of cultures. After Carson and Chief Ouray of the Utes died, and with the continued inflow of people, peace between the two groups eroded.
By 1876, African American soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry divisions were stationed at Fort Garland. They had the difficult duty of trying to get the Ute Indians onto reservations. The Buffalo Soldiers were a mixed group of free blacks who had fought in the Civil War and those who joined the army after the war to receive an education, develop stronger self images, and live a life in the Army that was better than the life from which they came. Segregation was reality as was the prejudice they faced, but history shows they were good soldiers. Apparently the name Buffalo Soldiers came from the Indians with whom they had to fight and interact. Indians could see that the Buffalo Soldiers were fierce fighters and in a term of respect, considered them fighters like wild buffalo. Also, the curly African American hair reminded them of the hair between the horns on the buffalo. The name Buffalo Soldiers stuck.
A visit to the Fort Garland Museum helped me to understand the westward expansion of the US a lot better, painting a vivid picture of the fort's role. The museum is just south of Highway 160 on Highway 159. And though, in its 25 year history, when in 1883 the railroads were moving in and the fort was no longer necessary, there were 'boring' days when not much happened besides staying warm in the winter, feeding the horses, going through drills, and performing other soldier duties, Fort Garland played an important role in history.
If passing through Fort Garland, there are no excuses not to visit the Museum. Buildings have been restored and each one is its own museum, whether it be the Buffalo Soldiers' quarters or the Civil War building. An extensive bookstore/gift shop has hundreds of books on the history of those interesting times. Hungry for more? Internet search for - Fort Garland CO, Kit Carson, Tom Tobin, Felipe Espinoza, Ute Indian tribes in Colorado, Manifest Destiny, and the book, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (a fascinating book on European expansion of cultures and why they had advantages over others, including one 'accidental' advantage of disease - which may have killed up to 95% of the Indian tribes Euros encountered), and the Battle of Glorieta Pass. Start with those, which should occupy most of a rainy day when otherwise you might be doing 'Nothing.'
The Treasures and Pleasures of Penitente Canyon
If mountain biking, rock climbing, bouldering, hiking, trail running, geology, panoramic views, relaxing around a campfire, star gazing, seeing wildlife, photography, or any combination of these are desired pleasures â€“ then Penitente Canyon turns them all into treasures!
One nice pleasure in the San Luis Valley (SLV) is that the highways and side roads are all easy to travel, mostly flat and straight. All the roads go somewhere! However, the distant views are deceiving because they look two dimensional. The mountains cannot hide, but only by being in them can the true treasures of their hidden, and seemingly desolate canyons, be found. Penitente Canyon could be discovered accidentally but it is best to plan your excursion to this natural geologic amusement park!
Additional information â€“ About 27 million years ago a volcano, now known as the La Garita Caldera, went KABLAM! Since that time Mother Nature has used her tools of snow and rain and wind and water to creatively sculpt some of the resulting rock piles tossed around after that monstrous explosion. Known as Fish Canyon Tuft, the rock has formed into perfect walls for all levels of climbers and bouldering specialists. There are bolts in place for over 300 climbs. No waiting lines! With routes named 'Nature of the Beast,' Squidbelly Phlemfoot' to 'What the Hey' and 'Passion Play' how could someone not have fun in this canyon? No equipment no problem. There are places to climb that are low to the ground (known as bouldering).
Trails through the canyon are for climbers to get to their routes but these trails also lead up and out of the canyon. Above the canyon is a maze of interconnecting trails for hiking, trail running, mountain biking and exploring. With a bit of trail courtesy, everyone gets along!
Driving to Penitente Canyon â€“ Off of US Highway 285 18 miles North of Monte Vista, 17 miles South of Saguache take signs for La Garita and brown sign for Penitente Canyon â€“ follow signs, the pavement will end but the dirt roads are generally in good shape, sometimes dusty, occasionally wet.
Find a designated parking place and prepare for fun.
Pleasures â€“ The expansive views across the valley from Penitente Canyon to the East are the Sangre De Cristo Mountains nearly 50 miles away! Scenery changes from season to season and hour to hour as the sun, clouds, and light play upon the deep bluish gray rocky peaks and their steep dark green forested hillsides that bottom out on the valley floor. In the evening the peaks (if still covered in snow) begin to glow and turn colors from french vanilla, to tangerine, to a darker orange to a blood red, for which they are named. (Sangre de Cristos = blood of Christ). The weather at 8,000 feet can be pleasantly warm in the intense sun but there is plenty of shade in the cool shadows of the rock formations and the aspen and pine trees.
What better treasures in life are there than enjoying Mother Nature's playgrounds? Pursuits of passion in natural surroundings add a comfort to life that only nature can truly provide. When was the last time you did something for the first time? Imagine having a base camp with family and friends. Walk the canyon and watch climbers on their routes up a rock face. May give you the desire to try it. Meet new friends. Cruise the trails on foot or on mountain bikes. Lots of new trails and loops and it is difficult to get lost! Do a few laps and come back to camp. Spend the day or several. NOTE: - There is a small store in La Garita but if you plan on being there for camping, you will need to stock up your ice chests, food containers, and gear in Alamosa or another town beforehand.
Perils â€“ Rock climbing has inherent dangers but with the right climbing partners it is a safe sport. Climb within your abilities. Bouldering keeps you low to the ground but make sure you know what the surface is like below where you are climbing as even a few feet of coming off a rock wall can result in ankle sprains and knee twists on uneven ground. Deserts are known for things that can stick, stab, or bite. Rattlesnakes do live in the area and can easily hide among the rocks and vegetation. They blend in well so watch closely. High deserts have low humidity (You have heard this suggestion before â€“ drink water!! = hydrate!) Weather is often perfect but can be windy and dusty in the spring. During the monsoon season of summer, thunderstorms can move in rapidly. What may look like an innocent dark cloud miles away may be growing quickly into a large storm and getting ready to toss lightning bolts, brief heavy rain, and painful hail right where you happen to be! (How do you think we know this?)
The trails are not groomed and there are a few technical places that are steep, rocky, and rooty. There are yucca and cactus lurking on the edges of the trails â€“ that's where the stick and stab comes in! And don't forget ticks, mosquitoes and other biting insects may be wandering about. Be wary of all these possible perils, proceed with excitement and caution, and you will soon discover why Penitente Canyon is one more treasure in the San Luis Valley.
The San Luis Valley is home to countless trails for hiking, biking and running. We've compiled a list of the trails less traveled, an insider's guide to 5 trails you need to be on- because you probably haven't yet! Make Alamosa your basecamp for a variety of different trails and terrains. Before you go, check out all your dining and lodging options. Now, map out your weekend so you can hit as many trails as you can!
1. Million Reservoir
If you’ve spent any time in Colorado, you know the Centennial State takes its beer just as seriously as its outdoor pursuits. With nearly 300 craft breweries statewide, the possible combinations of awesome hiking, biking, paddling, and climbing, followed by your choice of incredible microbrew, are nearly limitless. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the San Luis Valley, where you’ve got thousands of square miles of playground, including Great Sand Dunes National Park, the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains, and the Rio Grande River, just to name a few. Here are a few of our favorite trail-to-ale pairings to get your creative juices flowing.
Photo: Rio Grande Scenic Railroad to Alamosa, Colorado by Larry Lamsa