Road(s): Paved = straight in the lowlands; curvy up to the passes
Round-trip from Denver: 916 miles
Length of Byway: 129 miles
Vehicle types: Car, sport bike
Elevation change: 7523 to 10,230 feet above sea level
Location: (Extreme) South Central Colorado
Celebrating in Southern Colorado
It was my second anniversary and I couldn’t think of a more fitting way to celebrate than to tour a part of the state which was promising to be in full fall aspen color changing mode.
My husband and I were married in early October, so this byway tour took place in the first weekend of October. I ended up taking 2 extra days off from my full-time job, so we wouldn’t need to rush and we could enjoy some of the wonderful features of this part of Colorado.
Driving Down to Southern Colorado
The only regret I had was that my hubby could not join me on the drive down and back. He had just started working at a new job, so we planned that he would meet me in Crestone at the vacation rental I had rented for the four days…the Carriage House. Because I wanted to capture some color in southern Colorado and see some sights before he came, I left early and headed straight south on the highway, then turned west at Walsenburg to La Veta Pass. This pass was my first stop. It is not on the byway, but the colors were amazing and I had done my research ahead of time, which means I found a dirt road over the pass which was the original pass road.
Old La Veta Pass Road wasn’t too hard to drive my car on and the sights and colors were quite spectacular. At the top of the pass on this road, you come across a few historical buildings, which welcome visitors who pass this way. I took a little bit of time to capture the scenery and then was on my way again.
Los Caminos Antiguos = The Old Paths
History, both military as well as spiritual, dating back to before the Spaniards came to this area is what this byway is all about.
It wasn’t long before I arrived at the eastern edge of the byway in Ft. Garland and at the veteran’s memorial. I like this particular memorial because of the jet that is propped up above a grassy area high enough to see it from the road.
After taking a few photos, I headed south to San Luis. This town is the oldest town in Colorado. It lies just west of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range in the San Luis Valley (featured on National Geographic).
Stations of the Cross
I had read about the Stations of the Cross so I wanted to see the sculptures and shrine which had been built all the way up a hillside next to the town of San Luis. Don’t get me wrong…I may have been raised Catholic and spent my childhood walking the line…but life’s experiences have led me down a different path. While I would say I may be spiritual, it’s a much different path than a practicing Catholic. With that said, I can say that I appreciate a culturally rich heritage steeped in religion (of any kind). And I can say that I can see how regions of the world have transformed over time and have incorporated facets of local history into current culture.
Walking up the hillside, I stopped at each of the sculptures noticing how the mood portrayed within the faces of the sculptures seemed aptly depicted. The artist, Huberto Maestas, had sculpted the 15 statues which adorn the hillside and depict the last hours of Christ’s life. As you ascend this hillside and draw closer to the shrine, you rise above the town of San Luis and get a glimpse of the valley and Sangre de Cristos to the east, as well as the San Juan Mountains to the west.
I did not want to take too long, but as I got closer to the shrine, a familiar feeling washed over me. This feeling was the same fe
eling I would get when entering church many, many years ago as a child. It was a comfortable feeling and a feeling of innocence all rolled into one. As I entered the chapel, I looked for the bowl of holy water which typically sits on the inside of the door in Catholic church’s and once I found it, I dutifully dipped my fingers in and made the sign of the cross while looking forward at the altar. Yes, if you are not Catholic, this is what Catholics do when they enter a church.
I knew I was in for a different ‘vibe’, a different feeling, when I began this journey to the southern end of Colorado, but I did not imagine it would be like this. That feeling lasted throughout the journey and for the full four days that my hubby and I explored this part of the country.
San Luis to la Manga and Cumbres Passes
After visiting the stations, I continued along my journey and drove from San Luis through the other hamlets along the byway, including San Acacio, Manassa, Conejos and Antonito. In Conejos, I had to make it a point to stop at the oldest church in Colorado (Our Lady of Guadeloupe Parish) before heading over la Manga and Cumbres passes.
La Manga and Cumbres Passes
At the southern edge of Colorado along the border with northern New Mexico, you will find not only some amazing mountain landscape, but a still running and century old narrow gauge railroad: the Cumbres and Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad route passes over the Colorado/New Mexico border more than a dozen times as it zigzags through the back country of the southern San Juan Mountains.
I had driven along the road that passes over la Manga and Cumbres passes only once before and on a whim about two years ago at the end of the season for the Cumbres and Toltec tours. I got lucky on that day to capture a shot of one of the engines sitting at the station in Antonito taking on passengers as part of the 150-year celebration of Conejos County. The photo that I took that day turned out to be good enough to place into the Colorado Vacation Guide for 2013…yeah, I was just a tad excited.
On this day, I took my time driving up the pass as I approached la Manga Pass from the north. The mountainsides were on the edge of full fall color explosion and against the beautiful Colorado blue sky, the colors were amazingly vivid.
La Manga and Cumbres passes sit not too far from one another at the top of this mountain range and so the road stays high in elevation as you pass over la Manga Pass and head further south to Cumbres Pass. At one point before you reach Cumbres Pass, you come across what seems like an open valley, but in fact the area is part of what was once an ancient glacier and in this area, you will also see the narrow gauge railroad wind through the valley as it heads into Toltec Canyon. I was real excited to see that as I descended into this area, the train was slowly chugging its way southward toward New Mexico. So, I quickly drove around a wide sweeping curve and above the train to a spot about a few miles ahead of it so that I could pull over and watch it come around a cliff wall…oh and take a few photos, too.
And so…this is how my afternoon continued; with me jumping out of my car, camera in hand, searching for the perfect perch and snapping a few photos as the train chugged by. I continued in this same vein all the way to the New Mexico border and then…mostly because of time, I turned around and headed back north to Crestone to meet up with my hubby.
While Crestone is actually about 50 miles north of the byway, it was the perfect place for my hubby and I to enjoy a few quiet days together as we celebrated our second anniversary. Crestone is actually renowned as being a spiritual center where not only can you find a small church, but also a Buddhist Temple and other centers of various faiths. It was here that my hubby and I were truly an ultimately relaxed. And while we did not come here to be spiritually healed, as we left on our last day, I did feel completely rejuvenated. I don’t know if that was some sort of subliminal thing I did to myself because of everything I read about the place ahead of time, or the fact that there was no TV in our rental and the night sky was so completely dark, that we could see the Milky Way, or for some other reason. Either way, I know I want to come back to Crestone.
Cumbres and Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad
On the second day of our celebration, my hubby and I rose way too early for a vacation and headed south to Antonito to board a bus bound for Chama, New Mexico and the start of our train tour over the southern San Juans. As I want to include each and every bit of this tour, I know it will make my long blog even longer. Instead of oozing enthusiasm for another few paragraphs, let me say that this day-long tour on the Cumbres and Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad takes you through some amazing scenery and history. Halfway through the tour, passengers are also treated to lunch in a huge railroad building only accessible by train. On this day, there were about 500 people from two trains who had stopped for lunch. All along this tour, my hubby kept hugging and kissing me thanking me for the idea for this trip. I was happy to have ignited his inner child and new found love for the narrow gauge railroad.
The Great Sand Dunes, Zapata Falls and Alamosa
The sign says it all. Although part of the byway includes a visit to the Great Sand Dunes of the San Luis Valley as well as what is known as a hidden gem, Zapata Falls, both were closed because of the late September/early October government shutdown. While I couldn’t get inside these areas to take any close-up photos, I was able to capture a few shots that depicted the area quite well.
Rounding off this tour, my hubby and I stopped in Alamosa to wet our whistle and for a bite to eat. Oh! and watching the Denver Broncos take another victory while enjoying the food and drink the San Luis Valley Brewing Co. with a bunch of other Broncos fans was probably the best consolation to not being able to hike in the national monument, or BLM areas that I could think of.
When was the last time you had a picture perfectly clear view of the Milky Way? I’m not talking using a telescope, or binoculars or sitting in a Planetarium…but the real thing amongst a brilliantly star-filled night sky. On our last night in Crestone, my hubby and I took the two deck chairs from our rental down to the empty and very dark cul-de-sac, sat back and gazed at the sky. It had been so long since I last saw the Milky Way that I felt like a kid again, laying out under the stars in my sleeping bag. There was hardly a sound that night in Crestone, not even much of a breeze, making me feel so very much connected to Earth. A sort of peace washed over me as I sat there gazing at the millions of stars and the outline of our galaxy. All the other worries of the world seemed so insignificant…so trivial in the grand scheme of things. I wished again…just like I did when I was a child…foolishly, naively…that there could be something better than what there is now…that humanity were better, that there was no greed, or pain, or carelessness; that we all understand the more important things of life and live our lives in harmony with one another and the Earth.
My wish…as naïve as it still is, can be obtained on a very personal level, which I will continue to work to one day finally obtain.