Historic Exploration: 4 Trails in the the San Luis Valley With Fascinating History

 The Old Spanish Trail passed through what’s now Great Sand Dunes National Park, and the park’s Sand Ramp Trail encounters conditions similar to what merchants found along the historical route.
The Old Spanish Trail passed through what’s now Great Sand Dunes National Park, and the park’s Sand Ramp Trail encounters conditions similar to what merchants found along the historical route. Emma Walker
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The San Luis Valley is brimming with history, beginning with Native American Paleo-Indian cultures that date back to 11,000 years ago. The Ute people inhabited the valley for much of its early history, and the Spanish began exploration of the modern-day San Luis Valley in the late 16th century. Over the next several centuries, conflicts arose between Spanish explorers—most notably, Don Juan Bautista de Anza—and the local Comanche.

The formerly Spanish (and, later, Mexican) province of Nuevo Mexico was ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the peace treaty that ended the Mexican-American War in 1848. The San Luis Valley had remained mostly unsettled until the mid-19th century, when Fort Massachusetts was built as a stronghold in the ongoing conflicts with native Utes. The San Luis Valley became part of the Territory of Colorado in 1861, and Alamosa was established by the Denver Rio Grande Railroad in 1878.

Like many of its neighbors, Alamosa takes its name from its Spanish heritage: alamosa means "cottonwood" in Spanish. It’s just one part of the town’s multi-faceted history, which includes access to some of the San Luis Valley’s historic trails. Check out these four hikes, which are perfect for hikers and history buffs alike.

1. Old Spanish Trail

The Old Spanish National Historic Trail was established by Congress in 2002. The route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Los Angeles, California, passes through four other states, including Arizona, Utah, and Nevada, and in Colorado, various branches of the trail make their way through the San Luis Valley, Gunnison, Grand Junction, and Durango. Originally used by Native Americans as trade routes between the San Luis Valley and modern-day New Mexico, the Old Spanish Trail had its heyday between 1830 and 1848, when Mexican and American traders used it to transport wool and other wares via mule train.

The Old Spanish Trail’s arduous route wasn’t marked by traditional trail markers, thanks to the constantly shifting sandy soil. Original travelers had to endure river crossings, deep canyons, and serious mountain passes, plus threats by horse thieves, poor weather, and lack of food and water. But today, you can see much of it by car. Still, there’s evidence that the route passed by Indian Spring in what’s now Great Sand Dunes National Park, and much of the sandy hiking there (such as along the Sand Ramp Trail) remains similar to its historical condition today.

2. Wagon Wheel Ruts in Penitente Canyon

Penitente Canyon Loop Trail takes hikers past ruts left by conestoga wagon wheels during the Old Spanish Trail’s heyday.
Penitente Canyon Loop Trail takes hikers past ruts left by conestoga wagon wheels during the Old Spanish Trail’s heyday. Bureau of Land Management

Penitente Canyon is known for its world-class sport climbing, but the area boasts plenty of hiking—and history—as well. In the early 20th century, the canyon was a refuge for the Penitente Brotherhood of Catholic monks (Los Hermanos Penitentes), a secluded group that left its mark on the landscape by painting a blue Madonna on the cliff that’s known today as Virgin Wall. It’s also a quick hike on the Penitente Canyon Loop Trail from the end of North Witches Canyon Road to see a set of wagon wheel ruts carved into the soft sandstone. The Penitente Canyon Loop is just over 2.5 miles, if you do the full loop, and is generally considered to be moderate. The ruts, in fact, are a remnant of the Old Spanish Trail, cut into the rock by countless passages of conestoga wagon wheels over the decades. Penitente also contains the San Luis Valley’s highest concentration of pictographs, so it’s worth taking a full day to fully explore the area.

3. Fremont’s Christmas Camp

Few explorers of the American West are as well known as John C. Fremont, who led four major expeditions to the West in the mid-19th century. Fremont also had a career as a military officer and politician, and was, in fact, an early presidential candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party. His career wasn’t entirely glorious, though: His fourth expedition, over the winter of 1848-1849, was a complete disaster. Fremont and a guide led a group of 35 men into the San Juan Mountains, intending to scout a railroad route through the Central Rockies that would be accessible year-round. Unsurprisingly, the group was caught in abysmal weather, including waist-high snow, and was unprepared to spend a winter in the harsh conditions. The group split up into smaller parties as supplies dwindled, and eventually the expedition lost 10 men before being rescued in early 1849. Today, visitors can hike to what’s been dubbed "Christmas Camp," where the party spent much of that December. The hike begins at Cathedral Campground and runs 4.5 miles to the erstwhile campsite.

4. Orient Mine

Head to the now-defunct Orient Mine at dusk to check out the area’s history—and the cave’s resident bats.
Head to the now-defunct Orient Mine at dusk to check out the area’s history—and the cave’s resident bats. Michale Rael

Once Colorado’s most prolific producer of iron ore, the Orient Mine operated from 1880 until 1932. Thanks to its location on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley, the mine’s name was apparently derived from the Latin word for "east" or “rising sun.” The mine had two town sites, active during different periods of its existence, and neither of which still exists today. In its heyday, though, the town sites housed as many as 400 people and included boarding houses, a saloon, a library, school, and barbershop, plus a number of other small local businesses. Today, the Orient Land Trust works with the Colorado State Historical Society to preserve the area’s history, and you’ll find interpretive signs along the trail to the now-defunct mine. For several decades, the Orient Mine has housed nearly a quarter-million migratory bats, which play a crucial role in keeping the San Luis Valley chemical- and pesticide-free. Hike the 3.25-mile roundtrip trail at dusk to observe the bats as they fly by the thousands from the Orient Mine.

Originally written for Alamosa CVB.

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