Southeastern Colorado is increasingly expanding its notoriety for being an extraordinary gravel bike destination. History, culture, and the rustic mountain rural lifestyle under the Spanish Peaks lends itself to the characteristics of magical-realism. Huerfano County is where historical facts and legends converge to tell a unique gravel adventure story. Here, cattle guards outnumber cars, horses wander about, and you ride dirt roads that have attracted humans for centuries.
What makes Huerfano County distinct from other Colorado destinations is the strong bond to the state’s wild west past that remains today. Things operate slower, and like generations ago, with less amenities. But in true pioneer spirit, you can build a gravel adventure that allows you to discover what makes the region legendary.
This guidebook invites you to journey into Huerfano County’s diverse cultural origins and captivating landscape. Riding in Spanish Peaks Country encourages one to have an open mind, and an appreciation for the rugged and self-reliant approach to adventure travel. The Huerfano County gravel bike destination has the ability to magically transform and create something real in you through the deep and restorative effect of the land and people.
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There is excitement for the Spanish Peaks Country/Huerfano County region to join the global gravel cycling destination community. A considerable network of quiet and remote unpaved roads make riding here noteworthy. Whether training for an event, or bikepacking with friends for fun, there is something for all ability levels and riding styles to enjoy.
Huerfano County encourages residents and visitors to sample hundreds of miles of adventure riding. A small population size, several historical communities, and wide open spaces gives Spanish Peaks Country legitimate credibility when it comes to the discussion of inspiring Colorado gravel bike destinations to check out.
Take a step back in time. If visiting, know you are contributing to enhancing southeastern Colorado’s rural quality of life. Recreation and tourism, especially gravel cycling, is an essential component to building a sustainable local economy. A goal of this Gravel Adventure Field Guide is to lead traveling off-road cyclists towards Huerfano County in hopes they add to a better future, while preserving the unique environment and culture of a rapidly changing Colorado Front Range.
Huerfano County maintains a status of being at the traditional crossroads of southeastern Colorado. Native tribes passed through on their way in and out of the San Luis Valley over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The Taos Trail is an example of an early path that connected Puebloan people in New Mexico to the Comanche, Jicarilla Apache, and Ute in Colorado.
The Spanish Peaks are Southwest landmarks that consistently serve to guide people through Huerfano County. They brought Spanish, Mexican and Anglo settlers to forge a community of mixed heritage. Adopting Native trails, many landmarks and early settlements have Spanish names, including Huerfano which translates to “orphan”.
The 1800s were highly influential on the evolution of Huerfano County, with the first half witnessing the emergence of Santa Fe Trail Mountain Branch. An increase in commercial trade brought European and American fur trappers and traders. Once the United States took possession of the Southwest in 1848, the subsequent decades saw accelerated regional road development. Arrival of the railroad, mining, and the presence of a ranching culture all contributed to the expansion of the Huerfano County road network.
A notable feature to the Spanish Peaks Country gravel bike experience is low population density. There are 4.3 people for every square mile. In 1880 Huerfano County had a population of 4,124 and in 1890, 6,882, In 2020 the population stands at approximately 6,897.
Several communities in Huerfano County help bridge to its past, while also opening up new future possibilities, where off-road cycling holds an integral role in building a diversified economic future.
Each community tells a story of the early development of Huerfano County, which was one of the original 17 counties created by the Territory of Colorado on November 1, 1861. It originally stretched east to Kansas, and south to New Mexico.
Walsenburg was first settled by Hispanos from New Mexico in 1859, and originally called La Plaza de los Leones. It was named after Don Miguel Antonio de Leon. The layout of the City reflects its Spanish heritage by following the acequia system versus the typical U.S. western expansion grid system. All of Walsenburg’s streets follow diagonally (20 degrees west of north) of the initial plaza long lots. Renamed Walsenburg in 1870 after Fred Walsen. He founded the first mine in Huerfano County. After decades of economic dependence on natural resource extraction and agriculture, Walsenburg is now leaning into its crossroads status as a recreation and tourism gateway.
Founded on April 11, 1878, La Veta is another community that reflects Spanish heritage. Its name translates to “the vein.” It emerged as a supply town that transported farm and ranch produced goods to the outside world. Today’s population is a mix of multi-generational ranching families and a community of artists. Downtown Main Street has a number of art galleries. La Veta’s proximity to the surrounding open space terrain, including Goemmer Butte and Devil’s Staircase Dike, has made it the recreation gateway community to the San Isabel National Forest, including the Spanish Peaks.
Since the beginning of its founding in 1923, this small mountain town has served the recreational interests of Huerfano County citizens and beyond. Between 1980 to 2000, the Cuchara Mountain Resort operated as a ski resort. Due to a changing business landscape, it was closed to the public and sat dormant until 2017. A 40 acre parcel, including Lift #4, was acquired by Huerfano County and reopened as the Cuchara Mountain Park. Efforts to revitalize the base area into a year round park for public enjoyment is well under way. Off-road enthusiasts will find a number of dirt roads to explore, a bike skills park, and a future master trail plan that includes improved unpaved riding opportunities.
Located in the little developed Upper Huerfano River Valley. Gardner is situated between the Wet Mountains to the east, and Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the west. Part of the regional crossroads narrative, the town was founded as a result of a stagecoach line that ran between Walsenburg and Westcliffe. By the 1960s, it became a haven for counter-culture types seeking new life experiences. Now the community moves forward into the 21st century with new energy that includes outdoor recreation. Gardner provides access to the gravel roads and trails of the San Isabel National Forest surrounding Greenhorn Mountain.
Today Badito is more of a ghost town. However, it was one of the most important early communities in Huerfano County. The Taos Trail crossed the Huerfano River at Badito. Explorer Juan de Ulibarrí was the first European to visit in 1706, which led to the construction of a Spanish fort at the site. When Huerfano County was created in 1867, Badito was named the county seat. Now this ghost town is embarking on a path of regeneration. Huerfano County purchased Thorne Ranch along the Huerfano River on Highway 69 with the intent to build outdoor recreation infrastructure, such as bike trails, overnight camping, and a sustainable working ranch on the property.
The concept of rural enclaves consisting of artists and creative types emerged in 19th century Europe, but was quickly adopted in the United States. A movement grew from artists leaving behind city lifestyles due to the social effects of urbanization and industrialization. Rural communities offered a higher quality of life, including having natural beauty as a source of inspiration in their art or craft. Artists tend to flock together once a destination is identified. Huerfano County’s wild west mystique has historically attracted and fostered a creative class of residents.
In the 1960s a group of artists essentially kickstarted the hippie commune movement in the Southwest. Drop City, an experimental art colony in Trinidad, Colorado embraced the architectural philosophy of Buckminster Fuller to create geodesic dome homes made from salvaged materials, including automobile parts. Short lived, it inspired some members to start anew on 360 acres outside Gardner in 1968. Their community is called Libre.
Libre continues to be one of the oldest artist communes in the United States. Long term success is attributed to a few rules implemented at inception of founding. Members must build their home, agree to be good land stewards, and each house shall not be built within sight distance of another one. Libre sustains a community of do-it-yourself attitude minded creatives who appreciate the natural surroundings and seek a more sustainable lifestyle, and this spirit spreads to other parts of Huerfano County and Spanish Peaks Country.
For decades, La Veta has welcomed a mix of artists, photographers, musicians, thespians, dancers, writers, and practitioners of healing arts. Creatives who want to be in a small town surrounded by other makers, soaking up views of the Spanish Peaks and Sangre de Cristo Mountains. In 2012 the La Veta Creative District was established to promote the community as a rural Colorado art destination. The Spanish Peaks Art Council and the La Veta School for the Arts and local galleries are influential organizations helping sustain the Creative District.
Artists in Walsenburg are also harnessing the power of creative expression to beautify and revitalize the Spanish Peaks region. A collaboration between the Huerfano County Placemaking Committee and Southern Colorado artist collective, Space Studios, has produced the FAROUT Murals annual mural program. In a few short years, the unpaved alleyways between 5th and 6th Streets have seen crews of talented artists arrive to paint murals that encourage community pride, while enhancing the gravel cyclist visitor experience in Walsenburg.
Huerfano County may be a sanctuary away from city life. But it’s also one of the most underserved in Colorado. Limited funding and limited resources are common and budgets get stretched too thin to invest in education, art, and community programs. The Spanish Peaks Arts Council (SPACe) is trying to bridge that gap by creating a supportive community and artistic environment. If you’re looking for a place to do good things, please visit: lavetacreativedistrict.org to donate.
If you’re looking for a place to do good things, please click the link below. on thier homepage look at the top right corner for the link.
Navigating the Crossroads of Southern Colorado
Highlighting the Huerfano County gravel cycling experience is the chance to travel similarly as the pioneers of yesteryear. Early humans utilized the geologic natural features of Spanish Peaks Country as a wayfinding resource. Over 25 million years ago, prominent geologic landforms (mountains, dikes, and buttes) emerged to become visually striking fixtures on the landscape to guide travelers.
“Among all the mountains that have come under my observation, none has been fraught with the absorbing interest presented by the Spanish Peaks.”
— Frederick Miller Endlichm
19th century frontier mapper
The Spanish Peaks are one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Southwest. Native Americans named it Wahatoya, which translates to “Breasts of the Earth,” and consider it sacred. Approaching from the Plains, one can see them from 100 miles away. The East Spanish Peak sits at an elevation of 12,688 ft (3,867 m) and West Spanish Peak at 13,631 ft (4,155 m), 374 ft short of Colorado Fourteener status. They’re higher than anything found east of them in the United States. National Natural Landmark designation came in 1976.
Millions of years ago the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains sat below an inland sea. As volcanic activity generated a mountain building process, and the land rose, deposits of sand, silt, mud, clay, and marine fossils emerged in the form of sedimentary rock. The Spanish Peaks are examples of stocks, large igneous, or molten, with layers of sedimentary rock.
These rock features were formed during the same era that produced the Spanish Peaks, Mt. Mestas (11,573 ft) and Silver Mountain (10,525 ft). Molten rock cooled to create vertical granite formations that were located within layers of sedimentary rock below the ground. Due to surface erosion, these igneous intrusions became exposed.
Overall, there are three distinct sets of dikes in Huerfano County. One, “Devil’s Staircase” flows from the West Spanish Peak. While another magmatic one comes out from Silver Mountain, and the last were created as a result of the Sangre de Cristo Uplift event about 27 million years ago.
Because they are igneous intrusions, the Great Dikes hold deposits of quartz. This contributed to the mining of precious metals like gold and silver. During the mid 1870s, it is estimated there were 50 to 60 gold mines around the dikes emanating from the Spanish Peaks.
As a lone 300 feet high volcanic cone located on the eastern plains, Huerfano Butte’s isolated placement inspired the Spanish to name it “orphan.” This striking feature has been a landmark for adventurous travelers making their way either East to West or South to North. Noted 19th century land surveyor, General John Fremont, even encouraged his railroad investing stepfather to build the tracks near Huerfano Butte to make it a unique sightseeing experience aboard the steam train.
Between La Veta Pass and Medano Pass in upper Huerfano County, magma pushed up to the surface solidified in open holes and vertical cracks within the Earth’s crust to form additional volcanic plugs, like the Gardner Butte.