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LOOKOUT…. for incredible vistas: Wheelchair, kid, and elder-friendly high altitude hiking in the Spanish Peaks

by Bob Kennemer   

CORDOVA PASS — Relatively few trails on public lands are accessible by wheelchair. Similarly many trails that offer great views are not easily accessed by young children or the elderly. Fortunately, the Spanish Peaks area has a trail that meets all of these needs.

Just 22 miles south of La Veta and a few miles east of Highway 12, travelers will find themselves at 11,248’ atop Cordova Pass in the San Isabel National Forest. From La Veta, travel south on SH 12, 17 miles to the top of Cucharas Pass. Turn left (east) onto C.R. 46 and travel 6 miles to the campground at the top of Cordova Pass. Formerly known as Apishapa Pass, Cordova Pass boasts great camping, picnicking and hiking. There are pit toilets but no water. Be prepared to pay a $6 per day use fee or a $9 overnight fee.

Our hike begins at the West Peak trailhead (United States Forest Service Trail #1390), which is also the trailhead for the Salazar trail (USFS trail #1390a). The trail mainly heads north and starts out in a forested area which is pretty flat with a gentle grade. A short distance in, one will find a trail register and it is advisable to sign your party both in and out.

At the southern edge of this forested area, the boundary signs for the Spanish Peaks Wilderness Area are posted noting that the trail is limited to travel on foot and horseback, but on this trail wheelchairs are also allowed. A short distance beyond, the trail opens into a small meadow, where the trail will fork. The primary trail veers left. The right fork takes one to a marker noting that in 1976 the Spanish Peaks were declared a National Natural Landmark, for these twin peaks have guided travelers for centuries.

These two forks merge back into one about 50 yards up the trail. Although fantastic views are now emerging, look down and take note of the abundant flora along the trail. Wild strawberry blossoms abound along with raspberries, and the tiny yellow flowers of mountain parsley.

Once again the trail moves through a forested area and then opens into a meadow that recalls the opening scene from the Sound of Music. It is all too easy to imagine oneself as Julie Andrews and break into song while twirling around. Thousands of subalpine wildflowers paint the scene. As the meadow opens up, 360 degree vistas emerge. A glance to south reveals Trinidad’s Fishers Peak and hints at more beauty to come.

Soon, as the trail rises towards the center of the meadow, views of the 13,517’ Trinchera Peak are seen on the left. Just ahead the majestic 13,626’ West Spanish Peak looms as a giant backdrop with fleeting glimpses of the shorter 12,688’ East Spanish Peak just beyond its taller twin. The trail now gains altitude, turns into a couple of switchbacks and heads right towards the West Spanish Peak. This part of the trail may be tiring but it is short and well worth the effort.

Remnants of an old barbed wire fence are found near this part of the trail, encouraging hikers to stay off the tender meadow flowers. The trail soon switches to the left (west) with a view of the mighty Culebra Range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It may appear faster and easier to cut across these switchbacks on the trail but don’t. Cutting across creates an erosive path, soon to become a new trail. Plus, “Why the rush?” Enjoy this 360 panorama while you can.

The trail once again heads north to Vista Point. From here, in all directions, the views are mind blowing. The Mount Blanca massif and the Crestone Needle area of the Sangres are off to the northwest. Directly north, Greenhorn Peak and the Wet Mountains fill the landscape. Just below to the north, Goemmer’s Butte, Echo Canyon and La Veta are seen in the descending foothills. Again towards the east the West Spanish Peak juts upward.

Continuing to circle to the right, we see more foothills spilling out to the eastern plains. Fisher’s Peak once again dominates the view. Behind to the south, we see from whence we came, with Cordova Pass beckoning our return.

But stay a while to enjoy this unequaled natural postcard. Have a picnic. Study the krummholz, which are trees found at tree-line – dwarfed and twisted by the harsh alpine conditions of snow, wind and freezing temperatures. Rest in the wildflowers as clouds turn into figures and stories.

This entire trek is only 1.5 miles with a minimal elevation gain of only a few hundred feet, making it accessible to anybody. Why not bring the kids? And the grandparents? And….

For more information, google Cordova Pass and access the USDA Forest service website.

Photos by Bob Kennemer and Brian Orr