COLO HWY 12 — It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look to the Spanish Peaks and Culebra Range to realize there has to be some mighty pretty scenery in those hills. Although it took many years to formally recognize today’s Highway 12 through western Huerfano and Las Animas counties as a scenic byway, even back in horse and buggy days folks were taking advantage of the route to get them closer to nature’s splendor. We are told La Veta’s Henry Daigre paid Hiram Vasquez $1,000 to open Cucharas Pass as a toll road, mostly for wagon traffic, way back in the 1870s. While this was to make the way easier for freight wagons, the new route became popular with early tourists seeking that perfect campsite, best picnic spot, and wide and magnificent vistas. Early newspapers extolled the trip around the Spanish Peaks as not only beautiful but beneficial to physical health and mental outlook. These trips could include a covered wagon or a horse and pack animal to carry gear and groceries. Without the availability of good roads, or any roads at all for that matter, the trip
could take as much as a week, especially for those feeling the urge to drop a fishing line into a mountain stream. Both Apishapa and Cucharas passes were said to have been known to, and used by, fur trappers and mountain men in the mid 1800’s as they followed ancient Indian trails into and around the mountains. Despite Daigre’s improvement of the road to encourage commerce and conversation between the Cucharas and Purgatory valleys, even the mail carrier usually went by horseback between the two. In 1880, the mail route went from La Veta 12 miles to Nunda (Cuchara), 11 more miles to Stamford (near North Lake), and four more miles to the Stonewall post office. Then he got to turn around and go back north. Before the decade was over, maps showed a road leading from La Veta down the same route and continuing south over one of the (three) San Francisco Pass routes into Vermejo Park in New Mexico. Las Animas County in 1916 sent construction crews to clean out the boulders and large rocks, install bridges where needed, and otherwise update the road between Stonewall and the summit of Cucharas Pass. By 1920, this road was called Highway 111. At Stonewall, it met Highway 12 linking Stonewall with Trinidad. The businessmen of Huerfano and Las Animas counties saw the advantage of an automobile route linking them and set to getting the roadway modernized. To this end, in 1922, a crew of 45 men was put to work building a nine-mile road between the upper Cucharas to “Cat” (actually, Wildcat) Creek north of Monument Lake. The cost was $20,000, and the project lasted over the course of two summers. The finished product was to be known as the Spanish Peaks Circle Highway, aka the Stonewall Cucharas Road. Highway 111 was by no means a “highway” in the strict meaning of the word. It was a road, with actual gravel in places (though not many). It was narrow, twisting and steep. If it wasn’t raining, it was dusty; if it was raining, or had rained recently, it was solid, bottomless mud. Automobiles often had to back up from blind curves and precipitous grades to allow oncoming cars to pass. It was nothing if not an adventure to drive. But it was scenic. In 1936, the Works Progress Administration endeavored to widen and straighten the road. The project was to cost $66,278 and run from La Veta to the summit of Cucharas Pass only. Similar improvements were made on the Las Animas side of the mountains. It was a minor improvement, but the State of Colorado thought it worthwhile and brought part of the north portion of Highway 111 into the state system. A year later Colorado 111 was extended five miles to connect La Veta with the new route of Highway 160. Previously, the highway had gone straight through the town. In 1952, the state graveled four miles of roadway south of La Veta. The road was paved at the Trinidad end to Monument Lake so Highway 12 was extended from Stonewall north. In 1953 the La Veta end was paved south as far as Albright’s Spoon Ranch. At the same time, a fairly good gravel road was improved and modified between Monument Lake and Cuchara Camps. The gravel didn’t last. The Huerfano County Chamber of Commerce insisted the high country be more easily accessible for tourists trying to reach the recreational facilities and opportunities in the foothills and mountains of the San Isabel National Forest. Finally, in 1958, the highway department agreed to lay an all-weather road (not paved) between the upper Cucharas Valley and Stonewall to connect with the paved Highway 12, a distance of 18 miles. The project fell short, however, and connected Cuchara with Monument Lake. Another project was approved (for $380,000) to finish the improvements between Monument Lake and Stonewall, but in 1963, the funds were withdrawn. The highway was now paved all the way from La Veta to the Forks, or the bottom of Cucharas Pass. Five years later the entire pass and road were paved between Highway 160 and Trinidad. This may have never have happened without two circumstances. One was the opening of the Allen Mine back in 1951. Huerfano miners had long complained about the inconvenience of having to drive through Trinidad and up the Purgatory to get to work during the winter, because travel across Cucharas Pass was seasonal only. The other was the marked increase of tourist traffic. The state could not ignore demands for an improved, paved highway, and so the lengthened Highway 12 was born. In the mid 1980s, a group of Huerfano and Trinidad citizens began plans to have Colorado 12 named a scenic highway. The designation came a reality in 1987, and the Scenic Highway of Legends became recognized as a National Byway in 1988. As a result of these new names, the road was further improved and resurfaced in 1988. Despite its designation, the Scenic Highway was not formally dedicated until 1990. It was one of but five such scenic highways and byways in the state. And, of course, the prettiest.