HUERFANO/ LAS ANIMAS — As of September 29, the Scenic Highway of Legends in Huerfano and Las Animas counties will be 25 years old. The formal dedication took place on that date in 1990, the culmination of several years of intense effort by determined volunteers from both counties. That the route of Colorado Highway 12 is scenic has never been in doubt. That it was easily navigated and practical is another thing altogether. Some of the earliest correspondence and newspapers include stories of settlers attempting to circumnavigate the Spanish Peaks. The first known improvement project on the road occurred in 1870 when Henry Daigre of La Veta paid $1,000 to open the usual trail up the Cucharas River and across the pass as far as Stonewall. His aim was to operate a toll road for wagon traffic and open a mail route. Just 12 years later, residents of the upper Cucharas were complaining, to wit, “The road to the summit of Cucharas Pass is ballasted with boulders as high as a bed post, broad as the National Republican platform and long as moral law. You will sooner return by a three day drive around the Spanish Peaks rather than risk your neck and wagon on a first class disgrace to Huerfano County.” With the
creation of the San Isabel National Forest, more tourists and scenery seekers were traveling the route. By 1915, a local newspaper noted the road to the summit of the pass was nearly complete, and that “Trinidad and Walsenburg people should advertise ‘Circling the Peaks’ as one of the scenic drives in the state.” A year later a complaint was heard about the new grade being completed on the north side, but still, about seven miles remained primitive on the Purgatory side. In June 1917, Las Animas county commissioners approved $5,000 for just that goal, but by 1919 the Forest Service was discussing building a new road over the pass. That discussion lasted until 1922 when the Huerfano commissioners proposed a different route and backed up the idea with an appropriation. The Forest Service cooperated in the $20,000 project said to include nine miles of roadway and that Autumn, some 45 men were working on the project. The new route ran between the Hill Branch on the upper Cucharas, across the pass and continued down “Cat Creek” to the Purgatory. Cat Creek presumably refers to the drainage of Wildcat Creek, but may not. The construction continued into 1923 with a completion date in August. Work was still being undertaken in November, however, though the forest service was predicting a speedy conclusion. A 1931, Colorado map shows the road, now named Highway 111, as an “Other Thoroughfare” as opposed to a paved or all weather road. Highway 111 ran from U.S. Highway 160, then numbered 10 between Walsenburg and La Veta, south to Stonewall where it met Highway 12, and continued through Trinidad and El Moro all the way to La Junta. Basically, the Cucharas Pass portion of the route traversed the miles through the hills, mountains and forests, and over ravines and creeks, as a slightly improved two track with a minimum of bridges and culverts. Scenic, yes, treacherous, yes indeed, especially in wet weather. The good old Depression-era Works Progress Administration, builder of so many important improvement projects in the two county area, stepped in during 1936. That May, a $66,278 commitment was made by the WPA to straighten and widen Highway 111 between La Veta and Stonewall. In 1949, Highway 111 was graveled between La Veta and Cuchara Camps – and no further. Meanwhile, the Las Animas section of the road was not only graded but partially paved. Slowly but surely, between 1952 and 1962, Highway 111 up the Cucharas River portion was paved in increments. It was estimated some 150 cars traveled south out of La Veta in 1950, though how many continued across the pass into Las Animas County is unknown. A 1958, improvement project, instigated by the chambers of commerce of towns and cities along the way, got 111 upgraded to an all weather, though still not paved, road over the pass. The rocky and often muddy road in no way intimidated local tourists. If someone was determined to cross the pass to visit the other side, he or she did it, albeit slowly and carefully, with one eye on the weather conditions. The Highway Department, as CDOT used to be called, finally coughed up $380,000 in January 1963 to pave the entire route. In April, it withdrew the funds. It had, however, taken the old Highway 111 and pasted it onto 12, so from Highway 160 at the north end to Trinidad at the south, the road was known as Highway 12. Nevertheless, by the end of the decade the entire distance was paved and bridged. Warnings along the road approaching Cucharas Pass no longer read “closed in winter”. In the summer of 1987, some 35 individuals and business owners banded together to obtain scenic highway status for Highway 12. Names considered for the route included the Great Stonewall and the Spanish Peak scenic highways. By July, the volunteers had selected the Scenic Highway of Legends. In June 1988, the Colorado House of Representatives passed a resolution recognizing the scenic highway’s promoters. The resolution read, “Whereas, the Scenic Highway of Legends winds through the hills of Las Animas and Huerfano counties and the route passes through the Purgatoire River Valley to its source near the top of Cuchara [sic] Pass and continues down into the Cuchara River Valley; and Whereas, Interested individuals from Huerfano and Las Animas counties have joined together to form the not-for-profit Scenic Highway of Legends, Incorporated, in order to cooperatively emphasize and promote the highway and its surrounding area; now therefore, Be It Resolved, the members of the House of Representatives of the fifty-sixth General Assembly of the State of Colorado commend the Scenic Highway of Legends, Inc., for its efforts in preserving and promoting the Scenic Highway of Legends and recognize it as an exemplary model of bi-county cooperation and wish the group continued success in its efforts.” The resolution was presented to a gathering of citizens at Monument Lake June 18 by Rep. Juan Trujillo. The house formally recognized this as a new state scenic byway. The state senate made it a joint resolution and the Colorado Historical Society prepared a sizeable brochure introducing the geology, historic and scenic significance of the route. About 150 people attended the dedication ceremonies at the summit of Cucharas Pass on Sept. 29, 1990. The Scenic Highway of Legends became one of five scenic highways and byways at the time, though there are many more today. In the past 25 years, the group has continued to advertise and promote the areas adjacent to Highway 12. They have published small and large brochures, pamphlets, and several beautifully photographed booklets. The first effort in 1988 was a two color activity book. The highway suffered the loss of one legend when the stone monument crumbled into the dark waters of Monument Lake, but there’s still plenty of scenery to enjoy – even in the winter.