It’s sometimes hard to separate and distinguish the unique beauty of Colorado’s majestic peaks, there are just so many of them. Altogether, they form another link in the chain called the Rocky Mountains. But in southern Colorado, two peaks stand alone and, together, grab the attention of passersby in a special kind of way.
Jeffer Wingate knows the Spanish Peaks in an almost intimate way. The veteran Forest Service Representative can answer almost any question about the pair. He’s been on the job for 33 years, the last fourteen right next to the peaks. Ask him their elevation, he’ll tell you. The eastern one, he said, measures 12,683 feet while its western neighbor slightly higher at 13,626 feet in elevation. To the naked eye, the difference is indiscernible. He can also fill in the blanks about their history, recent as well as long before that.
The two mountains, however, are only a part---a special part---of The Spanish Peaks Wildness Area, a 19,343 acre stretch of land that may be one of Colorado’s best kept secrets. Unlike some of Colorado’s mountains and scenic areas, the Spanish Peaks Wilderness Area gets only “several thousand people” each year and then mostly in summer.
Going back centuries, Wingate said Native Americans, including the Utes, Comanche and Apache that once ruled the region, held the two peaks as sacred. They were Wahatoya, translated as the ‘breasts of the earth.’ “They were cloud catchers,” he said. The clouds brought the rain, the rain filled the river and the river nurtured the game, the bears, cougars and deer that still occupy the mountains.
The first Europeans also took note of the unique quality of the mountains. The Spaniard Juan de Ulibarri lead an expedition from New Mexico in 1706. Ulibarri was on a mission to return several dozen people who had fled New Mexico and Spanish rule.
The geological history of the region is a science lesson that defies everything about a modern-day Colorado. Southern Colorado, including the nearby towns of Walsenburg and La Veta, was underwater. The era was marked by huge tectonic movement that “started to rise but never did reach the surface.” As the water receded the mountains appeared.
While the area receives fewer visits than many others in Colorado, it provides an unforgettable wilderness experience. “It’s almost unique in the state,” said Wingate. There is hunting and fishing and “opportunities for solitude.” Over the years the veteran Forest Service rep has traversed its many of its paths and campsites. “I always feel refreshed and energized when I go into the wilderness area,” he said. “You just step back and enjoy the quiet, the natural settings and the sky. That’s what draws me.”
Camping is allowed in the wilderness area and there is no charge. But lately, said Wingate, a problem with people overstaying the authorized 14-day camping period allowed by the Forest Service has been on the uptick. Squatting, he said, “is not a huge problem but it is increasing,” adding, it is just “one of the issues in this day and age.” The wilderness area also allows hunters for several types of game, including big horn sheep.
From I-25 or from Colorado Highway 160, the peaks stand out especially when the morning or waning sun hits them. But those just passing through do not get the same ‘up close and personal’ benefit that Wingate gets when he goes to work. While it’s hard to pick the peaks’ most beautiful spot, Wingate’s choice is “the headwaters of the Apishipa River.” “It’s a beautiful valley that runs up from the entrance to the peaks,” he said. “It’s beautiful, quiet and cool in the summertime,” he said. It’s “where the river runs out on to the plains.”
The wilderness area requires no reservations. The only thing the Forest Service asks is that visitors, including hunters, respect the wilderness. Take with you everything you bring in and leave nothing but footprints.