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Conejos, home of Colorado’s oldest church
Photo courtesy: Gerald McDaniel Facebook

By Joshua Pilkington

Writer’s note: For the next several weeks we will be focusing on Southern Colorado counties where they came from, what they have to offer and why more Coloradoans should pay them a visit. In this fourth edition we explore the religious history and open spaces of Conejos County.

From the oldest church to an operational steam engine Conejos County is rich with history

Like many of our Southern Colorado counties, Conejos County is one of the original 17 the General Assembly of the Territory of Colorado created in 1861. The county, rich with religious history, was first named Guadalupe County, but its named changed shortly thereafter to Conejos due to the large amount of rabbits in the county.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish

One of the most known and respected landmarks in Conejos County is Colorado’s oldest church, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. Established in 1857, the church made headlines a year ago when a fire heavily damaged areas of the church and caused smoke damage throughout the building. In the aftermath of the fire, the church made headlines again as parishioners believed to see the image of a crown above the portrait of the Virgin Mary. Fortunately for the state and the county, the fire did not destroy the church and it is once again open to the public for visitors and parishioners alike.

The religious history of Conejos County goes beyond the state’s oldest church. Both Presbyterian and Mormon settlers have shaped the county. According to the newsroom of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “several church immigrants settled communities in Conejos County, Manassa, Richfield and Sanford.”

That religious footprint remains evident today in Conejos County as several of the county’s principal landmarks and largest events are tied to its religious settlers. Some of the historical sites include the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad in Antonito. Constructed in 1880, the steam engine railroad still makes daily trips from Antonito to Chama, New Mexico every summer and fall. The Colorado Historic Society maintains the Pike Stockade in Sanford where Zebulon Pike first raised the American Flag in 1807 over what was at the time Spanish territory. Manassa is the home of the largest events in the San Luis Valley, Pioneer Days. In July Manassa hosts the event meant to celebrate the arrival of Mormon pioneers to the state.


With its nearly 8,000 feet of elevation, but valley-like landscapes, Conejos County is a geographical oddity. That oddity, however, provides beautiful views of the San Juan Mountains. Due to the mountainous areas to the west of the county in addition to the Rio Grande River to the east and the Rio Grande National Forest, almost 66 percent of the 1,290 square miles that encompass Conejos County is owned by state or federal entities. The rest of the land is made up of small communities and towns, large farms, and pastures.

Estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show Conejos County with a population of 8,130, down slightly from the 8,256 in 2010. Much like the other 17 original counties in Colorado, Conejos County enjoyed population booms in the early 1900s and the 1940s when the demand for coal was at its peak during World War I and II. Of those 8,130, 53.7 percent are designated Hispanic or Latino while 43.8 percent are Caucasian.

Climate and recreation

Being at higher elevations it’s not a surprise that Conejos County sees an average snowfall of 32 inches and an average rainfall of 11 inches every year, according to Sperling’s Best Places. What is more surprising are the 285 days of sunshine the mountainous valley dwellers enjoy as well.

That sunshine can lead to a bevy of recreational activities from fly-fishing in the South San Juan Wilderness Area to camping in the Rio Grande National Forest. Conejos County also boasts ample terrain for trail running, hiking, mountain biking, rafting, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling and hunting.

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