Colorado State Highway 12 is known as The Highway of Legends. The road starts at its junction with U.S. Highway 160, not far from Fort Garland, Colorado, and winds down to Trinidad, on the Old Santa Fe Trail. The total trip is just over 80 miles, and if you were in a hurry, you could drive it in about two hours. Please slow down and savor the scenery and history instead. You will find wonders around every bend.
Since you will be approaching from I-25, you will pass through Walsenburg, an antiques magnet. To the west are the gorgeous Zapata Ranch with its beautiful log lodge offering rooms to guests and its majestic herd of 2,500 bison, as well as the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Fort Garland began in 1858 as a protection for settlers in the San Luis Valley. You could zoom through Fort Garland on 160 as many people do today, but it is worth a linger look to see the arts and crafts stores you will find there. All of these are worth planning to visit, if you are taking your time along the Highway of Legends.
When you leave 160 behind, and are on route 12, The Highway of Legends winds down a gorgeous valley into the town of La Veta, a fine old settlement dating back to 1868, when it was established as a trading center for the surrounding mines. The town is filled with architectural delights, both Victorian and adobe style buildings. There are several lovely bed and breakfasts, including the Inn at the Spanish Peaks, the Olive Tree, and the 1899 Inn, as well as a good selection of places to dine. We suggest Alys Restaurant, where the fixed price menu includes soup or salad, an entree, and dessert, or the Next Door Deli for the Cubano and the fish tacos. Many visitors come to Le Veta and then wonder how they can stay and make it their home—perhaps you will find yourself among them as you get to know this charming Colorado town.
The Highway of Legends then heads southward from La Veta and enters the San Isabel National Forest. The Forest boasts 19 of the 54 peaks in Colorado that tower higher than 14,000 feet, affectionately named the “Fourteeners”. Along the drive you will be aware of the Spanish Peaks as they shelter the landscape Drive carefully and keep a sharp eye out, and you may be treated with glimpses of elk, mule deer and bear.
The Devil’s Stairstep below the West Spanish Peak is one of the great dikes, which look like long stretches of the Great Wall of China somehow transported to Colorado – they are actually huge remnants of ancient volcanic activity—igneous intrusions that form long, high divisions of the countryside. Be sure to allow plenty of time to explore the byways.
The route passes through Cuchara, near the Spanish Peaks Wilderness. Cuchara looks like a set from some old western movie, complete with the wooden boardwalks. If you are longing to shop for local craft items, Cuchara might just be the place for you to linger and browse. Options for hiking, horseback riding and fishing abound. The Cuchara Inn offers overnight rooms, and the renal office offers cabins, the dining options are the Dog Bar and Grill for hot dogs, pizza and sandwiches (take your meal to the patio to dine in the cool of the mountains), and Timbers for lobster fettuccini, salmon, fillet and flank steak.
The Highway of Legends crosses Cucharas Pass at 9,995 feet (stand on someone’s shoulders there, and you can say you are at 10,000 feet, just for fun. Then the route enters Las Animas County. For a fine weather adventure, drive County Road 364 to County Road 46 up to Cordova Pass. You will see one of the most picturesque aspects of the famous rocky dikes: the Apishapa Arch, a tunneled opening carved into the dike to permit CR 46 to go through it. It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The drive is off the beaten path but only 9.9 miles to the Arch. The route is passable in a passenger vehicle during summer months, but closed in winter.
State Highway 12 winds its way around North Lake and then alongside Monument Lake, two photo-worthy bodies of water that reflect the pines and the mountains beautifully. Monument Lake Resort offers dining and lodging.
The road turns eastward near Stonewall. This is an old resort and vacation area, with dining at the Stonewall Shopping Bag which offers great burgers, neat memorabilia on the walls and a setting amid the towering pines and magnificent rock formations that rise 250 feet above town. There’s lodging at the Stonewall Lodge. The town is named for the famous stone walls or dikes, Dakota era sandstone walls that loom above the town and are breathtaking to behold. Rock climbers flock to this area.
The Highway of Legends continues east along the Purgatorie River. This region was a mining center a hundred years ago, and lingering evidence from those boom years meets the eye along this stretch of the drive. As you go through Weston, look for elk; the nation’s’ largest herd lives here. The church at Weston is a favorite with photographers, in its setting surrounded by the towering mountains. Valdez was a company town for the Frederick Mine, and is now mostly empty. The General Store and other sites are frequent subjects for photographers. Cokedale is known for the ruins of its coke ovens which dominate the landscape like low lying aqueducts. Visit the Cokedale National Historic District. Coal mining took place here from 1909 to 1949. It is sometimes characterized as a ghost town, but 130 people call Cokedale home.
You will skirt Trinidad Lake before The Highway of Legends ends in Trinidad where route 12 meets Interstate 25. Trinidad was a Santa Fe Tral traiding station and a place where the settlers rested before they traversed the Raton Pass into New Mexico. Bat Masterson served as marshal of Trinidad in the 1880’s. One of the stage coach drivers between Trinidad and Box Springs was Wyatt Earp. Kit Carson was also well known in the town. Sights to see include the Bloom Mansion, which serves as the Trinidad History Museum, A. R. Mitchell Memorial Museum of Western Art, and the Baca house. Good dining choices include Tequila’s Family Mexican Restaurant, Bella Luna, and The Café. Lodging in Trinidad includes La Quinta, Days Inn, and Holiday Inn and Suites. For dinging we suggest The Café for Baca sandwich and homemade tomato basil soup, Bella Luna for pizza, and Rino’s Italian Restaurant and Steak House, in a former church building, which features great food served by singing waiters.