Highway of Legends Scenic Byway

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You could easily drive from Trinidad to Walsenburg, Colorado in about a half-hour on Interstate 25. But, if you’re the kind of person who prefers a drive that’s 4-times longer, and about 100-times more interesting, consider this scenic route that circles around the Spanish Peaks, and brings you close to the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in southern Colorado.

My Visit

After wandering around Trinidad for a while (including a drive up to Simpson’s Rest — where a giant sign looms over town), I headed out on Highway 12.  The road gets interesting, very quickly, as you follow a path that forms a giant letter “C” around the Spanish Peaks.  First up is…

Coaldale

Just outside of Trinidad, Highway 12 circles around the north side of Trinidad Lake.  I didn’t stop for the lake, but I did stop when I saw this huge line of coke ovens at the side of the road, at the west end of the lake.  Cokedale is a former coal-mining town, founded in 1906.  The town (and part of the old mining operation) is on the north side of the highway, while the 350 coke ovens are on the south side.  As far as I could tell, there was no direct access to the endless line of 100+ year-old coke ovens, so I had to appreciate the view from the opposite side of a small creek.  (Lake access is just a short distance further down this side-road.)

Burro Canyon

Just a bit further west, there’s an old, abandoned church at the side of the road near Burro Canyon.

I also liked this old-fashioned billboard sign for Ringo’s Hot & Cold Deli.

Medina Plaza

You’d barely know the town of Medina Plaza exists.  There is a nice new school here, and just up the road, there’s another abandoned building — possibly another church or an old school.  The doors are open and there are no No Trespassing signs…

… so I peeked inside, to find one room that’s slowly falling apart.  Ahead is…

Weston

Weston, Colorado is mostly a ghost town these days.  The old general store faces Highway 12, and is quite photogenic.  Take a side-road south of the highway…

… and you’ll find a long-abandoned gas pump…

… and a couple of old warehouses.  Sadly, these old buildings are slowly decaying.

But for now, they’re still quite pretty.

West of Weston…

… I took a side-road and found a nice view of the valley…

… and this big, rusty equipment.

That side road connected with another road (County Road 21.6)…

… where I found a great view of the Vigil Plaza Church, with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains providing a beautiful backdrop.

Wondering about all these “plazas”?  The word refers to the structures built by early settlers.  They would build several buildings that surround a central courtyard, or plaza.  The buildings protected the plaza from the outside world.  In the case of Vigil Plaza, the old church is all that remains of the original development.

Stonewall

It’s obvious how this community derived its name.  As you drive towards town, you’ll notice a prominent natural rock wall protruding from the valley floor.  Route 12 passes through a narrow gap in the wall.  Unfortunately, almost all the land in this area is privately owned, so it’s tough to find a good place to photograph the wall.

I tried taking a couple of side-roads near Stonewall.  County Road 13 heads north and south from Route 12.  The north side of the road was very muddy, so I only went a short distance into this beautiful valley.

The drive south from Highway 12 also looked interesting.  This view looks back towards Stonewall from a small hill.  If I had kept going on County Road 13, I would have eventually ended up in the ghost town of Tercio.  From what I can tell, these days, all that’s left is a cemetery.

Back on Highway 12, I tried my best to find a good photo of the stone wall at Stonewall.

Immediately after you squeeze through the stone wall, Highway 12 turns north, and starts to gain elevation.  This photo looks south, and shows the backside of the wall.

I was traveling the Highway of Legends in the fall, and I was hoping to find some good fall colors along the way.  The aspen trees were quite beautiful along this stretch between Monument Lake and North Lake.

North Lake

As I got closer to North Lake, there weren’t as many trees…

… but the hills were covered with some low brush that was turning colors quite nicely.  Here, highway 12 forms a giant letter “S”, going up one side of the lake, then down the other side…

… before turning north once again, for the final climb towards…

Cucharas Pass

The sign says “Cuchara”, but apparently it’s supposed to be spelled “Cucharas”, with an “s”.  This pass is just shy of the 10,000-foot mark.  Here, you’ll find the turnoff for the side road to Cordova Pass, and eventually, Aguilar and I-25.  During my visit in early October, the road was already snowy and slushy, and it didn’t seem like a very good idea to drive it.

There are more colorful aspen trees at Cucharas Pass…

… as well as aspen leaves lying on the freshly-fallen snow.

From Cucharas Pass, you have a great view to the north, looking at the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  A week earlier, and these aspen trees would have been at the peak of color.  (In case you’re wondering, I was here on October 13, 2014 — but the leaves were running about a week late that season.)

As I came down from the pass, I thought this barn was photo-worthy.

The road had started to level out when I came upon this formation, known as the Devil’s Stairsteps.

From here, it’s not far to the town of La Veta, where I was happy to find a convenience store — only the second one I had seen on the entire route (the only other store was in Stonewall, and it was closed).

After La Veta…

… highway 12 gains a bit of elevation, and in the process, you get a fantastic view of the Spanish Peaks to the south.  Then, highway 12 ends, and the rest of the drive into Walsenburg on US 160 is faster and less remarkable.

The Bottom Line

This is a nice scenic drive that will require at least two hours, maybe three or more, depending on how much you stop to enjoy it. Fill up your tank and buy some snacks before you leave Walsenburg or Trinidad, because you won’t find many — if any — services along the road. Plan your trip in early October and you should see some great fall colors near Cucharas Pass.

Location

For most of the way, the Highway of Legends Scenic Byway follows Colorado Highway 12.  On this page, we’ll take the route from south to north.  In Trinidad, head west on Highway 12 towards Cokedale and Weston.  At Stonewall, the road will turn north, eventually crossing Cucharas Pass.  After the town of La Veta, Route 12 ends at US 160 — which you can follow on into Walsenburg.

The Highway of Legends also includes a bonus route, over Cordova Pass and back to I-25 via County Road 46.

Drivelapse Video

Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Trinidad to Cucharas Pass…

… and Cucharas Pass on to Walsenburg:

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