Poncha: The Pass between the Rockies

Article by Ed Quillen

Geography – July 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Since the Rocky Mountains trend along a north-south line, the major passes across the ranges naturally run east and west: Trout Creek, Cottonwood, Independence, La Veta, Cochetopa, Monarch. A north-south pass like Poncha is an exception in this crowd.

Poncha is an exceptional pass in other ways. It isn’t one crossing, but several at various gaps within a saddle between the longest range in the Rockies and the highest range in the Rockies.

The origins of its name have been shrouded in confusion. Its history as a toll road defies the calendar, and if you want more Poncha Pass confusion, start with geology.

Look at the Southern Rockies on a big scale, and you see a long valley that stretches 500 miles from Leadville to El Paso, perhaps even farther. In Colorado and northern New Mexico, this valley is flanked by mountain ranges. On the east, the Mosquito Range, Arkansas Hills and Sangre de Cristos; on the west, the Sawatch, Cochetopa Hills, and San Juans.

Between these ranges lies a chunk of real estate that stayed put, or maybe even sank, when the mountains on both sides were rising. The bedrock floor of this valley is at least a mile beneath all the sediment — washed down from mountains in the past 60 million years — and it may lie below sea level.

This depressed area is known to geologists as the Rio Grande Rift. The largest rift valley on the planet is the East African Rift, which extends 3,000 miles from Syria to Mozambique and embraces the Dead Sea, at 1,312 feet below sea level, the lowest spot on earth. Others include the Rhine valley in Europe and the Imperial Valley of California.

A rift valley differs from other valleys in this way: a regular valley is formed by water or glaciers and represents erosion of the earth’s surface, while a rift valley is part of the earth’s fundamental structure.

Our Rio Grande Rift is aptly named in its southern stretches, for it carries the Rio Grande. In the north, though, it forms the headwaters of the Arkansas, which flows south down the rift for 60 miles, then takes a turn for the east at Salida.

But the Arkansas didn’t always take that turn, according to some sources, such as Roadside Geology of Colorado: “In Miocene and Pliocene times [from about 26 million to 3 million years ago] the Arkansas flowed southward into the San Luis Valley and the Rio Grande, through a valley or channel just west of Poncha Pass. Then uplift and volcanic action closed that valley and forced the river into a new route out of the mountains.”

An old river channel near the top of Poncha Pass? Evidence that the upper Arkansas and San Luis valleys were connected long before some Ute ventured across that saddle and was rewarded by finding more hot springs?

I wouldn’t know what to look for, so I called an expert, Paul Martz, a consulting geologist. He was game for an excursion, and added that Jim Treat of Chaffee Title had for several years been pestering him for a Poncha Pass geologic field trip.

So off we went on a pleasant June morning, searching for evidence that the Arkansas had once flowed due south from Climax to El Paso. Our first stop was some distance from the pass, to the gravel hills at the foot of Mount Shavano, where we could look across the valley and get a general view of the gap at Poncha Pass.

“We’re standing on a delta where some glacial stream deposited gravel into a lake less than a million years ago,” Paul explained. “It could have been that the Arkansas was dammed here by uplift to the south, where Poncha Pass is now.”

I gazed south toward the pass — verdant serene pastoral scene that will never again look peaceful to me. “Right there behind the old Roberts dairy is the stump of a volcano. It was shooting out stuff all over, and you can find big flows over there — not lava, but mudslides full of debris — that are hundreds of feet thick. The sulfuric clouds of gas from those eruptions must have killed every tree for miles, assuming that they survived the blasts from the explosions.”

He pointed to other remnants of a time of unspeakable natural violence, when Salida’s valley was hit with forces far beyond any hydrogen bomb’s, less than a million years ago — “Just the blink of an eye, in geologic time.”

The Poncha hot springs, whose waters are heated by hot rocks — volcanic magma — close to the surface, remain as a reminder that this area is not all that stable. Joining them are hot springs on the other side of the pass: Mineral and Valley View.

“Poncha calls itself the ‘Crossroads of the Rockies,'” he added, “but to a geologist, it’s more like the ‘Crosshairs of the Rockies.’ You’ve got a major east-west fault on the continental basement that more or less runs along the 39th parallel, and here it crosses the north-south Rio Grande Rift structure. There’s been major volcanism and shifting in the past 100,000 years.

“We might think it’s stable because there’s nothing happening at this moment, but that’s an anomaly. The Sangres are still rising and we could start feeling little tremors any day.”

And if that happened? “It would be a good idea to get out, because we’ve got every indication that bigger ones would come right along. Just imagine how Salida would shake if the south side of the Little River rose 50 feet in a few seconds — and that’s something that has happened before, rather recently.”

That said, he took us up Little Cochetopa Creek to show us the roots of some old hot springs, a major attraction to exploration geologists searching for minerals.

“Just about every worthwhile metal deposit in the world is the result of hot springs,” Paul explained. “The hot water wells up from the earth and dissolves metallic salts and carries them up. When the water evaporates, the metals remain, nicely concentrated so that they’re profitable to mine. Very few substances are really rare — it’s the concentrations that are rare.”

The rock that the spring passed through loses its minerals and thus much of its color. That’s what happened to the Chalk Cliffs on the flank of Mount Princeton, and along both Cochetopa and Poncha creeks, he showed us much smaller, but similar, formations. Sometimes he could trace the path of the rising water, thanks to red streaks amid the white.

And so it’s possible to imagine, 10 million years hence, some mines operating where there are hot springs today: Mount Princeton, Poncha, Valley View. Modern mines, in a sense, trace the courses of ancient hot springs, extracting the minerals once dissolved by water and then left behind.

We finally started up the pass, stopping every so often at exposed walls where recent rains had inspired small rockslides.

On the west side, “here’s a valley that was filled by a breccia flow — hot mud and volcanic rocks sliding down from some source nearby to the west. Everything that rises around Saguache is volcanic.

“This filled valley should continue on to the east — we should be able to see it across the road — but we can’t. Everything on the other side of Poncha Creek has been uplifted at least 800 feet, and what you see there is precambrian basement that’s at least 650 million years old. And it was obviously uplifted after this volcanic flow, which came in the past couple million years.”

So the Arkansas could have flowed south until all this volcanism and uplift in the last 10 million years or so?

“Sure, it could have. But to be certain, we’d need some evidence, like the water-rounded cobbles of an old river channel sitting up there on the pass. And since those wash away quite quickly, it would be surprising if any of them survived this long after the uplift. A lot can happen in few million years.”

On up the pass. We climbed out of the volcanic zone, into the uplifted precambrian granite that forms the core of the Rockies. An old mine, amid lots of white rocks which meant a former hot spring site. The rocks at the highway summit were Tertiary volcanic.

About a mile down the south side, the unpaved Poncha Loop road heads west. We took it, and after some rambling, followed the old railroad grade over the pass and down for a couple miles. Nothing but volcanic rock, no matter where Paul looked.

“I’d sure like to see some paper that argues that the upper Arkansas was once tributary to the Rio Grande. As I said, it’s quite possible. But I haven’t found a single bit of geologic evidence of an old river channel. There’s lots of volcanism and uplift here, but nothing to indicate where the river flowed before the volcanism and uplift. For all we can tell from here, the upper valley was once tilted from both ends toward Buena Vista, and the water drained out over Trout Creek Pass.”

Well, it was a pleasant excursion into the hills anyway, and the definitive Colorado Central geologic story of Poncha Pass is going to have to wait for more research. Beyond that, its story in human times is almost as perplexing as its geologic record.

Certainly the Utes used it, but probably not that much. The Tabeguache band often summered along the upper Arkansas, but when the cold weather came, they headed west, rather than south, and generally wintered near Montrose. The San Luis Valley held the Moache and Capote bands, who had decent hunting nearby and seldom needed to venture north.

Ute bands visited each other once or twice a year for some feasting, dancing, and courtship, so doubtless they used Poncha Pass. However, they weren’t a literate people, so we have no way of knowing how frequently they crossed — but it probably wasn’t often.

The first recorded account of Poncha Pass appears in 1779, when Juan Batista de Anza led an army north from Santa Fé. His 800 men and 2,400 horses rode up the San Luis Valley, camped near the summit on Aug. 26, and on the next day, “we forced our way through a very narrow canyon with almost inaccessible sides, and considerable water … which … divides the two sierras. It being very rarely crossed, cost us considerable work to conquer.”

So there was a visible trail in 1779, since Anza said the pass was “rarely crossed,” rather than “never crossed.” As for the “very narrow canyon with almost inaccessible sides,” there are some stretches along the highway route that might qualify.

Also, he might have taken the railroad’s route — a different saddle about a mile west of the highway crossing. From the south, the way he was coming, it’s a more open approach, more appealing to someone on horseback. On the north side before it joins the current highway route, it’s more like a narrow canyon.

We should also remember that they’d been riding through the broad San Luis Valley for the past week — any sort of constriction was bound to look rather narrow.

It should be noted that even though Anza’s journal is the first known account of Poncha Pass, his itinerary wasn’t just guesswork. He left Santa Fé with a map, based on the latest cartographic data available to the Empire of Spain. It showed the San Luis Valley with reasonable accuracy, mountains at the north, and the Rio de Napestle (Arkansas) flowing just over the ridge. Some Spaniards had obviously been there before Anza, and their records might emerge from the archives one of these days.

Although Anza named some other features (he christened the South Arkansas the San Agustin, and Kerber Creek was Santa Xines), he didn’t name the pass.

“Poncha” does look like a Spanish word; it has also been spelled as “Poncho,” “Puncha,” “Puntia,” “Punita,” “Puncho,” and “Punche.”

One reference at hand, Colorado Place Names, offers two possible origins for the name: “Two explanations have been given. First is that Poncha is the misspelled form of pancho (Spanish for ‘paunch’ or ‘belly’) as descriptive of the low bend in the mountain range here. Second, that it is an Indian word meaning tobacco, and was given for a weed that grew abundantly on the pass and which was an excellent substitute for tobacco.”

Another good reference, The Great Gates, mentions the ersatz tobacco, but also says “Poncha: Spanish for ‘mild.'”

None of these origins seems to work. Search as I might through books about native plants of the Rocky Mountains, I can’t find a tobacco substitute hereabouts. Spanish dictionaries, and inquiries to people fluent in that language, don’t produce either “belly” or “gentle” in response to “poncha.”

The variety of spellings suggests that it was originally a Ute word, with Spanish and American chroniclers trying to render the unfamiliar sounds into their familiar alphabet (as with “Saguache” and “Sawatch,” or “Shavano” and “Shawano”).

Curious about the Ute angle, I called Jeanne Englert, an occasional Colorado Central contributor who now lives and writes in Lafayette, but who used to live in Ignacio where she edited the Southern Ute Drum. She can’t speak Ute, but she can read it. When I asked about “Poncha,” nothing came to mind for her, but Jeanne said she’d do some checking.

She called one of her friends, Annabelle Eagle of Ignacio, who serves on the Ute Language Committee for the Southern Ute Tribal Council.

“Annabelle and I worked it out,” Jeanne called to say. “Poncha comes from a compound of two Ute words — Ute often puts nouns together the way we do with ‘waterwheel’ or ‘boardwalk.’

“The real Ute sounds can’t be conveyed in our alphabet, but it’s something like Pou Nchay. The first word means ‘trail’ or ‘path’, and the second means ‘foot.’ So Poncha literally means ‘path foot,’ or, in better English, ‘footpath.’ It makes perfect sense as the Ute name for the crossing, because most Ute place names were descriptions — Saguache, for instance, is ‘green place’.”

From what I gathered, Ute place names were not proper nouns. You can imagine some explorer asking a Ute scout what lay ahead, and getting the reply, “a foot path,” except the explorer heard something like “Poncha.”

Thus the abiding mystery of the origin of the word “Poncha” seems to be solved, and it’s a good thing we looked into it now. As Jeanne points out, “Despite all the efforts of the tribal elders to preserve the language, hardly anyone under 50 speaks Ute. In another generation, it will be a dead language.”

Back to the pass, which was still a Ute foot path when the next military expedition into the region came in 1806, with Lt. Zebulon Pike in charge of finding the headwaters of the Red River so that the United States would know the limits of the Louisiana Purchase.

Pike managed to wander around both sides of Poncha Pass. He camped north of Salida on Christmas of 1806, and he was in the San Luis Valley a month later, but instead of crossing Poncha Pass, he went down the Arkansas, around the Royal Gorge, up the Hardscrabble, across the Wet Mountain Valley, and over Medano Pass past the Great Sand Dunes. Little wonder that his biography is subtitled “The Lost Pathfinder.”

Soon after Pike missed Poncha Pass, American traders and trappers started poking into every nook and cranny of the West, and since many of the free trappers were based in Taos, they must have crossed Poncha Pass when they exterminated beaver from the upper reaches of the Arkansas.

But they left few journals, and those that survive are full of tall tales. James Ohio Pattie might have crossed Poncha Pass in 1827. His Personal Narrative rucounts burying several friends who were killed by Indians near the headwaters of the Arkansas; the survivors then “crossed the mountain that separates its waters from those of the Rio del Norte [Rio Grande].”

This account is suspect because Pattie stretched the truth more than most mountain men, which was considerable. Pattie also put the headwaters of the Red, Colorado, Rio Grande, Arkansas, Platte, Yellowstone and Columbia all in the “same range of peaks at very short distances from each other.”

Twenty years later, Colorado boasted settlements at Pueblo, Greenhorn, and Hardscrabble (near present Wetmore), and it was with these early farms that Poncha Pass became a route of commerce.

Among the Hardscrabble residents was one Alexander Barclay, an Englishman who dabbled in many pursuits, among them some trading with the Utes.

In the fall of 1846, he loaded up a string of mules with trade goods, ascended the old Taos Trapper’s trail from Hardscrabble to the Wet Mountain Valley and crossed Sangre de Cristo pass to the San Luis Valley, where he traded with one band of Utes. Then he crossed Poncha Pass for some trading with another Ute band near Nathrop before returning to Hardscrabble via South Park.

Some of Barclay’s papers survive, but they’re not available in Salida, so I don’t know what, if anything, he called the pass.

We do know that it was once supposed to be called Gunnison Pass. That came about in 1853, and it was the result of John Charles Frémont’s disaster in 1846.

The idea was to find a central railroad route through the Rockies. Frémont got over the Sangre de Cristos, but foundered in the mountains south of Saguache. In 1853, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis gave the assignment to Captain John Gunnison of the Topographical Corps. He headed west with 30 scientists, a military escort of 30 dragoons led by two officers, and 18 six-mule wagons along with an ambulance and an instrument wagon.

On Aug. 29, they camped near Saguache. Gunnison told most of them to head west up Cochetopa Pass, while he and seven men rode north for some exploring.

Near Villa Grove, they found “the prettiest, best-watered valley, with wood convenient for fuel, that I have seen in this section.” Gunnison christened the place Homans’ Park, in honor of one of the men with him, Sheppard Homans, the expedition’s astronomer.

(If you wonder why a military survey party needed an astronomer, remember that somebody had to spot Polaris in the night sky in order to establish a precise latitude; they didn’t have positioning satellite networks in those days. Such sightings also provided the correction for the magnetic compasses they used in the daytime.)

On Aug. 30, they crossed “Puncha” Pass — the journal may be the first appearance in print of any variant of the name — and observed that even then, Poncha Springs was a crossroads, for they saw “heavy Indian trails to South Park, Hardscrabble, Wet Mountain Valley, etc.” They recrossed the pass and easily caught up to the rest of the crew.

Later on the expedition, Capt. Gunnison was killed by Indians in Utah. His second in command, Lt. Edward J. Beckwith, took over; his report renamed Poncha Pass to Gunnison Pass “as a testimonial of respect to the memory of the officer who explored it.”

Since Gunnison left his name on a river, a city, and counties in both Colorado and Utah, he is unlikely to be forgotten, even if Beckwith’s new name for Poncha Pass never stuck. And think how confusing it would be if Gunnison Pass went nowhere near Gunnison River or Gunnison town.

Less than two years after Gunnison’s passage, another American military group crossed “Punche Pass.” This was plain old Indian warfare, inspired by the 1854 Christmas Massacre at Pueblo. The fractious Utes were also perturbed by the presence of Fort Massachusetts (built in 1852, it was replaced by nearby Fort Garland in 1858) and threatened its small garrison of 81 soldiers.

In February of 1855, Col. Thomas Fauntleroy came up from Fort Union (near present Las Vegas, N.M.) with more than 500 reinforcements and Kit Carson as a guide. They fought their way north through 150 Utes and Jicarilla Apache on March 19 at Saguache. Four days later, they crossed Poncha Pass and surprised a few Utes. The military surgeon, Dewitt Peters, noted that “there were hot springs sending their fumes to heaven — the day was beautiful and this lent its aid to the grandeur of the scenery.”

A second campaign left Fort Massachusetts on April 23, 1855, and crossed Poncha Pass on April 28 to surprise about 150 Ute warriors who were holding an all-night celebration around a campfire. About 40 Utes were killed, as was one soldier, who was buried along the pass with military honors.

This may have been the first time a wheel crossed Poncha Pass, although the accounts aren’t clear. Fauntleroy left his supply wagons and pack animals under guard as the other soldiers moved forward for battle near Salida, but we don’t know whether the army wagons had crossed the pass before they halted.

By Fauntleroy’s time, big changes were in the wind. Wheels were soon to cross Poncha Pass regularly because it sat between a wheat field in Saguache and a flour mill in Nathrop that served a territory whose population was growing on account of a gold rush. For those pioneers in the upper Arkansas, Poncha Pass was the route to “give us this day our daily bread.”

But that will have to wait for another installment of this tale; this started as a short feature about a low pass, and already it threatens to turn into a book.

Ed Quillen’s first venture across Poncha Pass was in 1970, and he became curious about the name when he realized that he’d never heard of anyone smoking “poncha.”