Stuck on Cochetopa Pass

Essay by Ed Quillen

Western Development – September 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

OFTEN I READ that the West is just getting too crowded and developed — indeed, on many occasions, I have myself written prose to that effect.

But as Bob Ewegen at The Denver Post often observes, “journalism is the art of relentless oversimplification.” While it is true that our part of the world is in general getting more crowded and developed, that’s a simplification based on generalization.

Move from that lofty macroscopic Census Bureau view to a specific site on the ground, and you can find many places that are less crowded and developed than they once were.

The obvious sites are places like Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon, prehistoric cities that once held hundreds or thousands of people of whom we know little.

More recent abandonments were observed by Douglas Preston in a fine book, Cities of Gold. On horseback in 1990, he attempted to retrace Don Francisco Vàsquez de Coronado’s expedition of 1540. Where Coronado had seen thriving pueblos and irrigated farms, Preston found ruins and desert. Preston concluded that, with the exception of Albuquerque, there were many more people along the route 450 years ago than there are now.

Much the same could be said of much of Central Colorado. Leadville had at least 20,000 people in 1880, and after a decade of rapid Colorado growth, Leadville still has fewer residents than it had in 1980.

The faded mining camps — St. Elmo, Tin Cup, Rosita, Bonanza, Turret, etc. — get the most publicity. But once upon a time, there were also dozens of stagecoach stations, railroad section houses, sawmill towns, gristmill settlements and the like. They had place names and held residents, and often boasted post offices, mayors, and scheduled public transportation.

And now they’ve vanished, proving that settlement and development are not necessarily “forever.” As often as not, they’re transient phenomena in Central Colorado and the rest of the West. For every Leadville, there’s an Oro City; for every Buena Vista, a Free Gold; for Salida, a Cleora; for Saguache, a Milton; for Fairplay, a Tarryall; for Interstate 70, a Cochetopa Pass.

That fact was driven home for me on a recent camping trip.

In late July, with five weeks between editions of this magazine, Martha and I figured it was time to get out and enjoy the mountains around us. Naturally, we didn’t manage to escape from the telephones and computers until pretty late in the day, and then we headed southwest with no particular destination.

Thus the sun was getting rather low as we drove west from Saguache on paved Colo. 114 that leads to “North Pass” (which is about 350 miles south of “South Pass” in Wyoming, but who ever said that our geographic nomenclature should make sense?). North Pass is the name that the state highway department applied after paving the road in 1962. More often, however, it’s called “North Cochetopa Pass,” to distinguish it from the unpaved but solid county road that is formally known as “Cochetopa Pass” and informally as “Old Cochetopa.” We turned up Old Cochetopa. We’d been over it before, but this time we wanted to make a leisurely exploration of that peculiar area.

It’s peculiar for our part of Colorado because it’s a rolling country of forests and meadows, rather than a spectacular landscape dominated by rugged ridges and snow-capped peaks. The Cochetopa area lies in a gap about 50 miles wide between the towering Sawatch Range and the jagged San Juan Mountains. But when you’re in the midst of it, the terrain looks deceptively pastoral.

About two miles below the summit sign that says that the road is an historic stagecoach route, there’s the Luder’s Creek Campground. We got there around 6 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon during the height of summer tourist season. And we had the whole place to ourselves.

In fact, we had Old Cochetopa Pass to ourselves — we never heard another vehicle go by that night. The only artificial sounds were aircraft. I don’t know whether it’s a major jet corridor, or if it’s just so quiet there that you hear things that you wouldn’t notice in a busier place.

That’s one reason you put up with the travails of camping, to get off by yourselves, and this was about as good as it gets — a Forest Service campground with privy and tables and firepits (although the pump didn’t work) — and nobody else around, except for abundant and hungry mosquitoes during the day.

Thursday morning, we still had the observable world to ourselves, and started joking about feeling like Adam and Eve. We hiked up a nearby road that said “Taylor Canyon 2” and saw no Taylor Canyon, then hiked down another road that came out on the Cochetopa Pass road with another “Taylor Canyon 2” sign, and hiked three miles up the Cochetopa Pass road back to camp.

Curious about this “Taylor Canyon,” we dug out the map and discovered that these roads did lead to the road that went to the canyon, but the better access was from the North Cochetopa Pass road. The sky was clouded and wet, so a ride seemed in order anyway.

It takes some work to find the Taylor Pass road from Colo. 114, but we managed, enjoyed a slow and gorgeous four-wheel-drive road along the canyon floor, climbed out of the drainage, and found the junction of the two roads we had earlier walked.

Two or three miles and we’d be back at camp in time to cook those T-bones in the cooler — all the food was in the Blazer, since we were camping in bear country.

Then came an attack of stupidity. Or arrogance. Or to put the most charitable spin on my actions, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”

We had just walked over these roads that morning. There was a boggy zone. I remembered it as being on the left fork, Martha insisted it was on the right, and I shouldn’t have prevailed.

There it was, the marked Forest Service road, twin tire tracks wending through some grass, and I was being an ethical four-wheeler who was staying on the marked road. I was also being a complete idiot — I should have got out and walked it first, which would have confirmed Martha’s recollection that the mother of all bogs lurked just around the bend.

As the light rain fell, we were sunk to the axles. The Blazer had high-centered. I had a come-along and a couple of chains, but the nearest tree was a quarter of a mile away. We tried inserting rocks and deadfall before and behind the wheels, but it was a lost cause.

WHILE BOTH COASTS sweltered under heat and drought, Colorado was getting unseasonable quantities of moisture. We were getting the rain that was meant for Pennsylvania and Maryland. Normally stable surfaces like our road became quagmires, and elsewhere in the state, normally stable hillsides began sliding across major highways. Colorado is a desert, and doesn’t easily accommodate excess water.

All we could do was hike the three miles back to our camp. There could be other campers by then who might help. Or a car might pass by that would give us a ride to Saguache. Or we could at least spend the night in some comfort, then figure out what to do in the morning.

I was even stupid about that — I didn’t put any food in my pack when we left the Blazer.

As it turned out, nobody else had discovered our “private” campground, and not a car, truck, or motorcycle passed by that night. The stars were brilliant, the night noises were natural, our montane solitude was perfect, and yet Luder’s Creek didn’t seem like our private Eden any more.

Perhaps that’s because a third voice joined our camp as my stomach growled. All in all, I’d covered a dozen miles on foot that day, fueled by only two cookies. That morning, I’d decided it would be nicer to take a walk before breakfast rather than cook in the morning chill. But then we wandered some seven miles by the road signs — plus up and down several side roads — looking for Taylor Canyon. And when we finally got back, it was already sprinkling. So I grabbed two cookies — figuring it would be better to take a ride rather than cook out in a downpour. Then, once we were stuck, I figured it would be better to hurry back to the main road while it was still daylight — since I remembered full well that there was little traffic there at night. I guess I fully expected to catch a ride into Saguache that afternoon.

By the time I realized that it wasn’t likely we’d reach Saguache that night, it was already dusk, and it didn’t seem very prudent to head back through a shadowy forest criss-crossed by old logging and cow camp roads in order to get food out of the Blazer.

I recalled that Alfred Packer, when he agreed to lead a party of prospectors bound east from Delta in 1873, had been shooting for Cochetopa Pass. He mistook the Lake Fork for Cochetopa Creek, and the result was starvation. Packer did cross Cochetopa Pass the next spring, en route to Saguache from the old Los Piños Indian Agency on the west side.

Starvation was also a feature of the Frémont expedition of 1848-49. The guide, Old Bill Williams, had been aiming for Cochetopa from the south. He took the wrong fork, and they got stranded in deep snow on Pool Table Mountain, just 20 miles south of our camp.

Historically, poor timing and planning had certainly marred a good many Cochetopa Pass outings. And I was definitely guilty of both.

THOUGH DEEP SNOW wasn’t much of a threat in July, even at 10,000 feet, the deep mud sure had my stomach growling. How the hell could we be so cut off from the world of food, the world that flew over us every 20 minutes or so as yet another jetliner rumbled across the broad sky?

In the Shining Times of the Utes, Cochetopa Pass was Interstate 70 — the main route across the mountains. The name comes from a Ute phrase meaning “gate of the bison,” indicating that it was a vital corridor long before humans appeared in North America.

It was relatively low, and offered ample water and forage along the way, important if you’re traveling by horseback. Game was also plentiful, important if you’re getting your food on the go. Game remains plentiful — we saw lots of deer and elk tracks, and later learned that our surmise was true, that the area is quite busy during big-game season.

On account of its gentle grades and low summit, Cochetopa Pass got careful consideration from the railroad surveyors.

In 1853, Jefferson Davis, later to become president of the Confederacy, served as U.S. Secretary of War. Then as always advancing the interests of the South, Davis looked for ways to annex the West — part of the spoils of the Mexican War where Davis had performed heroically — to the South. He saw transportation as the key.

If the main routes to the West came out of the South, then the South’s culture and economy could dominate the territory. The West would become an agrarian zone of large plantations operated by slaves, rather than a Yankee homestead realm of small family farms. To that end, Davis tried to develop a southern road across the West, and imported camels to traverse the deserts of southern New Mexico and Arizona.

He also dispatched Capt. John Gunnison to lead an expedition to find a railroad route from the South across the West. Gunnison came up the Arkansas, climbed its Huerfano tributary to Sangre de Cristo Pass (a variant of modern La Veta), then moved across the San Luis Valley to Cochetopa Pass.

Gunnison may have been the first to roll wheels across the Cochetopa. His expedition boasted sixteen six-mule wagons, an instrument carriage pulled by four mules, and a four-mule ambulance. Gunnison noted that “No mountain pass ever opened more favorably for a railroad than this.” But it was already a well-known route by Gunnison’s time.

Although there’s no solid evidence that the Spanish used it, in 1779 Juan Bautista de Anza knew where it led, because the Utes had traversed it for centuries.

The first major American commercial venture in the Southern Rockies was Antoine Robidoux’s 1825 fur-trading enterprises. Robidoux packed tons of peltry across Cochetopa Pass as it evolved into the north branch of the Old Spanish Trail.

Then, a few years after Gunnison’s trek, the U.S. Army improved the route to make it more of a wagon road. And in 1871, Otto Mears put a toll road across Cochetopa Pass. Soon, regular stagecoach service commenced, connecting Saguache to San Juan mining camps like Lake City. Other Mears toll roads, like Marshall and Poncha passes, however, got rails. So why didn’t that happen on Cochetopa Pass with its obvious railroad virtues?

Well… Probably because the Civil War meant that the big federal project (the result of the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862) would go to the north across Wyoming — since Jefferson Davis was no longer in Washington to promote the South’s interests.

On that account, our campsite was quiet, when it might well have reverberated with the grunts of locomotives bearing long trains of transcontinental traffic.

As for Colorado, the Denver & Rio Grande did need to build west after it had penetrated the first wall of mountains to reach Alamosa with one line and Salida with another. But Marshall Pass was more accessible from Salida than Cochetopa Pass was from Alamosa.

So Saguache, a transportation hub in the wagon days, got bypassed in the railroad days.

Much the same happened in the highway era. In 1920, to motor from Salida to Gunnison often meant crossing Poncha and Cochetopa passes so as to avoid the high wall of the Sawatch Range. But when it came time to build a modern highway, Old Monarch and Monarch passes offered a more direct route — though at the cost of steeper grades and higher elevations.

So the passes of Cochetopa, despite their geographic virtues, became secondary and back roads. The empty road next to our campsite was the 1874 equivalent of Interstate 70, the primary Colorado route across the Great Divide. But 125 years later, not a car went by from 5 p.m. Thursday until 10:30 a.m. Friday.

THAT’S WHEN a Kansas farmer, returning home from a family gathering at Saguache Park, offered us a ride to Saguache, which we gratefully accepted. The closest friend’s house belonged to Blair Meerfeld and Marty Mitchell, who fed us and put us in touch with a local guy whose battered old pickup boasted strong winches fore and aft with long cables — a rig designed for the profitable rescue of dumb Texans during hunting season.

His equipment also worked well to extricate a dumb Coloradan during camping season. By 1 p.m. on Friday, we had our Blazer back, and we camped for another night. Since it was a weekend, we had to share the campground with one other party.

Old Cochetopa Pass had more traffic and consequent settlement in the form of ranches and stage stations in 1874 than it does now. There were times when it might have become a major corridor, but those developments never came about for reasons that range from the Civil War to the discovery of silver in Leadville.

Growth and development aren’t forever. They come and go. The day may dawn when someone finds a crumpled concrete pillar in the forests of the Gore Range, and consults a history book to learn that there was once a place named “Vail” reached by a “Vail Pass,” just as one must consult histories now to learn that Cochetopa Pass was ever anything other than a pleasant byway.

Some things, though, do seem to endure through the booms and busts of our society and the flash floods and mudslides that nature provides. In 1853, Gwynn Harris Heap crossed Cochetopa as a journalist with Lt. Edward F. Beal’s expedition. Along the way, he observed that “Mosquitoes allowed us little rest” and that “some of our mules were mired.”

–Ed Quillen