Witness the Breathtaking Beauty of the Sangre De Cristo Mountians
10 Sights/Experiences You Don't Want to Miss!
Colorado has long been a favorite vacation destination for many people across the United States and North America. Home to the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains and a laid back disposition that is highly contagious, it is easy to see how the Centennial state attracts so many visitors every year. I have spent the last 15 months living at 9,000 ft. elevation along the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in South/Central Colorado. This past year was filled with more environmental beauty than any other year of my life. These mountains are truly intoxicating and offer some of the richest scenic views that I have ever witnessed in my travels to 26 countries.
Sadly, I am about to depart these beloved mountains. Before I leave, I want to offer you with 10 things to do in these mountains that will make your trip to Southern Colorado much for exciting, adventurous, and memorable.
1. Horn Peak
One of the first things you will notice when entering the Wet Mountain Valley, located between the Wet Mountains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, is a stately peak jutting up 13,450 ft. in the middle of the range. From a distance, Horn Peak looks like your quintessential mountain with steep edges, sharp angles, and a definitive point at the top. A hike up horn peak is not for the faint of heart. It is an 8 mile hike (roundtrip), from the trailhead to the peak. While the trail is easy to follow from late June through early September, it is much more difficult to stay on course when hiking this mountain in the remaining 10 months of the year. Despite its difficulty, the view from the top is spectacular and worth the effort it takes to get there. No special climbing gear is required, just make sure you bring a good pair of hiking boots and at least 2 liters of water per person. You should also plan on starting your hike around 6am to ensure that you can reach the peak by noon and begin your decent before 1pm. Storms usually roll in about 2pm in the summer months and you do not want to get caught above tree-line when the lightning and hail begin.
2. Music Meadows Ranch
One of the best ways to experience the Wet Mountain Valley is by Horseback. Music Meadows Ranch offers rides that are sure to satisfy novice and experienced riders alike. Rides range from $75-600 depending on the adventure you want to have. Music Meadows also has available lodging and offers meals for an additional fee. Check out their website to book your horseback adventure while visiting the Sangre de Cristo mountains.
3. Town of Westcliffe/Silver Cliff
Westcliffe is your classic western, one-stop town. The kind of town where "main street" is aptly named because nothing of note exists off of main street. In the summer season, you will find many shops and a few boutiques ready to sell you everything from paintings to moccasins. Many of these shops are seasonal and shut down for much of the winter season. Westcliffe is a very patriotic town and hosts parades for Memorial Day and the 4th of July. The town also hosts a few festivals and rodeos throughout the summer.
Silver Cliff is located North/East of Westcliffe and was established as a mining town in the late 1800s. Today, the mines have closed and it is hard to tell where Westcliffe ends and Silver Cliff begins. Walking along Main Street will take you through the heart of both towns.
4. Mission Wolf
Mission Wolf is the hidden gem of the Wet Mountains, which are located across the Wet Mountain Valley to the east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Mission Wolf is a wolf sanctuary developed by architect, Kent Weber. The sanctuary is open 9am-6pm, 365 days a year. Guests are free to camp overnight and free daily tours are offered by the friendly volunteer staff that make Mission Wolf possible. Donations are encouraged and appreciated. I would advise that you arrive around 7pm the night before and camp out under the stars before going on a tour the next morning. There is nothing quite like listening to wolves howl while you fall asleep.
5. Sugar & Spice Bakery (Mennonite Bakery)
This may be my favorite place in the whole Wet Mountain Valley. Sugar & Spice Bakery is better known by the locals as the "Mennonite Bakery". They are open Tuesday-Saturday and specialize in delicious bakery items like enormous cinnamon rolls ($1.95/piece), delicious cranberry, orange muffins, & fabulous Quiche. They also sell fresh homemade bread and a variety of other delicious snacks. They only accept cash, so grab a few dollars and head into town for a relaxing morning of bakery goodness while watching the happenings of a small town from the benches outside the front door of the bakery. You can also pick up a free internet connection from the motel across the street.
6. Lake of the Clouds
If you are interested in taking a beautiful hike up into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and spending the night by some spectacular lakes, then you should make it a point to visit the Lake of the Clouds. I would recommend that you hike up the day before and spend the night by the rear lake. In the morning, get up a half hour before the sunrise and hike just above tree-line. The view of the sunrise reflecting in the lake leaves little wonder in your mind as to how the lake came to be called the Lake of the Clouds.
7. Great Sand Dunes
This is one of the most intriguing sites in North America. The Great Sand Dunes are located just off the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and offer visitors an incredible view of mounds of sand rising up amidst the backdrop of the rocky mountains. Visitors can camp at the dunes and spend the day climbing up dunes and jumping off the top. Great place to take exciting pictures of your trip to Southern Colorado.
8. Marble Caves (Spanish Gold Caves)
If you are looking for a moderate hike with a lot of fun history and folklore surrounding your journey, head up to the South Colony Trailhead, make your way south long Rainbow Trail and look for the turnoff for Marble Mountain. This hike is not as taxing as Horn Peak and still boasts some incredible views from the top. But the best thing about hiking Marble Mountain is locating the caves once you reach the top. After peaking, simply make your way south along the ridge and you will notice a large flat rock on the east side of the ridge. Make your way down the chute in the mountain to the right of the large rock and you will come across the marble caves. These caves are rumored to contain large amounts of Spanish Gold. Legend has it that Spanish Conquistadors came to the Wet Mountain Valley and enslaved the local Native Americans. The Native Americans were forced to bury the Spaniard's gold deep in mountain caves. After they finished burying their gold, the Spaniards are said to have sealed the main entrance to the caves so that no one could find their treasure. They intended to return to the caves, but never did. When entering the caves, be sure that you watch your step. It is very dark and cold in the caves and about 20ft. into the main cave, there is a large hole that is a couple hundred feet deep.
If you decide to do any hiking in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, I would highly recommend that you do not embark on your adventure without a solid map of the region. Some of the trails are hard to located and you can easily get lost if you do not have a map to reference. One of the nice things about the mountain range is the fact that Rainbow Trail runs along the entire base of the range on the east side of the mountains. So if all else fails, head east and you will find your way back to Rainbow Trail in the Wet Mountain Valley.
9. Spotted Pig
The Spotted Pig is a massive thrift/consignment store located at the northeastern end of main street in historic Silver Cliff. Be sure to stop in and find a cool local trinket to commemorate your trip. The thrift store has over 103 consignment partnerships with people all over the valley. You are bound to find something of interest or use in this store.
10. Crestone Needle/Peak
These are my favorite two peaks in the entire mountain range. Both are pretty dangerous climbs and should not be attempted by novice climbers/hikers. The hike up to the South Colony lakes is one of the prettiest hikes I have gone on over the past year. Once you arrive at the lakes, you will be able to look to your left (south) and see Broken Hand Peak, Broken Hand Pass, Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, and finally, you will see Humboldt Peak on your right (north). Humboldt (14,064 ft.) is a great introductory 14er (mountain over 14,000 ft.). The hike is less taxing that Horn Peak and offers some breathtaking views of South and North Colony lakes.
If you are an experienced hiker, then you just might want to give Crestone Needle a try. At 14,203 ft., this peak is no small endeavour. Take the time to read up on the mountain before attempting to summit her. Every year, there are a few stories of hikers that lose their lives while trying to summit Crestone Needle and Crestone Peak due to bad weather, loosing the trail, or being under prepared. I have peaked Crestone Needle, and can say from experience that is was the most memorable and terrifying hike that I have ever conquered. Definitely worth it, but be careful and do your due diligence beforehand.
Delicious Bonus Tips:
Here are two bonus tips about the Wet Mountain Valley that will help you to recoup some calories after all your hiking and sightseeing.
1. Chappy's Mountain View Bar & Grill
Located in downtown Westcliffe (off Main Street of course). Excellent burgers and drinks. Ask them about their mountain oysters.
2. Alpine Lodge
The Alpine Lodge is the premier dining experience in the valley. Located off county road 140 (Schoolfield Rd.), it boast an incredible view of the Wet Mountains and some of the best baby back ribs I have ever had the pleasure of eating. I like this restaurant so much that I even had them host the rehearsal dinner for my wedding. If you're looking for a 5 course meal with a captivating view, make sure you make reservations at the Alpine Lodge. They are open Thursday-Sunday and request that you make reservations before arriving. You can reach them at (719) 783-2660.
The Sangre de Cristo Mountains truly offer a wonderful Colorado experience. I hope this list helps you as you plan out your own trip to this beautiful region of Southern Colorado.
Please post a comment about your own experience in the majestic state of Colorado!