Get Outdoors · Nature Study

Hiking the West Peak Trail in Colorado

While I was in Colorado, I solo hiked up the West Peak Trail in the town of Cuchara.

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This trail begins at Cordova Pass and winds across meadows and through forests until it climbs steadily up switchbacks to its terminus at the tree line of West Spanish Peak, a 13,800 foot mountain in the Sangre de Cristo range. Once you hit tree line, you can continue climbing to summit West Peak. I opted not to. It’s really more of a scramble than a climb, with steep sides and lots of loose rock. I’m more of a hiker than a climber, so hitting tree line was enough for me!

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The hike is 6 miles round trip, from the parking lot to tree line and back again. The first mile and a half of the trail is easy enough for kids and my kids enjoyed it when they did it last year.

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You can stop and play in the meadow surrounded by alpine wildflowers and then head into a rocky but flat section of trail surrounded by tall, spindly fir trees. There are lots of downed trees on the trail, and they make a great spot to sit down and take a rest or have some water.

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Ten years ago on my first trip to Colorado, my husband took me to this trail and I was enchanted. The alpine landscape is so different from anything we have at home in Georgia, and I found it completely captivating.

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To me, the best type of wild place is one that offers breath-taking beauty with a hint of danger. Up at 11,000 or 12,000 feet, storms roll in quickly, thunder bellows and lightning strikes from clouds not that far overhead. I like the feeling that I’m risking something by being up there, especially when I’m alone like I was on this hike.

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Once you hit the last mile and a half, you start heading up on switchbacks and the landscape changes. This part of the mountain is more exposed, as evidenced by numerous dead and fallen trees, bleached white by the sun. I find this section of trail to be beautiful in that desolate sort of way. The white skeleton trees contrast with the rich green of the firs and spruce that precede them.

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Speaking of trees, if you’re a nature nerd like me, this hike gives you a tour of 3 different “belts” of vegetation. As you go up in altitude, you see a change in the trees that grow and thrive at higher and higher elevations. At the beginning of the hike, between 9- and 10,000 feet, you’re in the Fir-Aspen Belt. You hike up to 11,000 feet and you’ll notice the Aspens are gone and have been replaced by Spruce trees because you’re in the Spruce-Fir Belt. Once you get to tree line, you’re up around 12,000 feet and the lush, green trees are gone. All that grows at tree line are Engelmann Spruce, Limber Pine, and Bristlecone Pine. They are gnarled and twisted from the unrelenting wind at this altitude.

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The switchbacks are strenuous, especially for me because I’m not used to the altitude. There’s just not as much air up there! I breathe so heavily it’s embarrassing, and I stopped a couple times to rest and catch my breath. I could see storm clouds off in the distance, so I didn’t rest for long. I wanted to keep moving.

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I hiked later in the day, and didn’t reach tree line until 5 p.m. That’s really too late to be up there and, sure enough, as soon as I sat down on a rock at the overlook to rest for a few minutes, the thunder and lightning started up and a storm was headed my way.

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I only spent a few minutes at the top, took some pictures, had a drink of water, tried to take it all in, and then headed back down to lower, safer places.

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This was a long, strenuous hike for me and I felt like a bad ass after coming down.  The whole thing took me an hour and 51 minutes. I’m not the fastest hiker, especially at altitude, but I got it done.

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That’s the great thing about hiking, especially alone. It’s not a competition. I just get out there and put one foot in front of the other, over and over again, and before long I’ve gotten myself somewhere beautiful. Until next time, happy hiking!

Directions to the trail…

Take Highway 12 from La Veta to Cuchara. You will pass the tiny town of Cuchara. About 10 minutes later, you’ll see a sign for the Farley Wildflower Overlook. You’ll take a left onto County Road 46 and continue on this gravel road for 6 miles. You’ll pass some turn offs to private ranches. Stay on the county road and you’ll come to a parking lot at the trailhead and campground. The trailhead is on the left. Check out www.lavetatrails.org for more information on area hikes.

 

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