Colorado Mountain Land and Property - Helpful Information about the Rio Grande National Forest
The Rio Grande National Forest (NF) is 1.86 million acres located in southwestern Colorado and remains one of the true undiscovered jewels of Colorado. The Continental Divide runs for 236 miles along most of the western border of the Forest. The Forest presents myriad ecosystems; from 7600-ft alpine desert to over 14,300-ft in the majestic Sangre de Cristo Wilderness on the eastern side. The Forest embraces the San Luis Valley, the largest agricultural alpine valley in the world and includes all or parts of four Wilderness Areas (South San Juan, Weminuche, La Garita and Sangre de Cristo). The Forest also is the headwaters of the Rio Grande River and has the moonscape wonder of the Wheeler Geologic Area, established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1911. The Anasazi were visitors here and many of their sites remain.
Denver is 4-hours north and Albuquerque is 4-hours south of us, so when you get the itch to experience some outdoor recreation opportunities come and see us.
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For the outdoor enthusiast, the Rio Grande NF has recreation and adventure opportunities for the heartiest of souls, or enjoy the backcountry from the Cumbres & Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad which runs from Antonito, Colorado across the Forest to Chama, New Mexico. Whether walking, driving or riding, the Rio Grande NF has something for everyone.
Long summer days in the 80's transition through a colorful and crisp fall to what can be an extreme winter, with temperatures often dipping well below zero and, in some years, frequent snows.
The Rio Grande National Forest is located in the south central part of Colorado, totally on the eastern slope of the Continental Divide. It is named after the Rio Grande del Norte whose headwaters rise on the Forest to the west of Creede.
Portions of two mountain ranges, the Sangre de Cristo to the east and the San Juan to the west, are located within the RGNF.
Located between the ranges is the San Luis Valley, one of several high “parks’’ or basins in Colorado ringed by mountains. The San Luis Valley is a rich agricultural area dependent on runoff from the RGNF area for its extensive irrigation system.
FORMATION OF THE FOREST
Predating the formation of the Rio Grande National Forest (RGNF) in 1908 an Act of Congress, dated March 3, 1891, authorized the President to establish reservations of timber lands (State of Colorado 1983). Reasons for this authorization was a growing concern by the public and by newly formed forestry groups for conservation of timber resources. The concern included watershed protection and maintaining the forests for recreational purposes (Robinson 1975).
Public sentiment pertaining to formation of the original Forest Reserves was varied. Generally, the local communities were in favor of the reserves. Farmers wanted protection of the watershed from fire to insure water for irrigation, miners, a continuous supply of timber for their mines, and cattleman wanted the reserves to protect their ranges from overuse by sheep. Local business people were in favor whatever was good for the general welfare of the community (DuBois 1903).
Sheepmen opposed the formation of the reserves because they felt that, possibly, the summer range would become closed to sheep grazing altogether. Lumbermen were also worried about restrictions on cutting, although some realized the benefit in the long run (DuBois 1903).
The RGNF was officially created on July 1, 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt in Executive Order Number 887. It was formed by combining 1,102, 798 acres from the existing San Juan National Forest and 159,360 acres from the existing Cochetopa National Forest, for a total of 1,262,158 acres (FS USDA 1908). This original area was within the Rio Grande drainage, excluding the Saguache and Carnero Creek drainages (State of Colorado 1983). In 1944 the west side of the Sangre de Cristo range and the Saguache Creek area were added, while the Mount Blanca area became an addition in 1954 (n.d FS No. 1). Total land area within the RGNF is now nearly 1.9 Million acres.
CONEJOS PEAK DISTRICT-HISTORY/ARCHEOLOGY
The Conejos River drainage basin and the San Luis Valley have had a long and colorful history. The history of the Conejos peak Ranger District is interwoven with that of the San Luis Valley because the people setting in the valley depended upon the surrounding mountains for much of their food, clothing, and shelter. Seeking out the many historic features that lie scattered over the District and adjacent land can be an exciting and enjoyable activity, lending an understanding of the area’s rich cultural background. Some of the most notable historic sites are Colorado’s oldest church in the town of Conejos, a stockade commemorating the Zebulon pike expedition, and Toltec Scenic Railroad. Favorite routes for history study are Forest Road 240 towards, Platoro, the Osier Mountain road (Forest Road 103), and the scenic railroad. With the information contained in this section and the Sightseeing/Photography section you can plan a variety of interesting trips through this historic region.
Written historical references to the Conejos River valley during the time before the 1600’s are few, but evidence of early man and later Indian tribes lies scattered throughout the Conejos Valley and the mountains beyond. Archaeological artifacts indicate that these lands were inhabited for centuries before appearance of Europeans.
The San Luis Valley and surrounding mountains was the land of the Ute Indians but was the also use by the Navajo, Apache, and Comanche, who came to trade, hunt, and raid. The nomadic lifestyle of the Utes and their visitors left little evidence of their traditional, seasonal camps. The Conejos river drainage was well known as good hunting grounds. The extensive distribution of campsites, arrowheads, stone chips and other artifacts across the land within the Conejos Peak Ranger District attest to centuries of living.
Trails worn deep by the passage of thousand of feet peristed through time. One of the heaviest used trails passed between the Chama River Valley in New Mexico over Cumbres pass, along a route similar to that taken today by Highway 17. From Cumbres pass, the trail descended along La Manga Creek to the foothills bordering the San Luis Valley.
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EXPLORATION OF THE SAN LUIS VALLEY
The vast San Luis was once a northern frontier of the Spanish Empire. During the17th and 18th centuries, occasional expeditions came from Santa Fe to the valley and surrounding mountains in exploration parties on military campaigns, and to trade. One of the most noteworthy expeditions was that of the Governor General Don Diego de Vargas, which passed through the area in 1694. Almost a century later, in the summer of 1779, Governor Baustista de Anza and his army of 600 met their Ute and Apache allies on the Conejos to proceed north on a campaign against the Comanche. This north-south route continued to be used by Spanish, French, Anglo trappers, traders, and finally, settlers, traveling between the present day New Mexico and Colorado.
In the winter of 1807, Captain Zebulon Pike and a small contingent of men were exploring the newly acquired “Louisiana Purchase” and arrived in the San Luis Valley. They build a small shelter on the Conejos River, six miles upstream from its confluence with the Rio Grande, in what was then Spanish territory. The Colorado State Historical Society has erected a dramatic log stockade on the site in commemoration of the event.
SETTLEMENT OF THE SAN LUIS VALLEY
The Conejos River region remained in the hands of the Spanish until the liberation of Mexico from Spain in 1821. The Mexican Republic attempted to settle the San Luis Valley by offering land grants to groups of people promising to settle them. The Tierra Amarilla Land Grant, encompassing some 500,000 acres of present day northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, was the second largest of the Mexican land grants. This grant was later broken into several parcels; one of these is now managed as the Banded Peak ranch and borders the Conejos Peak Ranger District on the west. The Banded Peak Ranch manages the Gramps’ Oil Field, which has produced over five million barrels of oil since its discovery in 1935. The Conejos Guadalupe Land Grant, which was comprised of portions of present day Conejos, Rio Grande, and Saguach counties, was bestowed in 1833 to a group of families from northern New Mexico. Despite the grants, Indian opposition to settlement slowed colonization of the valley. Actual settlement of these New Mexico families did not take place until the 1850’s, following the end of the Spanish-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which brought the San Luis Valley into the territory of the United States. By a series of treaties between 1850 and 1880 the Ute Indians of the valley were removed to the Ute Mountain, Southern Ute and Hintah reservations of western Colorado and Utah.
The earliest permanent settlement, Guadalupe, was established on the northern banks of the Conejos River near present day Conejos by a group of 50 families from New Mexico. Utilizing irrigation waters from the Conejos River, Guadalupe thrived on farming and stock-raising. The first flour mill in Colorado was constructed in Guadalupe.
The establishment of agricultural communities by people from New Mexico continued slowly. The population of the valley soared in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s when Mormon settlers from the southern U.S. and Utah established the towns of Manassa, Sanford, and Richfield. Manassa and Sanford became prosperous agricultural communities, using irrigation waters of the Conejos River to grow barley, oats, alfalfa, and peas. The town of Manassa is also known as the birth place of Jack Dempsey, a world champion boxer.
The mining boom of the late 1800’s brought attention to upper reaches of the Conejos River, within the eastern San Juan mountains. On the edge of the prosperous Summitville mining district, sprung Platoro on the upper Conejos. Silver, and some gold was extracted from the Platoro mines but the expense of transportation from this remote region caused the decline of the mining community. During the peak of the mining activity, two roads to Platoro were built. The Le Duc and Sanchez Toll Road extended up the east bank of the Conejos River from Antonito to Platoro. Later, the Platoro Toll Road was built between Platoro and Alamosa River.
Agriculture and stock-raising, both sheep and cattle, remain the major base of the economy to this day. Increased demand for rangeland created intense conflicts which were greatly abated by the creation of the Rio Grande National Forest in 1908 and subsequent range management by the Forest Service.
The Denver and Rio Grande Railway constructed its San Juan Extension, between Alamosa and Durango, in the 1880’s, to tap the booming mining industry of the San Juan Mountains. The railroad survived the decline of the mining industry by serving as lumber, passenger, livestock, freight, and mail transport, it also carried oil produced at the Gramps’ Oil Field However, it finally succumbed to the unfavorable economy and advent of the automobile in the mid-1900’s. When Denver and Rio Grande decided to abandon the route, active citizen interest convinced the States of Colorado and New Mexico to purchase the 64 miles of track between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico. The Cumbers and Toltec Scenic Railroad and the Durango-Silverton line are the last remnants of the once extensive narrow gauge steam railway. The Cumbers and Toltec Scenic Railroad is now owned jointly by Colorado and New Mexico and operated under contract. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Sites and protected under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Several references are listed in the bibliography that describe in detail the route and history of the railroad.
CROSSROADS OF THE CENTURIES
This important east-west route cuts a famous north-south trails of the centuries in use at the time of Christ, before and after…the Indian’s equivalent of today’s Gunbarrel, U.S.285. For the 100-mile length of the San Luis Valley, this north-south route took advantage of a natural contour in the foothills; dry, open, and easy underfoot for man or beast. It had what primitive travel needed—good landmarks, grass, and cool streams, fresh from the mountains, at the end of each day’s march. Sometimes, faint traces of the wagon road used 100 years ago show in the sagebrush or gravel bank of an arroyo. Cattle and sheep still use it as a stock driveway.
Who passed by here? Governor Bautista de Anza did about midnight, August 22, 1779, pushing north with 600 Spanish soldiers and citizens, 200 Yuta and Apache allies, and perhaps 1,000 horses in a surprise attack against the raider Comanches out on the high plains below today’s Colorado Springs
By the 1820’s to 1840’s, pack trains from New Mexico were heading to California carrying wool, furs and blankets out; bringing back California mules and horses, and sometimes, captured Paiute women and children. This was the North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail, Santa Fe to Loa Angeles.
From 1852. the U.S. Cavalry of Fort Massachusetts or Fort Garland road the open county, patrolling to keep peace, or campaigning in war against the Utes, who had become angry and desperate of the loss of their lands.
Sixty miles away is Mt. Blanca (White Mountain), most massive of the entire region, altitude 14,317. Fort Massachussets was built at its base in 1852, succeeded by Fort Garland in 1858, the most northern army outposts of New Mexico. All this was New Mexico until 1860. Since time immemorial, and today, Mt. Blanca is the sacred Mountain of the East to the Navajo people of the Four-Corners country of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado.
This is Alamosa River backed up three-and –a-half miles in storage.
This earthen dam, built during the years around 1906, at that time the largest dam of that sort in the U.S., was constructed by the old, hard way—men, dynamite, mules, horses, picks, shovels, scrapers, fresnos, and wagons.
Back in 1878, the soldiers of Fort Garland built a wagon road from Fort Garland to Fort Lewis at Pagosa Springs, going up the Alamosa Canyon, over Elwood Pass to the Continental Divide. That road and a village, Cockrell, which had a post office were covered by the waters of the dam.
THE ALAMOSA CANYON AND THE SOUTH SAN JUAN MOUNTAINS
The Alamosa River is the Key to understanding this area of the RIO Grande Forest. Its geological story is clear; its history rich branching out to other mountains and valleys.
As a natural route up and over the Continental Divide, it has been an ancient trail; a “road to the California gold fields”; a U.S. Army wagon road; the miners’ freighting road; in 1910 a, transcontinental telephone route; in 1911, a proposed transcontinental road. There are no fish in the Alamosa River here, but people like the beautiful Alamosa Canyon. There are summer camps. Phillips University of Enid, Oklahoma has had since 1950, study-camp here with courses in geology, biology and art. There is a National Forest (Alamosa) campground and the Sacred Heart Youth Camp of Alamosa City. Cattle ranches have been here since after the Civil War.
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