EXPLORE THE EARLIEST TRAILS
CREATED IN CHAFFEE COUNTY
To access the mountains, Native Americans followed game trails. Explorers, mountain men, prospectors and homesteaders followed many of those same paths and created new tracks for commerce and trade. They came by foot, horseback, wagon, stagecoach, railroad and automobile. Many of those routes are still visible and in use today.
MOUNTAIN TRAILBLAZING DESTINATIONS
Toll roads played an important role in early entry to the county. Around 1880 the Cottonwood Pass Toll Road charged a dollar for a vehicle and a one-span team, 25 cents for horsemen, 10 cents a head for horses and cattle, and 5 cents for hogs, goats, and sheep. Travelers on their way to funerals could pass free, provided the corpse was produced as proof. Today, the Cottonwood Pass Exploration Route is free to all, as well as the historic Lenhardy Cut-Off Road in Fourmile, which is a popular trail for mountain bikers and OHV riders. Easily seen from the Leadville Stage Road Wayside is a harrowingly narrow track that delivered thousands of passengers to the Gold Rush before railroads.
Three railroads contributed immensely to the growth of mining, agriculture and towns in Chaffee County. The narrow gauge Denver, South Park & Pacific crossed South Park from Denver and reached Buena Vista in March, 1880. Its bed is still visible along Trout Creek below today’s Trout Creek Canyon Exploration Route.
That same year the DSP&P started the 1,771’ long Alpine Tunnel, the highest in the U.S., to breach the Continental Divide at an elevation of 11,538’ and access the West Slope’s mining riches. But harsh winters and repeated cave-ins forced the tunnel’s abandonment in 1910. The Chalk Creek Canyon Exploration Route takes the former DSP&P Railroad Grade to the trailhead of a three-mile hike through stunning high-mountain scenery with interpretive signs to the tunnel entrance.
SALIDA & CLEORA
On its way from Denver to Leadville, the Denver & Rio Grande RR entered the mountains at Cañon City and followed the Arkansas River’s canyons to the entrance of the valley. There the railroad founded the valley’s largest town, Salida, as a maintenance center, dooming nearby Cleora, one of the valley’s earliest settlements.
Traveling from Colorado Springs to Aspen, the four Colorado Midland Railroad Tunnels were blasted through solid rock north of Buena Vista and numerous passengers wrote their names on nearby Elephant Rock. That railroad grade is now the Colorado Midland Exploration Route, a beautiful drive along the Arkansas River. To the east, another section of the grade is the popular Midland Bike Trail, extending 19 miles from Buena Vista to Trout Creek Pass.
Several generations of highway crossed the Continental Divide over 11,312-foot Monarch Pass, now the Monarch Pass Exploration Route. Visitors are rewarded with a spectacular vista, a hiking trail to the crest and, in season, a gondola ride to the top of the mountain. The popular Monarch Crest Trail section of the Continental Divide Trail begins here and the Colorado Trail crosses nearby.