Starting Elevation: 8,420 feet
Elevation Gain: 6,000 feet
Round Trip Distance: 11 miles
Round Trip Time: 9 hours
USGS Quads: Herlick Canyon and Spanish Peaks Trip
Wow. This was an incredible hike, both beautiful and challenging. I hiked West Spanish Peak with my friend, Mark Laity-Snyder, and his dog Thistle (an Afghan/Golden Retriever mix). There is a short, easy, and popular trail to this summit from Apishapa (Cordova) Pass, but we took the route less traveled. Guidebook authors Robert Ormes and John Fielder describe the Wahatoya Trail as an approach to the 10,300 foot saddle between East and West Spanish. Ormes writes that this is the best route for climbing East Spanish. Photographer John Fielder describes this trail as one of his favorite hikes.
The Wahatoya Trail bears the Native American name for the Spanish Peaks. Wahatoya (or Huajatolla in phonetic Spanish) means "breasts of the world." The peaks were thus named by an Indian chief in honor of his favorite wife.
The Spanish or Wahatoya Peaks stand alone at the southeast corner of the Colorado Rockies, serving as a beacon to travelers on the eastern plains. A series of volcanic dikes or walls radiate outwards from the Spanish Peaks like the spokes of a wheel. Ormes writes that "the dikes came when the area was cracked in many places by an intrusive mass that forced its way toward the surface from beneath. The summit rocks are Tertiary intrusives." The grandest of these dikes, known as the "Big Wall," parallels the Wahatoya Creek Road to the west. It provides an amazing backdrop for the drive to the trailhead and can be viewed from various points on the hike.
West Spanish was my first high peak hike of 1999. Mark, Thistle, and I did it as a long one day trip. We left Denver about 5:30 am and arrived at the trailhead around 9:00 am. We had to stop and ask a local gas station attendant for directions to the trailhead. To get there from I-25 in Walsenburg, head west on U.S. 160 to Colorado Route 12. Turn left on Rt. 12 and drive about 3 miles to the town of La Veta. Turn left on Morse Street and start your odometer here. Once you leave the highway, the roads are all dirt. Turn right (south) on Birch Street at 0.1 mile. Shortly after passing some small ponds on the right side, bear left on a road with a sign to Huajatolla Valley at 1.8 miles. Turn right (south) on the unmarked Wahatoya Creek Road at 2.3 miles to parallel the east side of the Big Wall. When you reach a fork in the road, stay right. At about 7.6 miles, you will reach a 4-wheel drive road on the right marked with a small wooden Wahatoya Trail sign. The sign is illegible unless you're standing about a foot in front of it.
It is advisable to park passenger cars in the vicinity of this junction, as we did. John Fielder writes that 4- wheel drive vehicles can be driven another two miles up this road to the actual trailhead, but it would have been totally impossible to do so on the day we went.
At our trailhead, we decided to leave our snowshoes and my ice axe in the car. We could see patches of snow on the mountains, but made a judgment call that this gear wouldn't be very helpful. I took my 12- point crampons and Mark adjusted my 4-point crampons to fit his boots.
We set out on an overly ambitious plan to day hike both West Spanish and 12,683 foot East Spanish. I had underestimated both the difficulty and the 8,400 feet of vertical gain required to reach both summits.
The jeep trail headed steeply uphill from the road junction, with fenced-off private property on the right side of the road. Within 15 to 20 minutes, we reached the first of many fallen trees blocking the road. We found that a large portion of the trees along our route had been damaged or destroyed by the weather, providing countless obstacles to crawl under, over, or around.
We took our first break along the jeep road at an overlook on the right side which offered a grand view of the Big Wall. The overlook is atop another wall, which Mark climbed. Amazingly, Thistle bounded down the wall on all fours.
Two miles from the passenger car trailhead, we reached the alleged four-wheel drive trailhead at 9,860 feet. The Herlick Canyon quad map shows a two way split here, but it is actually a three way fork in the road. We took the signed Wahatoya Trail left towards the East-West Spanish saddle. This is a nice trail, but it was difficult to follow due to relentless barricades of downed timber and steep snow patches. We never made it to the saddle. After a couple of minor stream crossings, we reached an impressive avalanche chute littered with broken trees. Just past this chute, a steep, obvious talus slope rose up to the right towards a 12,283 foot ridge point. This way was mostly clear of both trees and snow, so we crossed the avalanche chute, left the trail, and climbed up the talus. Along the way, we left the talus for a short distance to ascend a section of avalanche path over the tops of bent and broken trees. Beyond this, we climbed more steeply up talus to reach a northeasterly ridge, which we followed to Point 12,283.
The rest of our ascent route meandered up and down obvious ridge lines to the summit. The sky was overcast, with dark clouds over East Spanish, and occasional rumbles of thunder in the distance. We climbed south to a 12,840 foot ridge point, where we strapped on our crampons. The remaining ridge line to the summit was topped with considerable sections of snow. The north side of the ridge dropped off abruptly, while the south side descended steeply, but less precipitously. An obvious gash in the ridge was easily bypassed on the left. Thistle found the ridge to be easy, perhaps too easy. He made us both nervous a few times by walking too close to the north edge, prompting Mark and me to call him back. The going was slow for us, but we reached the summit area around 2:30 pm.
As the highest point for many miles around, West Spanish offers an unobstructed view in every direction. The route up East Spanish from the connecting saddle looked easier than the route up West Spanish. However, we decided not to make a long day even longer by attempting the second summit.
On the return hike, the connecting ridge from the summit of West Spanish to Point 12,840 seemed easier and less exposed than it had appeared on the way up. We largely retraced our steps back to Point 12,283, while opting to walk down more snow and less talus. Mark suggested a descent west to the jeep road in the basin northeast of West Spanish Peak. However, I balked at the idea because it looked too steep and loose to me. Instead, we started down a ridge just southeast of the one we had climbed up. We departed this ridge to the left to drop down a long, impressive avalanche chute to the Wahatoya Trail. The snow was in perfect condition for a fun, fast, and safe descent. Mark walked, ran, and boot skied down. I slid down perhaps as much as a thousand vertical feet, using the end of my ski pole for control. We stopped by some fallen trees low in the chute to take some pictures.
The trail hike out was another march through downed timber and occasional snow banks. Mark cleared a lot of the timber off the trail. I helped a bit, but I was too worn out to do much. The next hikers on this route should encounter fewer obstacles than we did, yet the larger trees remain blocking the path.
We reached the car at 6:00 pm, nine hours after we started. The hike totaled about 11 miles round trip, with 6,000 feet of elevation gain, including minor ups and downs. We did not see anyone else on our hike. Mark and I both felt this hike was a classic.