Length: 9 miles round-trip and 3,500 vertical feet
Difficulty: Most difficult
Why We Love It: America’s easternmost “twelver” (12,000-foot peak) has amazing views, which you’ll likely have all to yourself.
When To Go: Late May through early fall, once most of the snow has melted
Pre-hike Buzz: Forego the pre-hike buzz for a crack-of-dawn start to beat afternoon thunderstorms, and instead savor an afternoon “Safety First IPA” at Walsenburg’s Crafty Canary Brewery.
Distance from Denver: About 190 miles
Dogs: Allowed off-leash
East and West Spanish Peaks, the summits that rise more than 6,000 feet above I-25, are some of southeastern Colorado’s most distinctive landmarks. In the mid-1800s, they served as markers for intrepid pioneers traveling the dusty Santa Fe Trail, the 870-mile route that linked Missouri with Santa Fe, New Mexico. Today, the peaks make for excellent ascents for hikers who prefer to get off the proverbial beaten path.
Despite its lower elevation, the 12,683-foot East Spanish Peak has a longer route to its summit than West Spanish Peak, its 13,626-foot-high twin. And unlike many remote Colorado peaks, East Spanish has a high-quality, switchbacking trail all the way to tree line, which simplifies the ascent. Its lower summit elevation also means that it’s snow-free earlier in the season than many of Colorado’s fourteeners.
From the 4WD trailhead at about 9,200 feet, follow the signed Wahatoya trail to the prominent saddle between East and West Spanish Peaks. Other than a small creek crossing and a few fallen logs across the trail, this is a moderate introduction to the hike. At the saddle, turn left on the signed East Peak trail, which soon begins switchbacking steeply up the mountain’s forested west ridge.
At tree line, the trail becomes faint as it picks its way through talus to the crest of the summit ridge. The route then heads east before bending southeast, where the gradient eases for the final approach to the summit. There, you are treated to impressive views of West Spanish Peak and the northern Sangre de Cristo Range, where a handful of jagged fourteeners are visible to the west and the endless sweep of the Great Plains stretches to the east.
Unlike the Sangre de Cristo and most other Rocky Mountains, the Spanish Peaks are the remnants of two pools of magma that were injected underground 24 million years ago, when the crust in this region was slowly stretching apart. Hundreds of elongated fingers of magma (called dikes) were injected at this time and later exposed as the overlying sediment was washed away. From the summit, you can see dozens of these dikes radiating outward like spokes on a wheel from each of the Spanish Peaks.
Once you’ve enjoyed the views and snapped some memorable photos, carefully zig-zag your way back down the boulder field and retrace the trail back to your car.
Getting There: From Denver, take I-25 south to Walsenberg, then head west on US 160 for 11 miles to the junction with SH-12. Turn left here and follow SH-12 to the town of La Veta. At the south end of town, turn left onto East Grand Street and then immediately turn right onto CR-360 (Birch Street). Follow this road south to its junction with CR-361. Remain on CR-360 to Lover’s Leap, the 2WD trailhead. Those with 4WD or AWD cars can turn right here on Wahatoya Road, which climbs steeply to the 4WD trailhead at its end.
Logistics: Dispersed, low-impact camping is allowed near the trailhead and along the 4WD road up to it. The gas stations in La Veta are not always open, so it’s a good idea to gas up in Walsenberg.