Why we love it: A true summit experience, but with only 2,200 feet of elevation gain.

When to go: When the road to Cordova Pass is open—typically from late spring through mid-fall. It’s important to get an early-morning start to avoid afternoon buildup and allow plenty of time.

Unobstructed by foothills and rising more than 6,000 feet above I-25, the Spanish Peaks are one of southern Colorado’s most distinctive landmarks. Despite its imposing appearance, 13,626-foot-high West Spanish Peak—the taller of the two—has a relatively short and straightforward route to its summit, gaining 2,200 vertical feet over about 3 miles (one way), most of it in the final, steep mile.

The moderate amount of vertical rise is due to the close proximity of 11,248-foot Cordova Pass, where the West Peak Trail begins. After winding along a pleasant path through the forest, the trail reaches treeline, where it begins to ascend the peak’s southeast ridge. Here the trail becomes less distinctive as it climbs over and around talus blocks and across loose scree. Although the last mile is quite steep and rocky, your efforts are rewarded by the increasingly spectacular views.

From the summit, the 360-degree panorama is breathtaking. The Culebra Range rises steeply to the west, while East Spanish Peak juts out directly to the east, with the Great Plains stretching beyond it to the horizon.

(Read 5280′s guide to hiking Colorado’s fourteeners)

Unlike the Sangre de Cristo and other Rocky Mountains, the Spanish Peaks are volcanic. They are the remnants of two pods of magma that were injected underground 24 million years ago, when the crust in this region was slowly stretching apart. Hundreds of dikes—elongated fingers of magma—were injected at the same 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’re done snapping photos, carefully descend the same route to your car.

Getting there: From Denver drive south on I-25 to Walsenburg. Exit here and follow U.S. 160 west for about 13 miles, then veer left to head west on CO12 to the town of Cuchara. Continue another 6 miles on CO12 to Cuchara Pass. Turn left (east) here to follow CR46, a decent dirt road, an additional 6 miles to Cordova Pass, where there is limited pay-for parking and a small campground.

Terri Cook
Terri Cook
Terri Cook is an award-winning freelance writer based in Boulder. More of her work can be found at down2earthscience.com.