Rabbitbrush Rambler: La Veta Pass

The first time I crossed La Veta Pass in 1959, I was riding on a bus that wheezed to a stop at a rustic, two-story bus station-restroom-café on top of the pass before continuing down Sangre de Cristo Creek to the San Luis Valley. The bus had just successfully negotiated the switchbacks up the old challenging route that was soon going to be replaced by U.S. Highway 160 over North La Veta Pass.

I never heard old La Veta Pass called Uptop, but that’s what it is now being called in real-estate promotions I’ve read. Its old buildings have been spruced up by two Lathrop sisters from Massachusetts and have been celebrated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (an organization which should not be confused with official listing in the National Register of Historic Places).                            

Long ago, La Veta had been used by game and the region’s Native Americans, and next by pack trains. By the 1860s this pass was being used, albeit with difficulty, by some wagons like John Francisco’s en route to Fort Garland and a carriage that the Espinosas held up in 1863.

The year 1877 was the scene of great excitement, when the Denver & Rio Grande Railway’s narrow-gauge line reached the top of old La Veta Pass. To get there, on the east side the railroad builders had engineered two S-turns called Mule Shoe Curve and an arduous four-percent grade. The old grade with the rails and ties removed by 1900 was the way buses were still reaching the top when I was there in 1959. 

Before going on, let’s sort out some confusing names. La Veta Pass is the historical name that appears on official United State geographic maps, but railroads preferred to tweak existing place names and to give them their own corporate railroad titles. Thus, when the D&RG moved its tracks a few miles southeast in 1899 for an easier grade from Wagon Creek that could be used by standard-gauge equipment, the railroad moved its name of La Veta Pass to the pass that still is called Veta Pass on official geographic maps. So today the San Luis & Rio Grande Railroad also calls Veta Pass by its corporate title, La Veta Pass, but when the highway department constructed its U.S. 160, it named the new highway route North La Veta Pass, and also left the name of (Old) La Veta Pass nearby on road maps.

Here is another tangle to sort out. A post office on old La Veta Pass operated in Costilla County from 1904 to 1911 with the name Laveta (sic). The post office’s name changed to Veta when it moved to Veta Pass, from 1911 to 1935, where railroad workers also had a little community and a school. Meanwhile, a post office called La Veta had been providing U.S. Postal Services down in the town of La Veta in Huerfano County since 1876, as it still does.

Back at old La Veta Pass on the D&RG, a locomotive had huffed and puffed to the top in 1877. The railroad had a small depot, constructed of dressed stone that still stands, although its appearance has been changed with a layer of white paint.

The original small community of a couple dozen people saw many changes, from the time when Juan Antonio Trujillo staked a homestead claim in 1877 and built a cabin on his acreage. In the ensuing decades, La Veta Pass had a lumber mill, a dancehall with a curved bar, a one-room schoolhouse, a tiny chapel, and a rope tow for skiers. The post office and probably a store were located in the bus station, now gone, that appears in old photos. A few of the twentieth-century buildings have been preserved and contain appropriate memorabilia that were lovingly assembled by the Lathrop sisters.

If you want to enjoy a pleasant stroll or some cross-country-skiing this winter on County Road SS, relax for a few minutes of mild exercise and nostalgia during your trip on U.S 160.