People seem to have an image of Colorado; majestic 14,000-foot peaks, roads undulating around jagged cliffs and through the agricultural landscape, cattle grazing, bikers biking, hikers hiking, skiers skiing, jaw-dropping views most visitors have only seen in picture books. The signs at the entrances to Chaffee County say, “Now This is Colorado” and, due in no small part to the Collegiate Peaks Scenic and Historic Byway, the place lives up to that promise.
The 57 miles that make up the Collegiate Peaks Scenic and Historic Byway running through Chaffee County do not disappoint. The paved route parallels the Continental Divide at the foot of the Sawatch Range, the route traversing the valley between the peaks and the Arkansas River. No matter where on the Collegiate Peaks Byway visitors begin, the path is spectacular, historically rich and recreationally diverse.
While travelers come from around the globe to tour Colorado, locals and tourists alike may overlook the scenic byway signs along the many highways traversing Chaffee County; not realizing the significance of the designation.
Eleven of Colorado’s 26 byways are designated by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation as America’s Byways®, which gives Colorado more national designations than any other state. Colorado’s Scenic and Historic Byways have been around for more than 25 years. The 57-mile long byway stretches from north of Granite near Twin Lakes, on U.S. 24 moving south to meet up with U.S. 285, then on to Poncha Springs, along U.S. 50 to Salida, and looping back along U.S. 291 to U.S. 285. It includes the largest concentration of 14,000 ft. peaks in the country; a unique backdrop to the improbably rolling land of the Arkansas River Valley.
The Collegiate Peaks Scenic and Historic Byway were established and protected in 2008 as the 25th scenic byway named in the state. Salida City Council Member Cheryl Brown-Kovacic was on the board of the Chaffee County Heritage Area Advisory Board when the Collegiate Peaks Scenic and Historic Byway was designated as a part of the Chaffee County Heritage Plan.
She sounds a note of caution about the protections necessary to maintain the status. At one of the state’s scenic byways conferences, there was a discussion of annual reviews; concerns that over time if byways weren’t honored in terms of controlling development that took place among them that it might be possible to lose that status. “Scenic byway status is hard to achieve and can easily be jeopardized by development that destroys viewsheds and rural character,” said Brown-Kovacic.
Chaffee County’s constantly unfolding, and geographically-diverse landscape along the byway takes travelers past active, high altitude ranches with lush, irrigated meadow land fed by intricate ditch systems. The pastures lie against a backdrop of impressive peaks, extensive national forest and public lands, natural hot springs, historic mining towns and vibrant small-town communities, including the largest historic district in the state located in Salida.
The importance of the scenic byway to the county’s tourism, and to the hundreds of county small businesses that depend upon tourism, cannot be underestimated.
“At a high-level people care about the rural landscapes, there is value in the quality of life for people here, in keeping the lands working,” said Central Colorado Conservancy Board President Cindy Williams. “The value to visitors to Chaffee County is that part of their experience is that authentic agricultural feel the county has.”
Williams says that part of the use for Chaffee Common Ground funds (the sales tax approved by voters in the Ballot issue 1A last November) will be to provide for the acquisition of some of the very special places in the county. Williams pointed out that seed funding may be used for priorities; such as protection of the Ark Valley Preserve up above Granite, for instance.
Since its designation, the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway has been protected by the Chaffee County Heritage Advisory Board in collaboration with several organizations; chief among them the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association, which helped create communications materials and develop interpretive wayside signage.
“While a Heritage Plan is non-binding, it can be extremely helpful for setting priorities and raising the visibility on projects to help preserve and manage the historic, natural and cultural features of the county,” said Kathryn Wadsworth, who was executive director of GARNA at the time the Collegiate Peaks Scenic Byway was approved. “The projects have ranged from restoring the old historic building to finding ways to help ranchers preserve their acreage, to building visitor centers and interpretive signs along the byway.”
Readers looking for more information about the Collegiate Peaks Scenic and Historic Byway can visit https://www.codot.gov/travel/scenic-byways/south-central/collegiate-peaks.
The Collegiate Peaks Scenic and Historic Byway are protected by the Chaffee County Heritage Area & Collegiate Peaks Scenic and Historic Byway Management Plan 2008.
Feature Photo: An iconic view of ranch land along the Collegiate Peaks Scenic and Historic Byway in Nathrop, against the backdrop of Mt. Princeton. Photo by Jan Wondra.