by Ken Frye, Chapter President


Stacked cairn along the Old Spanish Trail

As President of the La Vereda del Norte Chapter along the North Branch, I have a vested interest in the area and have a diverse background in archaeology and history. I spent 20 years with the US Forest Service, Rio Grande National Forest as an archeological technician. I was fortunate to have walked and surveyed many sections of the Trail on public lands in the this high, alpine Valley. The San Luis Valley is very rich in archaeology, with many fascinating prehistoric and historic sites located throughout the entire Valley and surrounding mountains.

This has been a busy year for our local chapter. We started out the year by giving a tour to students from the Crestone Charter School in Crestone, Colorado. We first went to an ancient petroglyph that may be over 3,000 years old. It is thought to be a depiction of a Whooping Crane or Sandhill Crane. Many thousands of Sandhill Cranes migrate through the San Luis Valley each year in the spring and fall. Later that same day, we took the students to the landform sculpture between Del Norte and Monte Vista, near the west fork of the north branch. Students got to learn about the sculpture, with a re-creation of the crane petroglyph and several other prehistoric rock art symbols. Also, there are carvings of Spanish settlers from the 1850’s. A local artist name Mettje Swift carved the incredible landform sculpture out of local volcanic tuff to bring interest to the Old Spanish Trail and to deter vandalism to area rock art sites. She said it is better if they vandalize the landform sculpture than the ancient rock art, which is irreplaceable. Vandalism did occur on the sculpture and Mettje just carved over it and it was barely noticeable. Mettje was featured in an article in Spanish Traces a few years ago.

We lead a field trip to the Cochetopa Pass corridor west of the small town of Saguache years ago and intended to do another tour in 2015, but couldn’t fit it into our busy schedules. We are going to schedule a tour to the Cochetopa Hills in 2016. The drainage of Saguache Creek was a route of the Old Spanish Trail from Saguache to the Cochetopa Hills. It is believed that the Trail went to the west, where Saguache Creek bends to the south and west and continues over to the west end of existing Cochetopa or North Pass. This is a very ancient trail that was used by Native Americans as far back as 12,000 years ago. We know this, since we found Clovis and Folsom points in the corridor during surveys of public lands. In some portions of the Cochetopa Hills area, there is only one corridor or way to travel through and most likely the route of the Trail. The word “Cochetopa” is a Ute word meaning Buffalo Pass or Buffalo Gate. The Utes followed the route hunting buffalo and other animals hundreds of years ago. Many Utes camp sites are scattered throughout the Cochetopa Hills.

Several other tours to sites near the Trail were given this year that consisted of ancient rock art, mostly petroglyphs.

The New Mexico Site Stewardship Program, Friends of Fort Garland, the Colorado Rock Art Association and the Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust were some of the many organizations that visited ancient rock art in the San Luis Valley. The Trail was adjacent to the rock art sites in many cases. Ancient people used the same trail that people used during the time of the Old Spanish Trail in several sections of the San Luis Valley. The rock art is several thousand years old at some sites, but some historic glyphs may have been carved into the stone at the time of the Old Spanish Trail, possibly in the 1830’s, near the town of San Luis. San Luis in the oldest incorporated town in Colorado, dating to around 1850. We believe the OST went right through where the present town is located. It is the east fork of the north branch.

At many of the rock art sites are stacked stone cairns, with some reaching a height of over 7 feet. Several cairns are easily observed along Colorado Highway 114, west of Saguache, along the Cochetopa corridor. Some researchers believe they were placed there by Native Americans to mark the route of trails, tribal territories, water sources, underground concentrated waterflows, ceremonial sites, signal points, and astronomical markers. Others believe they were built by Spanish sheepherders in the 1860’s to designate grazing boundaries or trails leading to high country pastures during the summer. More research into the origin of the cairns is needed to determine who built the cairns, when and why they were constructed. I would appreciate information and photos of cairns along other portions of the Old Spanish Trail in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. Contact me at or by phone at 719-657-3161.