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Poncha Pass

Poncha Pass is the main entrance into the San Luis Valley from the north. It is for today's US285, and - once upon a time - it was for de Anza chasing Comanches, as well as the Denver Rio Grande Railway. This is a passage between two magnificent, wide valleys, dividing the lower slopes of the Sawatch Range from those of the Sangre de Cristo Mouuntains.

The road itself is stuck in a low ravine. It is the entrance into San Luis Valley on a north to south ride, and it is that entrance, that leaves an impression.  The road descends into the valley, like an arrow aiming straight between large, gentle, fan shaped landforms, leading up to a linear mountain range.

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains have some unique characteristics for a Colorado mountain range. These peaks not only contain groups of rugged, glaciated peaks but also alluvial fans, characteristic of dessert ranges further south. These large fan shaped landforms at the mouth of canyons are water deposited sand and rocks, which accumulate in a gentle slope, instead of being washed out of the valley, as would be the case in a wetter climate.

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1. (mile00,7982ft) START-FINISH SOUTH : Villa Grove
2. (mile14,9010ft) TOP: Poncha Pass
3. (mile16,8439ft) Marshall Pass dirt road joins from left
4. (mile21,7480ft) START-FINISH NORTH : Poncha Springs


From South. When approaching the pass from the San Luis Valley, the thought of a curving pass road seems very remote. There are no road bends to be found anywhere (see picture below). The far mountain range in the first picture is the Sawatch Range on the other side of the pass. These peaks are completely hidden from  view, once higher up on the pass. There are a few curves near the top, but nothing resembling  a switchback, and nothing that approaches a serious climbing workout.

From North. This is the higher of the two approaches. The road curves gently between sage covered hills. The high peaks of the Sangre de Cristos do not come into view until descending the other side..

The shoulder is wide enough to get away from any and all traffic.


de Anza(Ute Pass>): Poncha Pass storms into the pages of frontier history when de Anza pursued Comanche Indian in 1779. But just like him, the story too is going to take a while to get there.

Juan Bautista de Anza, governor of Spanish New Mexico, had already proved himself as frontiersman and trailblazer. In 1774 he established a trail between Central Mexico and the isolated outposts of the Spanish empire in California. That trail passed through Mexico, Central Arizona and over San Carlos Pass in California.

In 1777, one year after the rambling Escalante expedition had meandered through the four corners area, Charles  the 3rd of Spain appointed de Anza governor of New Mexico. A particular task of his was to subdue the Comanches, who had taken over much of the old Apache country. While Comanches were described as terrorists by the Spanish, relations with the sedentary Ute Indians were much better. They served as guides to the Spanish.

In August of 1779, several hundreds of Comanches were reported to assemble in San Luis Valley - that's how it finally began - the discovery of the northern most passes of the Spanish empire on this continent. Previous Indian raids had ended with the Spaniards chasing north over Raton Pass and freying out into the upper Arkansas on the plains. De Anza fought the Comanches by heading north into San Luis Valley crossing the current New Mexico Colorado border.

As he pursued the Comanches north, de Anza made his first big geographical discovery. The river he followed, the Rio Grande, did not originate thousands of miles to the north, and definitely not at the north pole as was suspected. It veered to the west into the high San Juan Mountains. But his long Comanche chase route kept him closer to the valley floors. In today's geographical terms it could be described like this : After the Rio Grande settlements of Monte Vista and Del Norte the route heads north across La Garita Creek, through the Cochetopa hills. Here the confusing topography provides many challenges to reconstruct the route, as any bicyclist who ever tried to cross the nearby Moon Pass can testify. The ususal everpresent landmarks of the Sangre de Cristos on one side and the San Juans on the other are not visible from the maze of ravines cut in these hills. Heading north along the chase route, the Cochetopa Hills are bisected by a large sagey valley. Through it flows Saguage Creek, and it lead the chase back into the San Luis Valley.

From here the route becomes easier to follow on a bicycle. Head north on towards the only obvious gap in the mountains, straight up the northern end of the San Luis Valley over Poncha Pass. Now we're back at the beginning of the story. De Anza finally crossed Poncha Pass. Up to this point the chase route had stayed in sage country. Poncha Pass too, is a far cry from alpine. But now the Comanches headed for real mountains, up across the northern edge of the Mosquito Range over Cameron Mountain, towards a flank of Pike's Peak, the area surrounding the little town of Guffey. The chase continued over a variant of Ute Pass.

In all probability the name "Poncha", meaning mild or gap,  is also due to de Anza. Many years later, in 1874 a member of the Hayden Survey, Franklin Rhoda, used the name "Puncho", which doesn't mean anything except perhaps that Rhoda did not speak spanish. Another remote possiblity is that Poncha is derived from "Poncoa", the name of an Indian tribe.

Otto Mears Passes (Marshall Pass>): Otto Mear's story is the prototypical American immigrant capitalist success story. A jewish orphan, born in the Ural steppe of Russia, orphaned at the age of two, he arrived in San Francisico to be received by an uncle who never materialized. Working his way up from news paper delivery boy, he found himself a merchant and indian trader in the town of Saguache in the 1860s. Building a toll road over Poncha Pass was a natural extension of Otto's first line of business, which was supplying miners in Oro City from his store in Saguache. Poncha Pass was Otto's first toll road. It was the first of many to come. With the help of John Laurence it was officially chartered in 1870. This was not the first attempt to operate a toll road on the pass. Official charters from 1861 and 1865 did not result in successful operations. But it was the start of Otto Mear's pass empire.

Gunnison Rail Survey (<Medano Pass|Marshall Pass>): Poncha Pass was explored for use by a possible first transcontinental railroad by the Gunnison expedition in 1853. The group examined the pass from San Luis Valley. The verdict was favorable: "the best watered, grassy valley, with wood convenient for fuel that we have seen on this section". They proceeded to name the present area of Villa Grove after their field astronomer Homan. The name Homan Park is still on today's maps. The expediton crossed the pass from San Luis Valley into the Arkansas valley, describing Marshall Pass along the way. In the Arkansas Valley, they noted several indian paths to the Wet Mountains and the Hardscrabble area, then returned back over Poncha pass to San Luis Valley. Captain Gunnison would later be tragically killed by Indians in Utah while still on this expedition. But an attempted name change to honour the fallen Gunnison by naming Poncha Pass after him did not stick.

Railroads (<Tennessee Pass|Marshall Pass>): The Denver Rio Grande Railway crossed Poncha Pass from the Arkansas valley in 1881 to do business with mines in the upper San Luis Valley. But the railroad's real objective was Marshall Pass, and the ore traffic from Gunnison. Lucky for the railroad, the inital approach from Salida also served the line over Marshall Pass. In 1890, the DRG narrow gauge tracks in the San Luis Valley were even extended from Villa Grove to Alamosa to carry yet more silver ore, arriving in wagons from Creede. But rails in the San Luis Valley was a short lived phenomenon. Nothing remains today, except perhaps a name given to the sleepy town town of Moffat, who was a different boss of a different railroad altogether. Unlike the DRG main line through the Arkansas valley, the Marshall Pass route remained narrow gauge until operations ended in 1952. The rail were salvaged three years later.

( An earlier version of this page said that the line over Poncha Pass was converted to regular gauge, as stated in Marshall Sprague's "the Great Gates". I was corrected by a reader, that this never happened.)

Modern Highways (<Trail Ridge Road Passes|Marshall Pass>): In 1914 the road was finished with a hard gravel surface to suit the coming automobile boom. Between the two world wars Poncho Pass became part of a touristic route called "the Tenderfoot Trail", between Salida and the San Luis Valley.

Cycling - Ride the Rockies (<Monarch Pass|Co131 summit(u) State Bridge - Wolcott>): As of 2005 the pass has been crossed by mega crowds of "Ride the Rockies" during 91 94 96 00 and 02. The day's ride always covered Alamosa to Salida, except once when it was Salida to Alamosa.

Dayrides with Poncha Pass as intemediate summit are on pages:

FR869 Toll Road Gulch s(u)
Hayden Pass

Poncha Pass (Summary)

Elevation/Highest Point: 9010 ft

Southern Approach: paved road

from Villa Grove (7982ft)
1028 ft
14 1/2 miles
Northern Approach:

from Poncha Springs (7480ft)
1530 ft
7 miles


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