A third branch of this road taking off at the top of Elwood Pass heads to Platoro, which is an old mining town with Platoro Lake right above it.
A road from Platoro follows a branch of the Conejos River down to the east end of the Cumbres-Toltec Pass, where you can turn west and go to Chama or turn east and follow the Conejos River into the oldest Hispanic settlements in the San Luis Valley. Be sure to stop in Conejos if you go that way. The oldest church in Colorado is in Conejos. When Colorado first organized into territory, one of the 16 counties formed was called Conejos County. Conejos means rabbit in Spanish.
All the counties in southwestern Colorado, including Archuleta County, were formed from Conejos County. I heard a story about how Conejos County acquired its name. I won’t swear that this is a true story; you’ll have to use your own judgment.
It seems back in the days of fur trapping, some trappers from Taos figured they could make good use of their beaver traps in the western part of the San Luis Valley. In truth, the trapping was so good, they clean forgot to watch the weather. As it happened, the sky clouded over and snow began to fall and fall and fall. Soon the snow was so deep there was no way they could go home, so they made a camp and did the best they could. Fortunately, with their feet tied to homemade snowshoes, they could get around well enough to trap rabbits — appropriately enough, snowshoe rabbits. They lost track of time and just slept, ate rabbits and wondered how the folks back home were getting by.
Finally, the sky cleared and the snow melted, and they made it back to Taos, eating rabbit all of the way. As they approached the house, the happy family dogs rushed out to meet them, barking joyously. When they saw the dogs, automatic sensors kicked in and they made a hippity-hop dash for the house where they scurried underneath, just in time to avoid being lunch for the hounds.
The old historian was whittling on a stick as he told me this story, glancing up at me once in a while to see if I was paying attention. “The man who told me this story,” he said, “told me this was why they called it Conejos County. He said they ate so much rabbit, they were beginning to think like one. Why should I doubt him? After all, he was my Tio. Would your family lie to you?”
Back to Platoro, which is becoming quite a recreation center. The drive from Elwood Pass to Platoro is the most spectacular display of fall color I have ever seen. Would I lie to you?
Now we’re turning our focus to the valley of the East Fork of the San Juan River. Today, you’d never guess that several settlers lived year-round in the valley. Most of them were veterans of the mining boom that created Summitville a bit east of Elwood Pass. The valley even had two incorporated towns. We’ll get into this story next week.