Traveling west on Highway 17 from Antonito, one follows the Conejos River through its broad, alluvial valley. Stream erosion has cut through thick layers of volcanic rock, leaving the flat topped mesas visible along Highway 17. The wide valley bottom is covered with deposits of loose sand and gravel that were eroded from the San Juan Mountains. This material was carried by the Conejos River to the eastern edge of the mountains, where it was deposited in gently sloping alluvial fans. The fertile lands of the lower Conejos have been inhabited by farmers and ranchers since the early 1800's. Prior to the valley's settlement, the lower Conejos River was a traditional hunting and camping area for the Ute Indians and was frequented by explorers, trappers, traders, and colonizers during the period of the white man's early westward movement.
As Highway 17 enters the Conejos River Canyon on the eastern edge of the San Juan Mountains, Los Mogotes can be seen to the north. This 9,820 foot volcanic peak produced some of the volcanic layers seen along the road. Except for occasional outcrops of Precambrian granite, the high cliffs of Conejos Canyon are composed of the volcanic Trause Mountain Tuff Formation and the Conejos Formation.
Highway 17 stays high above the river on terraces created by stream erosion of these volcanic sediments. Open stands of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir cover the slopes of the canyon. Groves of aspen are scattered throughout the coniferous forest while cottonwood and willow follow the river bottom. The contrasts of color and texture between these tree stands create an interesting mosaic, especially in the autumn when the deciduous trees are in their colorful splendor. The fortunate traveler may spot a deer within the forest bordering the highway.
Five miles west of the Forest boundary, Sheep Creek joins the Conejos River from the south. The aspen covering the slopes of Sheep Creek were killed by tent caterpillars during 1958 and 1959. Regeneration of aspen within the deadfall can now be seen. Sheep Creek also marks the terminus of the glaciers that tilled the valleys of the Conejos River and its tributaries during the Pleistocene Epoch, between 1 million and 28,000 years ago. The piles of debris left behind by the glaciers are now obscured by the aspen and cottonwood in the valley bottom.
Although Highway 17 is maintained during the winter, most of the roads which intersect it are left unplowed and make excellent ski trails.
Directions: From Antonito, Colorado, Highway 17 passes through the Conejos Peak Ranger District from its eastern boundary 12 miles west of Antonito, Colorado, over La Manga and Cumbres Passes, to the district's southern boundary at the Colorado-New Mexico state line.
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