Hidden in the Sangres

Joshua Hardin

The peaks of the Sangre de Cristos look like the mountains that all other mountains are based on. 
Rising more than a mile in prominence from the billiard-table-flat floor of the Wet Mountain Valley, the Sangres form a wall of mountains with a sawblade profile stretching in a straight line from horizon to horizon. Some of the peaks are nearly perfect right triangles – a shape so prototypical that it’s what you’d expect to see if you asked a kindergartner to draw a picture of a mountain.

This panorama is the background looking west down Main Street in Westcliffe, situated at 7,888 feet above sea level on a bluff across the valley. Westcliffe shares Main Street with its twin city, Silver Cliff. The two towns, which roughly split a population of a little more than 1,000 people, are sometimes collectively called “The ’Cliffs.” 

Westcliffe is the seat of Custer County, but Silver Cliff was here first, founded in 1879 and named after the nearby cliff where miners extracted veins of silver so rich that the rocky walls looked like they were covered in aluminum foil. By 1880, Silver Cliff was the third-largest town in Colorado, but its decline began just a year later when the Durango & Rio Grande Railroad arrived in the valley and built its depot a mile west. Westcliffe sprouted up around the depot, drawing population away from its older sister city; some people in Silver Cliff lifted their homes off their foundations and rolled the buildings down the hill on logs to Westcliffe.

Before anyone mined an ounce of silver or laid a single mile of track here, the Wet Mountain Valley was a paradise for ranchers. The silver mines and railroad have disappeared from living memory, but the ranchers remain. Sarah Shields lives in the valley with her husband, Mike, on the San Isabel Ranch, which her great-grandfather founded in 1872, three years after moving here from Lincolnshire, England, in the first wave of white settlers. The couple make their home in the original ranch house. Shields remembers hearing stories about Utes, the valley’s first inhabitants, creeping up to the house’s back window to catch a glimpse of her great-aunt Frances – they had never seen anyone with blonde hair before.

Shields grew up on horseback, where she still spends much of her time as she and Mike tend to their herd of Hereford-Red Angus cattle. They also grow protein-rich hay, for which the valley is renowned. The Shieldses feel a sense of stewardship for this land, which has been in her family for nearly 150 years. “We are the best environmentalists you’ll find,” Mike said. “If we don’t take care of the land, we’ll go out of business.”

The cattle on the San Isabel Ranch bear the same Hashknife brand that her family has used since the 19th century. The couple own two other brands: the Turkey Track brand that her father gave her mother as a wedding present, and the YY Bar brand that her father’s best friend gave Mike and Sarah for their own wedding. Such ranching traditions are a direct link the past, but not everything in the valley is the same as the old days. 

For the rest of the story see the July/August 2017 issue of Colorado Life.


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