Wild Horse Mesa is located south of San Luis, in Costilla County, in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. The sunny, fertile, alpine valley is about 150 miles long and 75 miles wide, surrounded by the San Juan, La Garita and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges.
San Luis and the San Luis Valley are named after Saint Louis, who was King Louis IX of France from 1226 until his death in 1270. A devout Catholic, he was born in 1214 near Paris, and died of disease during the Eighth Crusade on August 25, 1270 in Tunisia. During his reign, he commanded the largest army and most wealthy kingdom in Europe. August 25th is the feast day of Saint Louis (San Luis). He is the only French King to be declared a Saint. Many places are named after him. It is believed that the San Luis Valley was named by Spanish explorer Francisco de Coronado in 1540, when he discovered the valley on the feast day of San Luis.
Wild Horse Mesa (also known as San Pedro Mesa) covers about 75 square miles, a few miles south of San Luis, near New Mexico. The mesa area is home to about 150 wild horses (mustangs), broken into 9 bands, roaming on private lands. They are descendants of horses used by Spanish explorers (conquistadors), brought to America in the 1500’s. Spaniards began bringing horses and cattle to North America starting in 1493, after Columbus landed in 1492. Spanish explorer Vazquez de Coronado visited this region, crossing northern New Mexico, looking for the Seven Cities of Gold in his expedition of 1540-1542.
Native American Indians acquired horses in the 1600’s. According to tribal historians, the Ute Indians acquired horses from the Spanish in 1580. Tribal history states that captive Utes escaped with horses from Santa Fe in 1637, making the Utes the first Native Americans to introduce the horse into their culture. Santa Fe became the capital of the New Spain province of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico in 1610.
Colorado has 4 wild horse herd management areas, on public lands in western Colorado, managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Only about 970 wild horses remain on Colorado public lands, with 420 planned for removal, leaving only 550. Wild horses in western Colorado are descendants of escaped and released horses from farmers, ranchers, miners or cavalry soldiers. Only 3 herds, with less than 600 horses, remain in New Mexico, down from 8 herds with 6,000 horses in 1974. There are no wild burros in Colorado. Under Colorado law, wild horses are not considered wildlife, therefore the Division of Wildlife is not responsible for managing them.
Other wildlife in the area includes mule deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, small game, birds, eagles, black bears, mountain lions and bighorn sheep. Vegetation is mostly sagebrush, rabbitbrush (chamisa), Piñon pine and juniper.
The Rio Grande River flows south through the valley to Mexico. The elevation of San Luis is 7,980 feet. The mesa ranges from about 7,900 feet to 8,800 feet, with a few peaks at 9,200 feet. Snow-capped Mount Blanca Peak towers at 14,345 feet to the north, and Culebra Peak, rises to 14,047 feet to the east on Cielo Vista Ranch.
This beautiful high desert valley has evidence of human habitation for 11,000 years, including the Anasazi. It was home for the Ute Indians, Navajo, Comanche, and Jicarilla Apaches. The Ute band from the San Luis Valley, the Capote Utes, now live on the Southern Ute Reservation, near Durango, in the four corners region of southwest Colorado. You can learn more about the Ute Indians at the museums in Alamosa, San Luis, Fort Garland, Montrose and Ignacio.
You may see Indian dancers and artists at special events, pow wows, fiestas, fairs and rodeos in the region, including Santana Days in San Luis, the last weekend in July. The Indians hunted wild game in the area for hundreds of years. Look for arrowheads while hiking. They have a website at SouthernUte-NSN.gov and a radio station at KSUT.org. The state of Utah is named after the Ute Indians. Some local ranchers raise Navajo Churro sheep, an ancient, hardy breed, brought to the New World by Spanish explorers for meat and wool.
The San Luis Valley is now home to farmers and ranchers, many families have been there for generations. Crops grown on 450,000 acres include potatoes, alfalfa, wheat, barley, oats, spinach, cabbage, peas, beans, peppers, carrots and lettuce. Livestock includes mostly cattle, but also hogs, sheep and goats. Energy farming includes oilseed crops such as canola and sunflowers, used to make bio-diesel fuel. Algae farming is being studied as another bio-fuel. Solar panel farms are also gaining popularity.
The valley is also attracting real estate investors and people looking for a great place to build a vacation home or cabin, retirement home or just buy some affordable land where they can visit or bring their camper or RV to relax and escape city life. San Luis is the oldest town in Colorado, founded in 1851, with a population of about 800. It was part of New Mexico Territory until 1861, when Colorado Territory was established. Colorado became the 38th state in 1876. San Luis is the Costilla County seat, and is rich in history and culture. Adobe homes, churches, town plazas and outdoor adobe ovens (hornos) are found in the area, along with lush green crop fields irrigated by gravity controlled, community operated ditches and canals (acequias). Costilla County is sparsely populated with about 3,600 people.
The East Fork of the North Branch of the Old Spanish Trail runs along the east side of Wild Horse Mesa, heading north along the Sangre de Cristo mountains. This historic trail between Santa Fe and Los Angeles followed old Indian trails, on a difficult 1,200 mile, 2-month journey. Pack mule trains brought trade goods west, including live sheep, wool blankets from Churro sheep, serapes, furs, and tanned hides, and brought mules and horses east, between 1829 and 1848. Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, and claimed control of western Colorado. During the Mexican-American War, 1846-1848, the United States took control of Colorado.
After the war, wagon roads on other easier routes ended the use of the trail. The Old Spanish Trail (Old Spanish Trail Map) was designated a National Historic Trail in December 2002. Old Spanish Trail video. There are stories of lost gold mines and caches filled with gold or supplies, including the Lost Spanish Mine of Culebra Peak. A former gold mine, 4 miles northeast of San Luis, operated by Battle Mountain Gold, and then acquired by Newmont Mining, is now closed.
In 1803, the United States bought the Louisiana Purchase from France, including Colorado, east of the Continental Divide. In 1806, Zebulon Pike explored Colorado and built a small stockade at warm springs on the Conejos River, at the Rio Grande. He was met by Spanish soldiers, who escorted him to Mexico for questioning and then released him.
Basalt rock (volcanic lava rock) from San Pedro Mesa was used for milling stones (see photo) at corn and wheat mills in San Luis, San Francisco and other villages along the Rio Culebra. Later, modern milling equipment was brought in from St. Louis and installed at the San Luis Mill. After gold was discovered in 1858 in Cherry Creek, the mill produced flour that was transported by ox-driven wagons to the miners in the gold fields near Denver and other mining districts.
During the Great Depression, 1929-1939, basalt rock from the mesa was also used extensively for building construction under jobs programs from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). White washed basalt rocks were used to form the famous hillside landmark sign, “San Luis Oldest Town in Colorado” (see photo).
On the east side of Wild Horse Mesa, Sanchez Reservoir (see top photo), completed in 1913, was the fifth largest earth and stone dam in the world at that time. Today it is a state wildlife area with a 4-mile long, 2,000 acre lake that provides excellent fishing for northern pike, yellow perch, walleye, trout and catfish. It is a home for water fowl, including ducks, geese, loons, and grebes, and shore birds, including passerines and swallows.
Other birds in the pinion/juniper and sage brush habitat of the mesa include Western scrub and pinion jays, rock wren, black-chinned hummingbird, bushtit and juniper titmouse. On the northwest side of the mesa, Sanchez Stabilization Reservoir, along Highway 159, is another fishing and recreation spot, about 4 miles southwest of San Luis.
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