In my continuing educational series of crossing the Rocky Mountains, up next is the southern route over La Veta, La Manga, and Cumbres passes. This is one of the safest, and lowest ways over the Continental Divide. First, here’s a look at the route itself:
We’ll start from right to left. On the far east side of this route is Interstate 25 and Walsenburg. Regardless if you’re coming from the north (Denver metro area, Colorado Springs, or Pueblo) or the south (Trinidad, etc) or any point east, going west on Hwy 160 west of Walsenburg is a great way to start out (or finish up if going east through this route). The first pass you’ll encounter is La Veta Pass (also known as North La Veta Pass) which is on Hwy 160 and sits at 9,413′. Just follow the highway and tune in the AWOS (VTP 119.925 Mhz) for up to the minute weather reports. From CDOT: “Route: Southwest Colorado and Walsenburg to San Luis Valley and Alamosa. Road elevation 9,380’ MSL. Weather reporter at Alamosa can see west side of pass. AWOS station is positioned on this pass. Caution: With high west and northwest winds aloft expect
turbulence and up and down drafts. N37-36-34, W105-12-28.”
ALWAYS USE CAUTION WHEN CROSSING ANY PART OF THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE WITH WINDS EXCEEDING 20-30 KNOTS! YOUR AIRPLANE MAY NOT BE ABLE TO OUTCLIMB THE DOWNDRAFTS ON THE LEEWARD SIDE.
After crossing this pass it’s an easy trip across the San Luis Valley, south of Alamosa. The Denver ARTCC frequency in this area is 128.37, but radar coverage in the lower altitudes is hit and miss.
Continuing west the next ridge will be fairly easy to spot, and the best way through is over Hwy 17 and La Manga (10,230′) and Cumbres Pass (10,022′). From CDOT: “Route: Alamosa to Durango. Road and track elevations – Cumbres 10,022’ MSL, La Manga 10,230’ MSL. The vicinity of these neighboring passes is visible from weather reporting stations at Alamosa and Durango.
After these two passes, just keep following Hwy 17 until the junction at Chama and you’re home free westbound. Radar and radio coverage is very limited in this area and flight following in most cases won’t be available. I’ve flown this route several times when Wolf Creek Pass wasn’t a viable alternative (which is often covered with clouds and snow). The Denver ARTCC frequency west of La Manga Pass is 118.57.
What I like most about this route, especially in the summer from the Denver area, is that it gives you a chance to climb, burn some fuel off, and get a really good look at the mountains west of I-25 before committing to where you’re going to cross. And like I said, it’s about the lowest crossing over the Continental Divide as well. The other alternatives when heading west through southwest are Corona Pass (see my earlier article about this pass here), Monarch Pass, and Wolf Creek Pass – all of which can be much rougher than this southern alternative, and all are higher as well.
And if the weather gets too iffy (and you’re Instrument Rated) there’s an IFR routing through this area with the lowest MEA‘s (Minimum Enroute Altitudes) across the mountains. V210 (east of ALS) and V368 (west of ALS) are 14,000 and 13,000, respectively and closely resemble this VFR mountain pass route.
And not only have I flown this route VFR and IFR, I also work this airspace and help plenty of pilots through it. But I’ll give you this serious word of warning: While it may be tempting to cut the corner north of La Manga/Cumbres Pass, the terrain in that area north of Hwy 17 (just east of Pagosa Springs, CO) is very high, rugged, and unforgiving. It has claimed many an airplane. It rises much faster than just about ANY airplane can climb. If you get caught by surprise by any weather, DO NOT head in that direction unless you’re above 15,000′, it may be the last mistake you make.
Air traffic control is there to help, you’re paying for it, don’t hesitate to use it. Even if we can’t hear you, if you’re on our frequency, other aircraft in the area more than likely will be able to hear you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, or be too proud to ask. You won’t be the first or last, happens much more often than you might realize. Be safe, you’re far from alone up there, and tell ’em Chris sent you.