Texas Creek Recreation Area

Texas Creek Recreation Area is a popular area for offroading, located just a few miles east of Cotopaxi on U.S. Highway 50. The area is named after the unincorporated settlement of Texas Creek, which is centered on the intersection of Fremont County Road 27 into the Bureau of Land Management recreation area, north, and U.S. Highway 50. The area of Texas Creek Recreation Area was historically used by the Ute Native Americans, before European exploration and settlement in the late 19th century.

Texas Creek Recreation Area is basically a network of offroad trails, some accessible only by ATVs, some accessible by both ATVs and high-clearance vehicles. See the BLM map:

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Texas Creek: A Tale of the Wild West

Plot twist: it’s not actually a “tale” because it actually happened. The Texas Creek area was relatively untouched by European explorers until the 1800s, and in 1880 the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad built a station at what’s now known as the small community of Texas Creek. The first settlement was known as “Ford”, which was not much more than a stagecoach stop for the railroad. There was also a small store, saloon, and boarding house. Ranchers who settled in the area raised cattle, and a small schoolhouse was opened for children living in the area. To this day, ranchers still maintain herds of cattle in the Texas Creek area.

Texas Creek got its name from two cattlemen who were traveling through the area destined for Leadville, bringing a herd of longhorn Texas steers to sell for meat. They camped in the area next to a creek, and in the night the cattle were startled by a mountain lion, scattered, some never to be retrieved. After this ordeal, they named the creek Texas Creek.

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Colorado sky from BLM Route 6020, which follows the old railroad tracks for sometime before diverting north up a gulch

During the 1880s, a local outlaw group known as the McCoy bunch was active in the Texas Creek area, playing poker, and allegedly causing quite the ruckus, rustling cattle, robbing trains, murdering people and other crimes not surprising for the Wild West. Just west of Texas Creek, McCoy gulch is named after this group.

A Historic Railroad Odyssey of Central Colorado

Operating for 38 years, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad built an extension in 1900 from Texas Creek to Westcliffe, some 20-plus miles up the hill. This extension was an impressive engineering feat for the time, ascending up the side of Texas Creek Canyon in a massive Lariat Loop, where the grade can still be seen today. The standard gauge railroad cost $580,000 to build. The bridge this extension took across the Arkansas River was 648 feet long and 95 feet high.

Why the expensive route was constructed is thought to be due to several reasons. Wet Mountain Valley (where Westcliffe) is located to the south, had significant mining activity. Some of the most productive mines in Colorado were in the valley. Cattle herds were also strong in the area too. Linking Westcliffe to the mining powerhouse of Leadville, CO, and to the rest of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s network, was a sensible decision. By 1914, the railroad was operating a regular passenger route to Westcliffe. And almost as quickly as it began, the railroad fell into disuse by the 1930s, with as little as one train a week. And in 1938, the railroad was abandoned.

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Photo of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad bridge across the Arkansas River at Texas Creek, est. 1890s. Source: Denver Public Library Western History Collection

Plenty of Offroad Fun and Classic Colorado Recreation

Texas Creek Recreation Area has plenty of winding and sometimes bumpy roads that make for fun exploring. The area is the ecological transition zone from Bighorn Sheep Canyon, that the Arkansas River flows through and through which U.S. Highway 50 follows down to the plains, to the higher country that ultimately rises into South Park.

Because of this, much of the recreation area is hilly, with roads winding up and down through rock gardens, pinion and juniper forests, and in and out of gulches through cottonwoods and willows, sometimes following small streams of crystal clear Rocky Mountain water. The area receives comparatively little snow, has mild winters and hot summers. Lower in elevation, a high-desert type biome is dominant (similar to the eastern side of the upper Arkansas River Valley), where cacti and yucca grow amongst various dry grasses.

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Beautiful little stream running through Fernleaf gulch, on the western side of the recreation area

It is not possible to get directly from the recreation area to South Park, however, but Fremont County Road 12 due north out of Cotopaxi is a nice adventure north. Fremont County Road ultimately leads to access to State Highway 9, Aspen Ridge, and Salida via Chaffee County Road 175.

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Winding dirt roads traverse the hilly geography of the recreation area.

Table Mountain is the highest elevation that you can drive to in the recreation area. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it that far this time, but the views are apparently tremendous. The road to the top of Table Mountain is steeper and narrower than almost anything else in the recreation area. Table Mountain sits well above the lower valley, at 9,185ft.

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This was steeper than it looks. I got to drive an ATV for free though! Usually you have to pay for that kind of thing.

I had the privilege of riding along for free with a local ATV guiding company, called Play Dirty ATV Tours, a veteran-owned and operated company and the only one that’s officially licensed with the BLM to give commercial tours of the Texas Creek Recreation Area. They bring people up to the top of Table Mountain, including on occasion for weddings (and allegedly bring nonalcoholic “champagne”).

BackwoodsWanderers.com is not affiliated with Play Dirty ATV Tours, an independently owned and operated company based in Cotopaxi, CO.

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Heading up the mountain. There is nothing too technical in the recreation area, but there are narrow, steep, winding sections of road further up.

In addition to offroad trails, there is abundant dispersed camping, with many sites affording magnificent views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the south. Bighorn sheep and mule deer populate the area, taking refuge from the hot summers in the many lower gulches where small streams flow.

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Views of the Sangre de Cristos are plentiful from the recreation area

Much of the Texas Creek area presents great views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the south. On the other side of the Sangre de Cristos is the vast San Luis valley, which dwarfs by several orders of magnitude the upper Arkansas River Valley.

 

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Texas Creek Recreation Area is certainly a fun excursion if you’re in the area. There is lots to explore, and plenty of off-trail hiking opportunities. Throughout the recreation area relics of the past can be found. Old ranching structures, prospecting pits, and even Native American artifacts can be found. Regardless of what you’re doing out there, the recreation area makes for a fun time in the Colorado high country.