Wolf Creek Pass turned 103 this year

Courtesy photos These two pictures show the first people to travel over Wolf Creek Pass in August of 1916.

WOLF CREEK- Wolf Creek Pass is one of Colorado’s oldest mountain passes and the actual road leading travelers from South Fork to Pagosa Springs turned 103 this year. The pass is formed of tight bends, high cliffs towering over the roadway, swift sloping curves and views that can at times, take a traveler’s breath away.

It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like at the beginning of the construction of Wolf Creek Pass that occurred in 1916. Black and white photos show the terrain that early settlers had to go through to construct the original road.

According to historical documents, the history of the creation of Wolf Creek Pass began in 1911. Before plans to create the pass were underway, the only way to get over the San Juan Mountain Range was by the Combres Pass into the Valley or Stoney River Pass over into Silverton. In 1912, talk began among officials about a road that would connect Del Norte with Pagosa Springs, but the question was where and how should the road be built.

In the beginning according to documents prepared by local historian Ruth Marie Colville, two routes were considered for the pass; El wood pass, which is further south, and the routethat is what Wolf Creek pass is today. The work was issued on a mile per mile contract basis and several people worked on the road. Mr. J.E. Maloney and Mr. Ed Riley were the engineers assigned to the project which was completed by 1916.

It was in 1930, when plans to expand the highway from the original 12-foot-wide road to a more modern 24-foot-wide roadway took place. Later in 1950 when a paving project was undertaken to create what is traveled on today. Future projects included making the road safe to travel in the winter by creating the snow removal sheds and tunnels along the route. The history of Wolf Creek is one that helps define the San Luis Valley and helped pave the way to what it is today.

Over 67,000 vehicles go over the pass each year and only a handful have never reached their destinations.  The safety concern lies in the fact that even though the numbers of vehicles does not reflect the severity of the west side of the pass so officials are still urging people to slow down.

In engineering reports from Colorado Department of Transportation, it is stated that Wolf Creek has always been designed for higher speeds of travel. “The steep grade and long descending grade of this mountainous pass allows for high speeds to be reached all too easily,” said CDOT Communication Manager Lisa Schwantes. “The roadway has been built wide, wider than usual for a mountain pass and there are also some long stretches of straight roadway. These factors (the wideness and straight-aways) result in a deceiving sense of safety.”

CDOT recently completed several projects in the last year that increased warning signs and white striping along the highway.  CDOT is continuing work on the overlook location where several vehicles have driven off the side of the mountain when trying to negotiate the sharp turn or were unable to stop due to traveling too fast.  

The pass has a long history, one of which is rich in the historical story of how the Valley was created and is marked with sad events as with many of the other passes in Colorado.


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