Completing your checklist of Colorado 14er hikes comes with an exhaustive physical toll, but that's nothing compared to a multi-million-dollar price tag.
Culebra Peak, one of the state's 54 — or as many as 60, depending on who's doing the counting — iconic 14,000-foot mountains is on the market as part of a massive wilderness estate on the edge of the San Luis Valley that borders the New Mexico state line. The more than 83,000-acre Cielo Vista Ranch, meaning "View of Heaven," can be all yours for a cool $105 million.
"Rarely do you see a private tract of land that has that type of mountainous areas," said Pat Lancaster, broker for the Mirr Ranch Group selling the property. "Just the alpine country, with all of the 13,000-foot peaks, let alone the one at 14,000 feet, it really doesn't happen in the lower 48 (states), or anywhere that I know of."
Spanning 23 miles of ridgeline on the eastern boundary of the Sangre de Cristo Range, Cielo Vista Ranch boasts 18 "13ers" in addition to Culebra and has been up for sale for about a year and a half. Interest in the property has ramped up recently, though, and Lancaster said he anticipates a deal may come soon.
The land has an official history dating back to before Colorado gained statehood in 1876, when Mexico granted it to a French Canadian trapper. Under his watch, part of what is today Cielo Vista Ranch was deeded to Mexican and Spanish settlers, which included rights for logging, hunting and grazing.
Colorado's first territorial governor eventually bought it from the trapper's descendants before sale to a North Carolinian logger in 1960. It changed hands again in 1988 for $20 million and became the source of a decades-long legal battle that nearly made it to the U.S. Supreme Court where the heirs of the Mexican and Spanish settlers sought to recoup their previously guaranteed access to the prized terrain.
Colorado's high court finally reinstated some of those permissions in 2002, awarding logging and grazing opportunities, but ending those rights to fishing or hunting. Bobby Hill, a Texas-based rancher and land speculator, last bought the property with business partners in 2004 for between $40 and $60 million.
MOUNTAINS FOR SALE OR RENT
Hill and his gang now look to nearly double their money on the investment at roughly $1,260 an acre. With the neighboring 172,000-acre Trinchera Ranch selling to wealthy hedge-fund manager Louis Moore Bacon in 2007 for $175 million, or approximately $1,000 per acre, the asking price might not be so outlandish in comparison.
As part of the purchase price, the next owner will also have the ability to establish how the ranch's commercial enterprises carry on — if at all. It could be bought, for example, and wiped entirely from Colorado's stock of bucket-list mountains.
"That is the whole thing, they can continue on or do their own thing and keep it a private sanctuary for family, guests, business associates — however you'd like to do it," said Lancaster. "But just the fact that ranch is what it is and the wildlife there, that's more of a selling point than the commercial operation."
Presently 14er peak-baggers must pay $150 per permit for groups of up to 25 people to hike Culebra, and reservations are open on Fridays and Saturdays only, late-June through the end of August, though there will be no climbs this year after July. Commercial fishing and hunting trips, among its 100 miles-plus of streams and trophy-level big game, are other activities that can be booked through the ranch.
The Colorado Fourteeners Initiative estimates that fewer than 1,000 people attempt to climb Culebra Peak — a Class 2 (of 5), 5-to-7-mile hike with about 3,000 feet of elevation gain, depending on the starting point — each year, at least in part due to the associated fee. In fact, because so few make the trek to the ranch, located 45 minutes outside of Alamosa in Costilla County, the mountain's northwest ridge route has no established trail, making for an even more unique experience.
THE PURSUIT OF PROPERTY
Whether someone should have a right to own one of the state's premier hiking destinations is a debate for public versus private land advocates. It's not a conflict the CFI — a nonprofit with the defined mission of protecting these geographical marvels' ecosystems, building and maintaining existing public trails and teaching hikers about leave-no-trace practices — plans to wade into.
"We're not principally an advocacy group, but rather focused on trail stewardship, alpine tundra vegetation restoration and hiker education," said Lloyd Athearn, CFI's executive director. "We've been expanding our interest a bit in trying to intervene on some of these access-related issues, but we're just dipping a toe into that and it's not a principal focus of the organization."
To settle a quarrel between hikers and existing landowners on the Sawatch Range's Mount Shavano, CFI raised about $50,000 to buy three mining rights at the peak's summit in late-2016 so it could begin to make trail improvements and ensure continued public admission. That followed assistance negotiating conditional access in 2009 on Mounts Democrat, Lincoln and Bross — the popular Front Range DeCaLiBron Loop that also includes Mount Cameron — and ongoing efforts to do the same for a section of Mount Lindsey in the Sangre de Cristos that traverses private land.
Another erstwhile dispute entailed a landowner who took exception to hikers crossing a section of his land along the main approach to Wilson Peak of the San Juans, occasionally threatening passersby with a shotgun. That was ultimately resolved when a public land trust bought that portion and conveyed it to the U.S. Forest Service for public right to entry in perpetuity — what the CFI plans to do with Shavano once the updated route is constructed.
That doesn't mean the private-public argument is dead, and Culebra Peak is the one that primarily perpetuates the clash.
"When recreating on the 14ers, people need to understand not all 14ers are alike and not all 14ers fall within public lands," said Athearn, a lifelong mountaineer. "There aren't police out there on the mountains, so people need to be informed about what the status is and willing to be responsible for following or not following the regulations.
"That may fly in the face of some people who say, 'It's on the list, I want to climb it, I'm going to climb it,' and 'Mountains should be free,'" he added. "But that's not the legal status. Maybe it's an inherent conflict in a list-oriented society, when some mountains may not legally be eligible to be on the list."