You may be familiar with the Spanish language, but that doesn't mean you know how to pronounce Buena Vista. What does Las Animas mean? How do Coloradoans say Louisville? Where did Del Norte get its name? And how in tarnation is Piceance pronounced?
Like most states, Colorado has its share of strange geographical names. I've lived here since 1968, so I'm familiar with many of them, but there are other names for which I'm just as much at a loss as anyone else. So this page is mostly the result of some research I did for my own sake. I've posted it on the web because I appreciate the same type of thing people have done for placenames in other states.
Out of the 600+ pages on my website, this one prompts the highest percentage of the feedback I receive... and based on those comments, I would have to say this is probably my most "controversial" page. I guess that's not surprising: most of us tend to assume the way we pronounce a word is the "right" way, and anyone who pronounces something differently is "wrong". So when I claim a particular word should be pronounced this way, but you pronounce it that way... well, I can see why I get a lot of comments. If you're inclined to comment, I'm happy to hear from you, but I'd appreciate if you'd take the time to read my background page first.
Below, I've listed several Colorado placenames. Many of them I consider to have difficult, confusing, and/or unexpected pronunciations. I listed some others simply because I wanted to know their etymology. Clicking on a placename will take you to one of the following subcategories - under which I've listed the word, along with its pronunciation:
- Names of Spanish origin
- Names of Indian origin
- Names of French origin
- Which syllable is accented?
- Other names that may cause confusion
Depending on how many words are in a particular subcategory, you may have to scroll down to find your word, which will be listed alphabetically within its subcategory.
I wasn't sure whether diacritical marks would display correctly on all platforms, so instead I opted to use only standard letters for the pronunciations. I've tried to spell each syllable phonetically. The accented syllable is in CAPS.
Other than personal experience, my primary source for this page was the excellent book, Colorado Place Names, by William Bright (Johnson Printing Company, Boulder CO, 1993). I've also had help from knowledgeable friends and correspondents, who can be found here (click that link, then do a text search for "placenames").
By the way, if this page piques your interest, you might also enjoy my Colorado colloquialisms page. It's mainly about the sometimes-peculiar terms Coloradoans use when referring to certain areas of our state.
Arikaree (or Arickaree)
Cache la Poudre
Chipeta (or Chipita)
Jaroso (or Jarosa)
Las Animas (see Animas, above)
Orestod (see Dotsero, above)
Sangre de Cristo
Sawatch (see Saguache, above)
Names of Spanish origin
(All placenames that follow are listed alphabetically within their subcategories - except I want to begin with the name of the state itself.)
Colorado: call-uh-RAD-o (the accented syllable
rhymes with "bad"), although it's become quite common to hear call-uh-ROD-o (the accented
syllable rhymes with "pod"). More discussion on my background page.
The river we now know as the Little Colorado in Arizona was the one originally called Rio Colorado ("Red River"). That stream flows into the Grand Canyon, and later the name "Colorado" was applied to the main stream which carved that chasm (and whose headwaters rise in the state of Colorado). In Spanish, that would be pronounced cole-oh-ROD-oh (the first syllable rhymes with "bowl", and the accented syllable rhymes with "pod").
Acequia: this locale is not even shown on most maps - I think it's just a name given to the sidings that both railroad lines used to have in this area [photo]. It used to be a pretty lonely place, but now the massive Highlands Ranch development (with nearly 100,000 residents) is right next door. The word is Spanish for "irrigation ditch", so I suspect the name is in reference to the nearby High Line Canal. The word is properly pronounced "ah-SAY-kee-uh", although Bright claims locals used to say "ah-see-KWEE-uh".
Agua: the Spanish word for "water" is found in many Colorado placenames. Whether at the beginning or in the middle of a word, long-timers often pronounce it AH-wuh. Newcomers are more likely to use the correct Spanish, AH-gwah.
A Spanish feminine adjective for "full of cottonwoods".
Spanish for "souls". The river in La Plata County was originally named Rio de las Animas Perdidas, or "River of the Lost Souls". Nearby Animas Mountain and the community of Animas Forks were both named for this river. Also, a similar name was originally given to a completely different stream: the river to which we refer today as the Purgatoire. This is the river from which both the city and county of Las Animas derive their names.
Arboles: AR-bowl-eez or AR-bowl-iss
Spanish for "trees".
The last name of a senator from Conejos County, out of which Archuleta County was carved.
The name of this community is a corruption of the Spanish arroyo, or "creek".
The Spanish word (correctly pronounced ah-REE-bah) means "above", and it was applied to this town because of its relatively high location near the crest between two major watersheds.
Probably a corruption of the Spanish vadito, or "little ford" (a diminutive of vado; see the entry for El Vado).
Bisonte: bi-SON-tee (it's a long "O" in the accented syllable)
A Spanish word for "bison" - although cibolo and cibola are more common (but see Cebolla, below).
Blanca: the Spanish word for "white" is pronounced BLAHN-ka, although you might hear locals and long-timers say BLANG-kuh. The name was given first to a 14,000-foot mountain which almost always has snow at its peak - and later to a town at the mountain's base.
Buena Vista: byoo-nuh VIS-tuh
I know it's hard to believe, but it's true. Of course, the Spanish for "good view" would be more like bway-nuh VEES-tuh. But I understand the city even passed a resolution stating that "byoo-nuh" is the official way of pronouncing the first word. (Incidentally, this ridiculousness isn't limited to Colorado: I'm told that the Buena Vistas in Iowa and Virginia are pronounced the same way, as is the town of Buena in New Jersey.) Some locals refer to the Colorado town by the nickname "Bueni" (pronounced "BYOO-nee"), while others sidestep the embarrassment by simply calling it "B.V."
This town's name is a phoenetic spelling of the Spanish cajon, or "box" - referring in this case to a nearby box canyon.
This town's name means "field" in Spanish.
This word appears in several Colorado placenames, perhaps most prominently in Canon City, seat of Fremont County. The word has nothing to do with the weapon; rather it's Spanish for "canyon".
The creek was given the Spanish word for "onion" (not to be confused with cibola - see Bisonte, above)
Cerro: the Spanish word for "hill" or "mountain" occurs in several Colorado placenames. It's pronounced SEHR-oh (rhymes with pharaoh), but Bright says some people say SEER-oh.
Conejos: the Spanish word for "rabbits" is pronounced cone-AY-hose (the last syllable rhymes with "dose"), but you might hear locals and long-timers say cun-AY-us. Name originally given to a river; later a town, mountain, and county.
Costilla: cos-TEE-uh (the first syllable rhymes with "dose").
This county is named for the creek that runs through it, near the New Mexico line. The Spanish means "rib", but it can also refer to the slope of a mountain.
Cumbres: Spanish for "peaks", the town and nearby pass is pronounced KOOM-brays, but according to Bright some locals and long-timers say KUM-berz.
Del Norte: del NORT
Named for the river that runs through the town, originally known to the Spanish as Rio Grande del Norte, or "great river of the north" (see Rio Grande, below). Of course, they would've pronounced it del NOR-tay.
Durango: der-ANG-go (sounds like the word "angle")
The state in Mexico is pronounced dur-AHN-go; this is apparently a Spanish family name of Basque origin.
El Vado: VAH-doh
Spanish for "the ford" (as in the water crossing - not the car!) See the entry for Badito.
Estrella: the Spanish word for "star" is pronounced es-TRAY-ah, but Bright claims some locals and long-timers say uh-STREL-luh.
Considering all of the Spanish names we Coloradoans mispronounce, it's hard to believe we get this one right, when most everyone else would naturally assume it's pronounced like the state: FLOR-id-uh. But it's actually the state's name that is mispronounced. I'm told both the river in southwest Colorado and the eponymously named road in Durango are pronounced like the Spanish word for "flowering".
Huerfano: WAR-fuh-no (the first syllable rhymes with "bore")
Spanish for "orphan". The river and the county are named for Huerfano Butte, so called because of its isolation from the mountains to the west. Actual Spanish is pronounced WEAR-fuh-no (the first syllable rhymes with "fair").
Jaroso: huh-RO-so (a variant is Jarosa: huh-RO-suh)
In Spanish, an adjective meaning "covered with sandbar willows" (see La Jara, below).
La Jara: luh HAR-uh or luh HAIR-uh
Town named for the river, which in Spanish refers to the sandbar willows that grow on its banks (see Jaroso, above).
La Junta: luh HUN-tuh
Town named for its location at "the junction" of travel routes: first, where the Mountain Branch of the Santa Fe Trail split off from the Arkansas River; later where two branches of the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad converged; and today the highway hub of southeastern Colorado. In Spanish, this would be la HOON-tah.
La Plata: luh PLAH-tuh or luh PLAT-uh (the first "a" in Plata can sound like either the one in "father" or the one in "apple")
The name of this county uses the Spanish word for "silver". There's a town of La Plata in Maryland, not far from DC, that is apparently pronounced PLAY-tuh (with a long "a"), but the Durango locals I consulted said they don't hear it pronounced that way in Colorado.
La Veta: luh VEE-tuh
Town and two mountain passes named with Spanish word for "the vein", probably referring to the dikes radiating out from the Spanish Peaks.
Medano: the most common variations are MED-un-oh, MAD-un-oh, and med-AHN-oh
The mountain pass above - and the creek flowing past - the Great Sand Dunes are named after the Spanish for "sand dune", which is properly pronounced MAY-dun-oh.
Mesa Verde: Spanish for "green table". It should be MAY-sa VEHR-day, but most Coloradoans say MAY-sa VUR-dee. Sometimes you'll even hear MAY-sa VURD.
Monte Vista: mon-tuh VISS-tuh
If this were true Spanish for "mountain view", it would be Vista del Monte - and even if this town's name were grammatically correct, it would be pronounced "mon-tay VEES-tuh".
Naturita: Bright claims it's nat-you-REE-tuh, but I'm told locals say nat-uh-REE-tuh. The town and the creek were apparently given a diminutive of the Spanish natura, or "nature".
The county was given the surname of one of the founders of La Junta, its seat of government.
A few people have written to let me know it's still quite common to hear PYEB-low, even among some residents of the city and county. I've also heard PEB-low, and Bright's book says some old-timers even used to say pyoo-EBB-low, for heaven's sake. (Someone wrote to say she remembers her grandfather saying "pyoo-EBB-low" in the 1970s. She thought he was joking, referring to the way the steel mill created such a foul smell in the area.) May this be the generation that puts that nonsense to rest. The Spanish translates to "town" or "village", and is more accurately pronounced PWAY-blo.
Spanish word for "river". Nowdays I think most people around here pronounce it correctly, but I have heard that some people say RY-oh.
Rio Grande: REE-oh GRAND
Short for the original Spanish Rio Grande del Norte, or "great river of the north" - although they would've pronounced it REE-oh GRAHN-day. Name also used for a county, a mountain, and a national forest. Incidentally, don't make the mistake of saying "Rio Grande River" - that's redundant.
I believe the word for "outlet" was most likely given to this town because it's located where the Arkansas River exits an open valley and begins flowing through a more confined canyon. But the Spanish word is actually pronounced sah-LEE-dah.
San Luis: LOO-iss, sometimes LOO-ee
Either way misses true Spanish, which would be loo-EES (with a hard "S"). The town, the creek, and the lakes are usually pronounced LOO-iss, but it's common to hear the valley which contains them all pronounced LOO-ee.
San Miguel: the town, the river, and the county are named after Saint Michael. In Spanish that's pronounced me-GELL, but Bright claims some locals and long-timers say mi-GILL.
Sangre de Cristo: SANG-ri da CRISS-toe
The name for this mountain range translates "blood of Christ". Legend says these mountains were named after the last words of a dying Spaniard, who looked up to the range and saw the peaks bathed in the reddish glow of the setting sun. These mountains are often referred to as simply "the Sangres" (SANG-riz)
Names of American Indian origin
River said to be named for the Ute "stagnant-" or "stinking-water".
The town, the county, the pass, a few mountains - and the National Forest, although it drops the final "e" - were all named for one of the principal Indian tribes of Colorado's eastern plains. However, this is not the word they use for themselves. It was possibly derived from the Pawnee word for "trader", or the Crow word for "tattoo".
The river and the mountain are named for an Indian tribe from the Dakotas. So is the community, although it's spelled Arickaree.
Arkansas: AR-kun-saw (just like the state; the first syllable rhymes
The headwaters of this major river are in Colorado, above Leadville. Bright says the word comes from an Algonkian name for a Sioux indian tribe. The pronunciation may seem obvious, but I list it because people in Kansas pronounce it "ar-KAN-zus", so that it rhymes with their state.
The Mexican-Spanish for "chokecherry" or "wild cherry" is an adaptation of the Aztec word capolin.
Chipeta (sometimes spelled Chipita): chi-PEE-tuh
She was the wife of Ute Chief Ouray (see below). Her name has been applied to several landmarks in Colorado.
Name given to a mountain pass, a geological formation, and a National Recreation Area along the Gunnison River. Said to come from the name of a Ute Indian chief.
Arapaho for "man-mountain" is enetah - but somewhere along the line, the second "n" got added.
Derived from the Arapahoe words for "coyote" and "chief". A valley in Grand County, and also the name of the west visitor center in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Niwot: NY-waht (rhymes with "high watt")
Both the town and the mountain were named for an Arapahoe Indian chief whose name meant "left-handed".
Town named for the city in Kansas, which in turn derives from the Shawnee word for "fine" or "beautiful".
Name of creek may be Arapaho for "warms himself", after a horse who steps up to a campfire on a cold night.
Ouray: I grew up hearing and saying yer-AY. But I did live hundreds of miles away, and I understand some locals say YOU-ray, or even OO-ray. The town, the county, and a couple mountains were all named for the famous Ute chief... and interestingly, this article says modern Utes pronounce it OH-ray!
Piceance: PEE-ants (or PEE-awnts, depending who you ask)
The name for this creek and its basin may be from an Indian word for "tall grass". (I nominate this one for the strangest word on Colorado's map.)
Ute for a blue-green color. Name given to a creek, a town, and the county which encompasses them. And, although spelled differently, the name of the Sawatch mountain range comes from the same word. A street in Colorado Springs is spelled Sahwatch.
Town named for the brother-in-law of Ute chief Ouray (see above). The original town lies beneath Blue Mesa Reservoir; today's town was built after the Gunnison River valley was inundated.
Shavano: SHAV-uh-no (first syllable rhymes with "have")
Mountain named for a Tabeguache Ute chief, one who signed an 1873 treaty. On that document his name is spelled "Chavanaux", so perhaps that's where the rarely-heard variant pronunciation "SHAV-uh-naw" comes from. Apparently it's not a Ute name, but rather from the Shawnee (meaning "southerner"), so there's speculation the name was applied to this chief by a white. There are also spelling variations, including the Shawano rail siding on the historic Marshall Pass line.
Tabeguache: Bright says the proper pronunciation is TAYB-watch. I don't know if anyone follows that, but I have been told people in Grand Junction say TAB-uh-watch or TAB-uh-wash.
Mountain and creek named for a band of the Ute Indian tribe; name also used in "Unaweep/Tabeguache Byway", one of Colorado's several official state scenic and historic auto routes. Bright says their name meant "cedar-bark sun-slope people". According to Ross, when used as a placename, it may mean "place where the snow melts first".
Bright claims the summit and a nearby creek got their name from the Ute for "dome-shaped rock".
Creek named for the Araphoe word for "meadow".
Name of town and nearby mountain from a Ute word of uncertain meaning.
From the Ute for "it is good".
Name for a divide - and the canyon that contains this divide; name also used in "Unaweep/Tabeguache Byway", one of Colorado's several official state scenic and historic auto routes. Normally a canyon is carved by a single stream, so you wouldn't think of a canyon as having a divide in it. Indeed, many geologists believe that Unaweep was probably carved by the ancestral Colorado and/or Gunnison rivers. But in recent geologic history, those two big rivers have changed course, and now there are two small streams flowing in opposite directions from a divide in the middle of the canyon. Bright says the word comes from the Ute for "fire canyon". But I prefer Ross' interpretation (which may be somewhat of a paraphrase, but may also be closer to the Ute's intent): "canyon with two mouths".
From the Ute for "red lake". Name given to a river, a mountain, and a National Forest.
From the name of a Ute band, but the actual meaning of the word is unknown. Name given to a creek and a Wilderness Area within the Rio Grande and San Juan national forests.
Names of French origin
Cache la Poudre: CASH luh POO-der
This river got its name from a time when some French trappers hid their equipment (including gunpowder) in a hole on the banks of this stream. Locals refer to the river as simply "the Poudre". (I'm told that in French this would be pronounced more like POWD-rah.)
DuPont factory town named for Louviers, Delaware - another DuPont town - which in turn was named for Louviers, France (I suspect the French town is pronounced differently, but I'm not sure).
Platte: plat (one syllable; the "e" is not pronounced)
The name of this major Nebraska river and its two main forks (both of which rise in Colorado) comes from the French name Riviere Platte, or "flat river". Earlier, the Spanish called it Rio Chato, meaning the same thing. And before that, the Omaha Indians called it ne braska, or "flat water".
The French word for this river comes from the earlier Spanish Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio, or "River of the Lost Souls in Purgatory". The corrupted English version appears in names for a couple features in its basin: Picketwire Valley and Picketwire Canyon.
Which syllable is accented?
Abarr: Bright claims it's AB-ar (with a short "a" in the first syllable), and says the town was given the maiden name of an early store owner's wife. However, I've been told of an area resident who has always pronounced it AY-bar (with a long "a").
A peak in Rocky Mountain National Park is named for this Indian tribe in New Mexico. But don't try to say it that way in Denver, where most of us pronounce a street of the same name uh-KO-muh.
Antero: an-TEHR-o (the middle syllable rhymes with "fair")
This was the name of a Ute indian chief, and it's now applied to a highway junction, a mountain, and a reservoir.
A town and a mountain pass, named for a civil engineer for the Colorado Central Railroad.
A railroad siding outside Trinidad, named for an early settler of that town. A nearby highway intersection is known as Beshoar Junction.
A town named for a railroad man in the area.
Crestone: the jagged 14,000 foot peaks and the town that lies below them are named for the Spanish creston, pronounced cres-TONE, and meaning "cock's comb". But most people pronounce this community CRESS-tone.
This town is located near the place where the Eagle River flows into the Colorado. Supposedly this confluence marked the spot where the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad started counting mileage for one of its lines, and it was marked on their maps as .0 ("dot zero"). Denverites pronounce this word dot-SEHR-oh (with a short "e"), perhaps partly because a local music group which took its name from the town pronounces it that way. But I'm told locals pronounce the town itself with a long "E" in the accented syllable - which more closely resembles the word "zero". Incidentally, at the other end of this rail segment, there is a siding near Bond called "Orestod" - which is "Dotsero" spelled backwards.
Town named for an early South Park stockman.
Named for the wife of one of the town's early settlers.
Limon: LIE-mun (rhymes with "diamond")
Although there is a Spanish word of the same spelling meaning "lemon", this town was named for the foreman of a railroad camp.
Lycan: LIE-kun (pronounced just like the word "lichen")
Town named for one of the first homesteaders, the first schoolteacher, and the postmistress.
I thought this might be pronounced mow-DEL, but the community's name comes from its early aspiration to be a "model town".
Town given the surname of two area farmers.
Town named for a Ute Indian who was murdered here.
Town named for the postmaster general at the time of its establishment.
Walsenburg: I'm told locals say WALL-sen-burg, although you'll hear WALL-zen-burg in other parts of the state. Town named for a community leader and merchant.
Other names that might cause confusion
Arvada: ar-VAD-uh (the middle syllable rhymes with "bad")
This is the middle name of the brother-in-law of the city founder's wife (got that?) Matt Salek wrote to say he's heard radio ads (apparently done by out-of-state firms) who mispronounce it ar-VAY-duh. Also, it's becoming more common to hear ar-VOD-uh. I suspect it's mostly latecomers who are saying it that way, just like it's mostly relative newcomers who say call-uh-ROD-o instead of call-uh-RAD-o.
Auraria: uh-RAIR-ee-uh (second syllable rhymes with "fair")
The word is Latin for "gold mine". This was one of the original towns founded near the spot where Cherry Creek flows into the Platte River, but it later became part of Denver. The name is now applied to, among other things, a road and a downtown college campus.
The community and the lake are named for a pioneer Colorado industrialist. He was a philanthropist (as are his descendants), so the name also occurs in several places in Denver.
Canon City: CAN-yun
Some people don't know what the tilde (~) character means - or the map they're looking at may not have a tilde above the letter "n". They might be inclined to pronounce the word CAN-un. The city's name refers to the Grand Canyon of the Arkansas River, over which the famous Royal Gorge Bridge was built not far from town.
County named for a Colorado senator.
Crowley: CROW-lee (the "o" is long)
Town and county named for a state senator.
De Beque: deh-BEK
Town named for an early settler; also a canyon formed by the Colorado River, downstream of the town.
Delhi: DEL-hi (the "h" is pronounced, and the "i" is long)
Although this post office may have been named for the city in India, it's not pronounced DEL-ee.
Town named for a nymph in Roman mythology.
El Jebel: probably el-juh-BELL, but I've heard locals say EL-juh-bell
It's easy to assume this is a Spanish word (and then to wonder whether the "J" is pronounced as an "H"), but it's actually Arabic for "the mountain". I'm told some people jokingly pronounce it "edge of hell".
Englewood: many locals say EEN-gul-wood (as if it's spelled "Inglewood"), but you'll hear transplants and some media people say EHN-gul-wood.
Eolus: EE-oh-lus, or EE-uh-liss
There are a couple 14ers named after the Greek god of the winds.
Estes Park: ESS-tiss (in other words, it doesn't rhyme with "testes"!)
Town, mountain, and lake named for the first permanent resident of the area.
Town name a corruption of founder's name, Guiraud.
Granada: Bright claims it's gruh-NAH-duh, but others with local connections have written to insist that it's gruh-NAY-duh.
Guyot: Bright says this mountain is named after the Swiss-born geologist, Arnold Henry Guyot, who pronounced his name GE-oh. However, I'm told some locals pronounce it GUY-ott.
Town named for an early settler.
Ignacio: ig-NOSS-ee-oh or ig-NOSH-ee-oh
Some say the town was named for a Ute Indian chief. Others say it had nothing to do with the Ute chief, but rather comes from the Spanish St. Ignatius.
Town named for a cattle king whose holdings spanned across much of northeastern Colorado. Part of his estate was used to found the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, after which the avenue was named.
Town given the maiden name of a Union Pacific railroadman's mother.
Town named for an area in Scotland.
Louisville: LOO-iss-vill (not like the city in Kentucky, "LOO-ee-vill", or more commonly "LOO-uh-vull")
Town named for a landowner who was in charge of boring for coal here.
The town was given a corrupted version of the name of an early landowner.
Nederland: NED-ur-lund (not like the city
in Texas, which is pronounced NEED-ur-lund)
Nearby mines were purchased by Dutch investors, who spell and pronounce the Netherlands like this.
Ophir: OH-fur (rhymes with "gopher")
This mining town (and a couple mountains and a pass) were given the Biblical name for the location of King Solomon's mines.
Town named for a settler who lived near the railroad siding.
The first postmaster for this town suggested the name Paeonia, after the botanical name for the peony; its present form is a corruption of that word.
Name given to a couple peaks in the southern Medicine Bow Mountains, as well as a chain of lakes and a creek on their eastern flank, and a wilderness area that protects them all. Several websites claim this is a "Native American" term meaning "wild place", but I suspect that's just unsubstantiated internet blather. Bright suggests it comes from the Ute term for "crest of a mountain ridge", which seems more likely to me, given the topography of that particular range.
Town name given by postal authorities, possibly for a railroad surveyor.
Routt: rowt (the double "T" doesn't change anything)
County named for the last territorial - and the first state - governor.
Seibert: SEE-burt (according to the town clerk)
Town named for a millionaire railroad official. Note however that this man and his descendants apparently pronounce their name SY-burt.
A mountain and the ski resort town are named for tellurium, a rare element found in area mining ore. The element, in turn, takes its name from the Latin tellus, which means "earth" or "ground". (Another explanation says the name is a corruption of "To hell you ride", but my guess is that's a tall tale.)
Tobe (rhymes with "robe"; the "e" is silent)
Town named for a local resident.
Town named for its first postmaster.
Westminster: west-MIN-stur (just like the Abbey; not west-MIN-iss-tur, which is a common mispronunciation even among locals).
Wray: ray (the "w" doesn't change anything)
Town named for an early rancher in the county.