At the southern edge of Colorado, the San Luis Valley is so vast that you could fit the state of Delaware inside it nearly four times. The high-desert landscape, ringed by dramatic mountains and traversed by the meandering, cottonwood-bordered Rio Grande river, encompasses Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and the towns of Alamosa, San Luis and Fort Garland, to name a few.
Spend two days exploring the small towns and not-so-small attractions tucked away in this intriguing part of the state.
Leap right into the valley’s deep historical roots by starting your day in the village of San Luis. Established in 1851, it is the state’s oldest surviving town. Early Hispanic settlers established a communal way of life and shared La Vega, a plot of land on the southeast edge of town that remains in communal use today, making it one of the country’s last remaining commons. Another relic of the past is R&R Market, a general store that opened in 1857 and, remarkably, is still doing strong business on its original site — in the hands of the same family.
Be sure to make time to visit the more contemporary Shrine of the Stations of the Cross. This series of gripping bronze sculptures depicting Christ’s judgment, crucifixion and resurrection are presented along a path that winds up a mesa to an adobe chapel. Created by artist Huberto Maestas, the first edition maquettes of the sculptures are in the permanent collection of the Vatican Museum in Rome.
Head north on state Hwy. 159 to the Fort Garland Museum. The adobe fort, which dates back to 1858, was once under the command of legendary frontiersman Kit Carson. The museum contains an exhibit of Carson’s career and family life, a display about the famed African American infantrymen known as Buffalo Soldiers and 19th-century artifacts of pioneer life. A new exhibit, "Saving the Fort," chronicles the efforts of the San Luis Valley community to preserve the the fort and ensure its rightful place in Colorado history.
Drive around the base of one of the valley’s most recognizable landmarks, the behemoth fourteener Blanca Peak, and head north on state Hwy. 150 toward Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Stop in the park’s visitor center for an explanation of how these seemingly inexplicable dunes — North America’s tallest — came to be nestled up against the dramatic Sangre de Cristo mountains. Then go out and play on Colorado’s most unique “beach” — miles of sand flats, dunes and Medano Creek, which runs in early spring and provides a shallow, cool oasis to splash around in.
From here, you can take a detour to Hwy. 17 and check out two unusual attractions: the Colorado Gators Farm, where you can see and even handle some of the farm’s more than 300 alligators and other scaly critters, and the UFO Watchtower, a quirky roadside attraction that provides the opportunity to search the skies for little green men and learn more about a surprising number of mysterious reported UFO sightings in the San Luis Valley.
In downtown Alamosa, stop in the historic train depot to visit the Colorado Welcome Center, learn more about the area and purchase tickets for the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad. The railroad’s La Veta Mountaineer line winds eastward through the valley and up La Veta Pass through areas largely inaccessible by car. Trains leave at 9am daily during the peak summer season and weekends year-round, when special steam-powered locomotives travel the route. Another historic rail adventure is available on the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, for which the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad offers the connecting Toltec Gorge Limited line. With 64 miles of track, the 1880 vintage Cumbres & Toltec journeys from Antonito in Colorado to Chama in northern New Mexico with historic depots at each end.
Once back in Alamosa, you can walk from the depot to plenty of downtown restaurants, many of which specialize in delicious Mexican cuisine. Or if you’ve grabbed a bite elsewhere and are ready for a sunset adventure, head west to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge where you’ll have a good chance of spotting American avocets, killdeer, white-faced ibis, egrets, herons and other birds and wildlife. Thousands of people flock to refuge in March during the annual Monte Vista Crane Festival to view more than 20,000 migrating greater sandhill cranes.
From nearly anywhere in the San Luis Valley, you can admire a beautiful sunset by gazing eastward to the Sangre de Cristo range. On clear evenings, the western faces of these dramatic mountains turn various shades of crimson as the sun slides below the horizon.