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2 Days in the San Luis Valley & Great Sand Dunes National Park

The meandering Rio Grande River snakes through a vast valley ringed by dramatic mountains and filled with hidden lakes, waterfalls and cool summertime temperatures. Explore the small towns and attractions tucked away in this intriguing area.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Day 1

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. The "Saving the Fort" exhibit 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 Reptile Park, 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.

Or cool off at Zapata Falls, a 25-foot waterfall reached by a half-mile hike and offering views of the dunes and the Sangre de Cristos.

Day 2

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 9:30am from Memorial Day weekend through mid-September, with special steam-powered locomotives traveling 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.

If you have time, jump on Hwy. 160 to Del Norte for glorious fishing and hiking. Three Barrel Brewing Co. a producer of craft beer from local hops, malt and honey, is the perfect end-of-the-day stop. Del Norte enjoys a prime location alongside the Rio Grande River. These Gold Medal waters are made for anglers, particularly those who enjoy float fishing. Other can’t-miss natural wonders include Penitente Canyon, the Natural Arch and Elephant Rocks, where volcanic ash welded together to create rock formations more than 28 million years old.

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.

Get Sidetracked

Ringed by the Rio Grande National Forest, South Fork hosts outdoorsy folk with 250 miles of snowmobiling and Nordic trails, 17 miles of Gold Medal fishing, hunting and skiing at Wolf Creek Ski Area, which recently added a high-speed quad chair.

The Silver Thread Scenic Byway starts in South Fork and winds through Creede. At the headwaters of the San Juan and Rio Grande rivers, the area has great fishing and rafting. It’s also home to history museums and the renowned and historic Creede Repertory Theatre, where a professional company presents contemporary and classic shows May through September. Experience the Silver Thread byway >>

Those who love rock climbing, biking, hiking and hunting may want to spend a day in Saguache, an hour north of Alamosa. The intimate community is surrounded by the Sangre de Cristos to to the east and the San Juans to the west.

South of Alamosa and Del Norte, you’ll find Conejos, a town that reflects the culture of Old Mexico and boasts fantastic fly-fishing opportunities.

Want More?

Learn more about the history and historic attractions in the San Luis Valley.