Aerial view of Blanca Wetlands

How To Mindfully Travel Around Mystic San Luis Valley

This blog was written by travel and lifestyle photographer, Frankie Spontelli, @fr33water and his partner Ashley. The pair recently traveled around the San Luis Valley, participating in our Million Dollar Shot photography challenge. 

Over the Labor Day weekend, we headed to the Mystic San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado. Amazing right? There was just one catch: we’d only learn what our itinerary was on the day, and each place had different photo or social detox challenges.

There were three types of photo challenges. The first was a Filter Free Zone, where we weren’t allowed to use any filters or post-production on our photos. The second was a Shutter Speed Limit, where there was a limit on the number of photos we could take. And the third zone we encountered was called a Colorado Photo Preserve, where we explored slowly, reflecting on how to protect the natural wonders we encountered. 

As keen photographers, we were in for a challenge! Here’s a look at what we saw, did and ate in San Luis Valley. 

DAY 1: Denver to Alamosa

We started our journey by driving to Alamosa, with some stops along the way. The first stop was Lathrop State Park – Colorado’s first state park. Centered around two large lakes with wonderful views of the Spanish Peaks, we took in the views, enjoying the sound of the waves splashing against the rocks.

Lake views at Lathrop State Park
Taking in the views of the Spanish Peaks at Lathrop State Park.  

From there, we took the Highway of Legends to La Veta, an adorable mountain town with plenty of charm. We stopped into Ryus Avenue Bakery, a recent addition to the town. 

The bakery’s owner, Erica, was a middle school math teacher for 21 years before deciding to follow her passion and open her own bakery. Seems like she made a great choice – she says there are often lines out the door each morning! From there, we explored the main street and stopped at the La Veta Mercantile, which had a lot of neat gifts to take home. Fun fact – this spot is also a bar and music venue!

Cuchara Mountain Park
Meeting the locals at La Veta Mercantile. 

We continued on the Highway of Legends towards the town of Cuchara. This road is a scenic byway for a reason – it passes along volcanic formations and arches at the base of the Spanish Peaks. Cuchara is a cute little mountain town along the way known for its former ski resort turned public park, Cuchara Mountain Park. We met a park volunteer named Lois, who explained how after the ski resort closed in 2001, the Cuchara Foundation raised money to help the county purchase the property so it could be accessible as open space. Now, visitors can hike, snowshoe, backcountry ski or even try frisbee golf in the 50-acre park. 

Cuchara Mountain Park
Checking out the town of Cuchara, a former ski resort. 

Next we visited a ghost town called Uptop Historic District. It was once famed for having the highest railroad in the world, but when they rerouted the tracks onto a lower pass, the town suffered. Although there were attempts to bring it back to life – including coal mining and a ski resort – Uptop became a ghost town, complete with its original train depot and chapel. The result? A pretty eerie town with a whole lot of Colorado history. 

We headed to our digs for the night: glamping at Rustic Rook Resort, situated 20 minutes outside of the Great Sand Dunes National Park. After some tasty Mexican fare at Nino’s Del Sol, we settled in for a night of stargazing. And what a night it was!

DAY 2: Sand Dunes National Park and Stations of the Cross at San Luis

Photo challenge: Sand Dunes National Park and Stations of The Cross are Filter Free Zones, meaning no post-production is allowed! Stargazing is in the Shutter Speed Zone and we were limited to one photo per hour.

The coolest way to see the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Sand Dunes? From above! We were delighted to learn we’d be going on a private flight with Rugged Air Tours. We were utterly awe-struck as we gazed down at the massive 13,000 and 14,000-foot peaks in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Even with all the hiking we had done, I had never seen such beauty from this point of view. It was truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life. 

View of mountains from a plane
Looking down at the Sangre De Cristo mountains from our private flight with Rugged Air Tours.

Once our feet were back on the ground, it was time for lunch at The Greenhouse at the Sand Dunes Recreation Center. One of the several natural hot springs in the area, this facility is limited to adults only. They also serve food and alcohol, making it the perfect spot for locals and visitors alike to spend a relaxing afternoon. We ordered the “Diving Board” charcuterie board, which was delicious!

After lunch, we made our way to Colorado’s oldest town, San Luis, where we would visit the Shrine of the Stations of the Cross. After a short trail to the top of a mesa, you’ll find a beautiful church surrounded by views of the Sangre de Cristo and the San Juan Mountains. This Mexican-adobe-style church was built as an act of love for the people of the area. Along the way, you’ll see 15 bronze statues depicting Jesus Christ’s journey with the cross in the last hours of his life.

Person walking at Shrine of the Stations of the Cross
All the statues at the Stations of the Cross were sculpted by a local artist..

On our way back to the Rustic Rook, we stopped at the Blanca Wetlands, a refuge for birds, fish and other wildlife. We meandered on the trails throughout the area, listening to the long grass whisper in the wind and watching the birds fly above. 

Looking down at Blanca Wetlands from a plane
The stunning Blanca Wetlands from above.

After the sun went down, we were presented with another photo challenge: we could only take one photo while stargazing at the Great Sand Dunes National Park. We found a spot to put our blanket and laid underneath the Milky Way, counting shooting stars. After counting nine, Frankie set up his camera for his one shot of the night.

Stargazing at Great Sand Dunes National Park
We could only take one photo of the night sky. Pretty happy with the result.

DAY 3: Alamosa to Del Norte

Photo challenge: All stops on Day 3 were in the Shutter Speed Zone, with limits on the number of photos we could take. Penitente Canyon and Ventana Arch had a limit of one photo every half hour, while Big Meadows Reservoir had a limit of one photo every fifteen minutes.


On the third day of our adventure, we reluctantly said goodbye to our cozy glamping tent and set off on the next adventure at Penitente Canyon. The area is an absolute paradise for climbers, boasting around 300 climbing routes. Hikers can enjoy the area too, with trails winding between the red rock canyon walls. There are also some great camping sites in the area – we’ll definitely be back!

Penitente Canyon from above
Penitente Canyon is ideal for adventurers, with plenty of climbing and hiking routes in the park.

Another attraction in the area is La Ventana Arch, a unique landmark formed as a result of a volcano. The hike up to the arch is short and steep (I recorded 0.13 miles and 130 feet of elevation gain) with quite a bit of exposure, but you are rewarded with vast views of the San Luis Valley leading up to the Sangre de Cristo mountain range.

La Ventana Arch
 Incredible views await at La Ventana Arch.

After exploring La Ventana Arch, we headed to Tiny Timbers in South Fork for lunch where we met the owners, Brett and Cheryl. Originally from the La Junta area, they used to visit South Fork in the summers for the ATV trails. One summer, they decided to buy land and do something with it (though they didn’t know what). This once undeveloped and overgrown piece of land is now a wonderful little resort, coffee shop and restaurant with a natural spring running through it and national forest in the background. Oh, and the food is great too!

Two cafe owners standing at their cafe counter.
Chatting with Brett and Cheryl who run Tiny Timbers, South Fork. 

Now that our bellies were full, it was time to head to Big Meadows Reservoir, about 11 miles west of South Fork. After a beautiful drive through winding forest roads, we arrived at a vast lake with mountains painted in the background. After hiking around the lake, we took our paddleboard out for a ride. There were people fishing, swimming, and sitting at the lake’s edge, taking it all in. It was the perfect way to spend the afternoon.

Big Meadows Reservoir
We stopped by Big Meadows Reservoir for a paddleboarding sesh. 

Feeling refreshed, we headed to Mellow Moon Lodge in Del Norte where we’d be staying the night. For dinner, we were excited to check out Carther’s Roadhouse, a restaurant themed around old cars and automobile collectibles, where we enjoyed some delicious burgers. Cather’s is a must for any car enthusiast and we spent some time checking out all the old-school car memorabilia scattered around the space.

Retro automotive parts at Mellow Moon Lodge.


DAY 4: Creede and North Clear Creek Falls

Photo challenge: The stops on day 4 featured two zones. The first zone was on the Bachelor Loop, where we took time to reflect on the impact humans have had on the environment. The second, North Clear Creek Falls, was a Filter Free Zone, meaning no filters. 

The next day we made tracks for Creede where we’d be checking out the Bachelor Loop, a 17-mile driving tour through the old silver mines and ghost towns. Along the way, we stopped to hike the Hobbit Trail, which took us through the forest and up to some viewpoints of the valley below. Overall, Bachelor Loop was really neat – it was crazy to see an empty field where the thriving town of Bachelor once stood. The tour ends at the gravesite of Bob Ford, the assassin of Jesse James and saloon owner in Creede.

Abandoned buildings on the Bachelor Loop
The 17-mile Bachelor Loop is near Creede..

After completing the loop, we got a taste of small-town Colorado in downtown Creede. At the end of its quaint Main Street, you can’t miss the massive canyon walls towering over the town. We grabbed a BBQ lunch from Tommyknocker Tavern and sat in the park, where a local band played music for the town.

People playing music in Creede
Checking out the lively town of Creede. 

Our next stop was North Clear Creek Falls, a 100+ foot waterfall in the Rio Grande National Forest. The drive up to the overlook was stunning, with mountain views everywhere you look. When we got to the site, we explored the different viewpoints and took it all in. We eventually found a spot to tie up our hammock and relax to the sounds of the rushing waterfall. We stayed for sunset, watching the golden light encircling the falls. 

Person watching the North Clear Creek Falls
 Waiting for sunset at North Clear Creek Falls in Rio Grande National Forest. 


DAY 5: Back to Denver

Photo challenge: Our final photo challenge on this day was at Joyful Journey Hot Springs which was in the Shutter Speed Limit, where we could only take two photos: one before the springs, and one after. 

On our last day, we packed up and said goodbye to the Mystic San Luis Valley. We had one more stop before getting back to Denver: Joyful Journey Hot Springs, located just outside of Crestone. Crestone is known for its spirituality – some say it is the center of the universe. In fact, the people of Crestone believe the mountains will decide whether or not you belong. If they decide you don’t it will be very clear, and you will be forced to move on. 

Joyful Journey Hot Springs

At Joyful Journeys, we walked through the labyrinth built by a group who had visited the hot springs for a retreat. We then went to Meditation Hill, where we each took some time to sit in silence, take in our surroundings and reflect on our experience. 

Finally, it was time to enjoy the hot springs! There were three main pools and two hot tubs, all with breathtaking mountain views and filled with water flowing from natural hot springs nearby. This was the perfect end to our trip – we were able to relax, slow down, and unwind before heading home to Denver.

Woman sitting in a spa at Joyful Journey Hot Springs

We’d like to thank the Colorado Tourism Organization, Spanish Peaks Country, Visit Alamosa, Visit Creede, and all the wonderful people we met along the way for this once-in-a-lifetime experience. It forced us out of our comfort zones and allowed us to discover places that we never knew about. The Mystic San Luis Valley is a truly beautiful and magical place, and we can’t wait until we get to visit again!