Colorado is so strikingly beautiful I’d be surprised if you randomly found yourself in this “quirky”, remote, sparsely inhabited and largely unknown part of the state. Except for the popular Colorado Sand Dunes National Park, the rest of the adventures and places to see in the San Luis valley are only known to locals. I was introduced to these wonders by a local on my never ending solo quest out West off the beaten path. San Luis Valley wasn’t explored or known of till the early 1900s when the first settlers came over the impassable in winter Medano Pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to mine and ranch.
The San Luis valley is the size of the state of Connecticut and is a perfect place to see that the Colorado Plateau is actually a high desert and not a lush mountain. It is claimed to be the highest inner-mountain valley in North America and with < 10 inches of annual precipitation, it receives less rain than the Sahara desert. The valley averages 330 sunny days per year and produces SO much solar power that the local grid can’t intake any more electricity. In addition to solar, wind power is harnessed in the valley, as well as geothermal energy, used mostly for heating homes. The locals raise yaks for meat, camels and goats for milk, and an endemic high elevation black hog breed. It reminds me of Tibet and the high mountain valleys in central Asia…
Maybe because of the volcanic origin of the San Juan mountains to the west..,or the tectonic movement of the Sangre de Cristo range to the east…maybe due to the geothermal activity in the foothills…or the healing hot springs, the valley has incredible energy. Just like Iceland and the Eastern Sierras, natural hot springs and geothermal energy always calm me down and make me deeply connected to Mother Earth.
The town of Crestone (pop. 127) is home to over 200 churches and retreat centers for all of the world’s religions and has been a spiritual center since the early 1980s. (See I’m not the only crazy person who thinks this place is sacred or special.) Crestone is situated on the 38th parallel and on a fault line, maybe that’s where all its energy bubbles up from…
People and amenities in the San Luis Valley are few and far in between. Gas stations and grocery stores are hard to find. Restaurants and coffee shops are non existent in the off season. Plan accordingly. NB! Enter with a full tank of gas and food for days. There is a natural grocery store in Crestone as well as a liquor store and plenty of dispensaries, but your selections may be limited 🙂
For the “more” open minded 🙂 the most unique place to stay in the area is Valley View Hot Springs – a naturalist (aka clothing optional) hot springs resort. It is completely off grid, down a dirt road, and on private land trust. After spending full 24 hrs there, bathing in healing waters, swimming in the open air pool, sweating in their unique sauna, and hiking around the property, I had never felt so free and at peace with myself.
Baby goat lovers unite at Evanston Ranch (part of Orient Land Trust) – goats, including hugging baby goats if you go in spring, black hogs, round strawballe house, geothermal heat, methane burner system for gas appliances.
If horseback riding is your thing, then most definitely visit Granite Mountain Outfitters up Poncha Pass. My recos would be a spring flowers ride in May/June or a fall foliage one in September but I’m sure you’d enjoy the popular in any season sunset ride.
Aligators are REAL in Colorado 🙂 To pet baby crocodiles or wrestle an alligator, visit Gators and Reptile Park in Mosca, CO.
Another interesting farm operation in the San Luis Valley is Mudita Camel Dairy Farm in Moffat, CO where you can not only interact with the camels but also try camel milk and buy soap. As fellow travelers advise on Hipcamp: “When you visit, be sure to ask lots of questions as the hosts are absolutely brimming with interesting facts and stories about their camels and lifestyle.” They even have a Hipcamp yurt on the property!!!
Southern Colorado is famous for UFO sightings. Maybe it is because the locals have nothing better to do 🙂 🙂 🙂 I’ve been to 2 of the places famous for alien interaction and even though I patiently waited to be “taken by the mothership” I did not see any sign of them… Wish you better luck 🙂 You will see a lot of signs for aliens, locals even built “watch towers” and you’ll hear all the crazy stories if you ARE interested in that.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park features the tallest sand dunes in North America. Southwest winds blow sand from New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado and deposit it against the Sangre de Cristo mountains. If you go to the Colorado Sand Dunes in spring, you may feel the brutal desert winds that actually formed the dunes over a period of 10,000 years. There are no designated “trails” and to visit the highest dune you have to hike up for quite a while barefoot. Cover yourself head to toe in tight fitting clothes to avoid #sandeverywhere or else you’ll be digging out sand from every part of your body for days. (Sand in your ears doesn’t feel good ;-)) #beentheredugoutthat
Beware of extreme temperatures, remember you are in a desert!
Two activities specific to the park are camping backcountry to experience a stunning sunrise / sunset and to stargaze under some of the darkest skies in the country AND sandboarding! Sandboarding is done on specially designed equipment which can be rented just outside the park entrance (in high season) or in Alamosa. Don’t bring your snowboard…unless you want to completely ruin it 😉
Another thing visitors with high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicles can try is continue past the end of the park’s main road to Medano Pass on 22 miles of unpaved road, crossing Medano Creek nine times and traversing 4 miles (6.4 km) of deep sand.
Just like the rest of Colorado, the best time to visit the San Luis valley is in September for fall foliage BUT that’s also the busiest time. Prepare for crowds of tourists, sold out accommodations and the highlight of the valley – Valley View Hot Springs – turning into a members-only resort in high season. Hence I recommend you visit in the off season when you can score the lodging of your choice and hike empty dunes. You’ll miss the aspen leaves glowing in gold but the magical energy of Mother Earth; the quiet, calming force of healing water; the sound of the wind; the spectacular sunrises and sunsets that make the Sangre de Cristo mountains glow in pink, they will be there. Waiting for you!
For even more information on the San Luis Valley, check the link below: