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Exploring the San Luis Valley: Colorado’s Kookiest Road Trip

Far off in the southern half of Colorado is a wide-open valley full of farmland, small Midwestern-esqu towns, and a UFO watchtower. Yes, you read that right.

On paper, the San Luis Valley appears like many other Colorado mountain valleys. Agriculture is king, the towns are small and tight-knit and the reasons for tourists to actually stop are practically nonexistent (except to maybe pick up some fresh produce along the road). But once you actually start driving through its long, mountain-bordered valley, you realize there are a lot of things here to see (and we aren’t just talking about potatoes).

Here are some of the kookiest things to experience and explore in the beautiful San Luis Valley:

\\ Great Sand Dunes NP and Preserve

A national park likely isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when looking at “kooky” places. But the Great Sand Dunes are actually quite unique. In reality, it is weird that they are in the San Luis Valley anyway. They look like they just don’t fit in. So how did some of the tallest dunes in North America (including the tallest, Star Dune at 750 feet) find themselves in an agriculturally rich valley in the middle of the Rocky Mountains?

Well, while we are not geologists, here is the briefest of backstories on the Dunes: where the dunes now sit was once a massive lake (Lake Alamosa) that eventually over time dried up, forming smaller lakes in the valley. Then large amounts of sediment from the nearby volcanic San Juan Mountains along with sand from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (which is situated right behind them) continued to wash down into the lakes. Dramatic natural climate change later significantly reduced these lakes, leaving behind the sand sheet. Finally, sand that was left behind after these lakes receded blew in with the predominant southwest winds toward a low curve in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains (where the park sits today). Lastly, to create the dunes themselves, you need an opposing wind: for the Great Sand Dunes, this comes in the form of storms.

We highly suggest spending an afternoon or full day exploring the dunes, either by walking up and along the ridges or barreling down their sandy faces on a plastic sled. We have been in both winter and late spring, and while winter meant practically no people - it was also quite cold and windy (remember that southwesterly wind?). Spring does mean more people, but thanks to the dune field being so big, it is easy to escape from other travelers as long as you are willing to make your own trails.

Note: you are also allowed to camp in the dunes, which sounds like a wonderful idea for any star lover since the park has some of the darkest skies in North America.

\\ Zapata Falls

Just next door to the national park is one of the neatest waterfalls in the state. Known as Zapata Falls, this is truly a hidden gem and worth the adventure to reach. From Highway 50, head up a gravel road for about 3 miles until you reach the parking lot (if you want stunning views of the dune field, this is the place to go - especially during sunset or sunrise). Then it is a nice exciting hike to the falls, which are beautiful no matter the season, though in winter the falls become a huge ice column that looks frozen in time.

Note: in winter the road does get snowy, so make sure you come prepared with either 4-wheel drive or a shovel.

\\ Colorado Gators Reptile Park

This is one of those interesting places that we don’t know if we should talk about. We believe in being good stewards of the planet and trying to do good by the people and animals that live there. So promoting a business that is all about showing off exotic animals, animals that really have no business being in the San Luis Valley (and Colorado in general) just feels kind of wrong.

But, while we have not seen this firsthand, we have heard that the park actually takes in reptiles that were once held as pets (but who got too big to take care of anymore). This includes pythons, other alligators, turtles, and iguanas. The facility they are housed in is also surprisingly good for those types of animals: thanks to the high level of geothermal activity in the area, the water the animals are held in is around 87 degrees.

While we are still not 100% convinced of this place, we did feel it was one of those extra-kooky things that seem to pop up in the valley. You can make the decision on whether you feel it is ethical to support it or not. Learn more about the reptile park here.

\\ UFO Watchtower

For some reason, locals seem to see a lot of weird flying objects over the valley on clear nights. For Judy Messoline, this seemed like the perfect business opportunity. So she opened up her land for campers, built a small gift shop and a raised platform - the perfect spot for viewing those weird objects that seemed to appear so regularly. And wa la, the UFO Watchtower was born.

Personally, while we don’t believe in all the UFO/alien stuff we do understand the fascination. And to be fair, the San Luis Valley does seem like the perfect area for aliens (or the nearby military bases) to test their aircraft. So if you are at all curious, consider stopping in for a fun night of camping, if only for the amazing stars.

Note: the San Luis Valley is revered among flying saucer buffs as one of the best places in the world to see UFOs, so if you are ever going to go looking for flying saucers, this is probably the best spot.

\\ Sand Dunes Swimming Pool

Located quite close to the UFO Watchtower is another interesting spot. The Sand Dunes Swimming Pool is a large natural hot spring with indoor and outdoor pools, an RV park, and even a 10,000 square foot greenhouse, with multiple soaking pools, tropical plants (even when it is freezing outside, the greenhouse stays a nice cozy 70 degrees), and even a bar. And if that wasn’t enough, there are also three simulator golf bays that you can partake in. So pretty much what we are saying, is if you want to be transported from the high valleys of Colorado to the warm tropics of Florida, then Sand Dunes Swimming Pool is the place to go.

\\ Joyful Journey Hot Springs

Another curious hot spring in the valley, Joyful Journey is located close to Villa Grove near the intersection of Highways 285 and 17. Although water rises from the nearby travertine springs at between 120 and 145 degrees, Joyful Journey maintains its pools at 98 to 108 degrees. Similarly, the hot spring water itself is quite rich in various minerals. Including, boron, calcium, lithium, and magnesium. Altogether, this has led Native American elders and spiritual masters from the nearby Crestone area (see below) to consider this area as one of the most sacred and energetically active places in North America.

Joyful Journey has various camping and lodging options, including yurts, tipis, and cabins. We personally stayed in one of the yurts during the winter and it was absolutely wonderful: the snowcapped Sangre de Christo mountain range, the open valley plain stretching for miles, bright stars, and of course, warm mineral-rich water to soak in day and night.

Note: they also have quite affordable camping options ($100 for two people) that includes breakfast, dinner, and hot spring access.

\\ Town of Crestone

The Crestone area, which includes the Baca Grande residential area and Moffat (a small town in the San Luis Valley), is a well-known spiritual center with several world religions represented. This includes a Hindu temple, a Zen center, a co-ed Carmelite monastery, several Tibetan Buddhist centers, and miscellaneous New Age happenings. Interestingly enough, Crestone was originally part of the Navajo country and is still considered holy ground by the Hopi and Navajo tribes.

The small mountain town (population: 127) is named after the two Crestone mountains that are located just east of town: Crestone Peak and Crestone Needle (both sit at 14,000-feet). Even though it is small in size, it is still internationally known as a locus for a large number of many different religious and spiritual traditions, this fact, as well as the wonderful natural adventures on offer, has made Crestone a popular tourist destination.

\\ San Luis

Formerly known as San Luis de la Culebra, San Luis is the oldest continuously occupied town in Colorado (established: 1851). The village was renamed San Luis de la Culebra (instead of just Rio Culebra) in honor of its patron saint, Saint Luis. The town remained part of the Territory of New Mexico until 1861 when the Territory of Colorado was finally established. Today, some of the more unique offerings in the area include the historic (and beautiful) Shrine of the Stations of the Cross, the equally pretty Iglesia de La Immaculata Concepcion, and the scenic Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, which starts in Chama, New Mexico and ends in the nearby town of Antonito.


While the San Luis Valley likely won’t show up in many guidebooks or travel guides (especially not in a state with so much beauty like Colorado), if you are looking for an off the beaten path road trip, and enjoy discovering more “kooky” destinations, then this valley is for you.

Other areas nearby that you might consider checking out are the glowing headstones of Westcliffe (yes, we are serious), Bishop Castle, Pagosa Springs, and Salida (which also has hot springs).

What are some other kooky places in Colorado, or better yet, the United States?


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