Colorado’s San Luis Valley channels all vibes—14ers, natural hot springs, Tibetan stupas, a top-notch microbrewery, and the occasional UFO sighting.
The San Luis Valley is so big (122 miles long and 74 miles wide), high (7,500 feet) and flat (the roads here are laser-straight and seem to disappear into the curvature of the Earth) that driving through the place can be disorienting and gauging your highway speed basically impossible (sorry, Officer…). However, the area’s high peaks form a craggy boarder along the Sangre de Cristos to the East that help moor you—and attract you for adventure. To the West, the San Juans harbor the headwaters of the Rio Grande River, which swoops down into the valley before heading for Mexicos new and original. It’s a place of geologic wonders, like the 700-foot-tall dunes of Great Sand Dunes National Park, and cultural blunders, like the UFO Watchtower (ufonut.com/chuck5.htm) in Hooper. And here’s the best part—all this esoteric oddness is only about 260 miles from downtown Denver. Here, we give you some quick suggestions on how to start exploring the valley.
Some mountaineers liken the climate here to that in Tibet, which might account for the magnificent stupa just south of Crestone, the former gold mining- town-turned spiritual center. Above town soar the conglomerate peaks of the Crestone Group, one of the singularly hardest and most technical concentrations of climbing on Colorado’s 54 14ers. The group includes Crestone Peak (14,294), Crestone Needle (14,197), Kit Carson Peak (14,165) and Challenger Point (14,081). (Humboldt Peak,14,064 feet, is 1.8 miles east of Crestone Peak and best reached from the Huerfano Park region to the East.) A bit further south, just beyond Great Sand Dunes National Park, lies the Blanca Group—Blanca Peak (14,345), Ellingwood Point (14,042) and Little Bear Peak (14,037). (Mt. Lindsey, 14,042 feet, is 2.5 miles east of Blanca and best reached from east of the valley, as well.) Culebra Peak (14,047 feet), a few miles south of the Blanca group, is on private land and requires permission to access.
Need to relax? The valley is filled with many natural and secret hot springs. For public soaking, the rock-lined hot springs at the clothing-optional Valley View Hot Springs (olt.org) are the valley’s best. Joyful Journeys Hot Springs Spa (joyfuljourneyhotsprings.com) in Moffat is nice, if a bit pricy, and the hot spring-fed Splashland and San Dunes (sanddunespool.com) swimming pools near Alamosa are ideal for kids. A bit farther north near Buena Vista, Cottonwood (cottonwood-hot-springs.com) and Mt. Princeton (mtprinceton.com) hot springs resorts are great options after climbing 14ers in the Collegiates.
The San Luis Valley always seems to contradict and surprise. It’s a major agricultural region—Alamosa’s ag-oriented Adams State College (Go Grizzlies!) is based here—but the San Louis Valley Brewing Company (slvbrewco.com) in Alamosa is the kind of industrial-chic microbrewery you’d find in San Francisco’s SoMa district.
Pining for a taste of Florida in landlocked Colorado? The owners of Colorado Gators (gatorfarm.com) make use of pumped hot springs water to sustain dozens of Florida alligators that eat the refuse from the farm’s tilapia aquaculture.