The San Luis Valley: Colorado's Sweet Spot
Wandering at our leisure, with only the blue lines on our road map as our guide, we headed for the Rocky Mountains and the San Luis Valley in south-central Colorado. A Class C motorhome would be our habitat on wheels and provide all our beloved creature comforts, enabling us to make choices on the fly. We especially appreciated these comforts in winter camping conditions amidst the Rocky Mountains.
In the latest offering from Born Free Motorcoach (a 22-foot Rear Side Galley Class C Motorhome), enjoying the RV lifestyle is like being a turtle. Carrying our shelter with us, we could stop for the night wherever we decided the day should come to an end; bring our favorite foods with us; and sleep in our own bed.
With its 30,000-BTU forced-air furnace, seemingly endless supply of piping-hot water, full-service galley and bathroom, comfortable sleeping quarters, TV and DVD player, and all the 110-volt electrical power we could possibly need (via a built-in 3.6-kW auxiliary generator), we were warm and content even when bad weather hovered just outside the Born Free's dual-pane windows. Brewing and enjoying a morning cup of Joe, regardless of where we might find ourselves when we awoke, was bliss.
The San Luis Valley is a long canyon that begins near the town of Salida, Colorado, and runs all the way south to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with the state line intersecting it midway. It's probably 40 miles across at its widest point, surrounded by the San Juan Mountains in the southwest and the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains along its eastern flank, where magnificent peaks like Blanca and Crestone Needle poke through the pastel blue sky at 14,000-plus feet.
The San Luis Valley features a raw, magnificent beauty rich with the history of American Indians, Spanish, Mexicans, and Mormons, the last of whom began settling here in the 1870s. Today the area offers plenty of attractions for visitors, with places like the Great Sand Dunes; Jack Dempsey's childhood home; a spiritual community where Buddhas perch among pine trees; an alligator farm (you read that right); the oldest town in Colorado; railroad excursions; murals that depict the valley's rich history; and much more.
Tucked up against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is the valley's most well-known attraction, the Great Sand Dunes National Park. The dunes were created by prevailing southwest winds, which over millennia have picked up sand from the valley floor and carried it northeast until (because of its weight) it drifts back to earth at the foot of the mountain peaks. When snow falls and then melts, the sand is borne by streams back down to the valley floor below, and the cycle repeats. Some of the sand dunes are more than 1000 feet high and the view from the top is exhilarating.
Also on our agenda was a visit to boxer Jack Dempsey's childhood home. Called the Manassa Mauler because he was born and raised in Manassa, Colorado, Dempsey reigned as world heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926. The cabin where he was born is now a museum, with artifacts that include the boxing gloves he wore during one of his title fights and the boxing shoes he wore when he lost the title to Gene Tunney. Old newspapers and photos dating back to the teens chronicle Dempsey's rise to stardom as he earned his stripes fighting in mining camps across the Old West.
The biggest town in the valley, at an elevation of 7600-plus feet, Alamosa has become the hub for excursion train travel. Aboard the Rio Grande scenic railroad, you can ride in luxury passenger cars on a day trip to the top of La Vita Pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east or down south to the town of Antonito at the Colorado/New Mexico state line. In Antonito, catch the Cumbres Toltec narrow-gauge railroad for a day trip into the San Juan Mountains. The old Alamosa D&RGW train depot, built in 1909, is where these adventures begin and where the Alamosa and San Luis Valley tourism offices are located today.
The Colorado Gators alligator farm, 17 miles north of Alamosa on Highway 17, is a visual oxymoron. How can there be 300 alligators, some weighing several hundred pounds, basking in the sun at the foot of snow-covered mountain peaks? How do they survive the winter, when ambient temperatures can reach 50 degrees Fahrenheit below zero (with wind chill), and why are they here to begin with? In the late 1970s, a local commercial fish farm needed to dispose of the scraps after the tilapia harvest. They decided to buy 100 baby alligators from Florida to use as living garbage disposals. The only reason the alligators survive is that there are natural artesian wells in the San Luis Valley with water that runs 80 degrees F. year 'round. The hot water is captured in giant ponds, so, during the winter, the alligators can stay submerged with only their eyes sticking out above the surface and be quite comfortable.
Two places 45 minutes from Alamosa are well worth visiting. The mountain town of Crestone, at the very northeast end of the valley, houses an assemblage of spiritual and religious sects that coexist in harmony. Prayer flags, prayer wheels, huge Buddhas, and ornate temples cling to the craggy slopes. To the southeast is the town of San Luis, the oldest in Colorado (1851). On a small mountain overlooking the town is the Shrine of the Stations of the Cross. Bronze statues marking the Stations of the Cross line a path to the top.
Throughout the San Luis Valley, beautiful murals depicting the history of the valley grace the buildings, grain silos, and other structures. Another work of art is Cano's Castle in Antonito, an unusual high-rise sculpture made from scrap metal and beer cans, created by Vietnam veteran Donald "Cano" Espinoza.
Most of the scenic roads throughout the region easily accommodated our Born Free Motorcoach. This RV proved roomy and comfortable, and made the drive very relaxing. Plus, we didn't have to worry about finding a hotel room each night.
Alamosa Convention & Visitors Bureau800/258-7597
Born Free Motorcoach800-247-1835
Great Sand Dunes National Park719-378-6300
Jack Dempsey Museum719/843-5207
Rio Grande Scenic Railroad877/726-7245
San Luis Valley Information Center800/214-1240