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.