SAN LUIS VALLEY: THE CRADLE OF COLORADO
Here you will find six travel itineraries designed to lead you on a journey to distinct sites throughout the San Luis Valley. Each itinerary exposes a unique aspect of the San Luis Valley’s heritage including its natural wonders, pioneering settlers, mining booms, cultural traditions, and creative spirit. Along the Valley’s roads and among the attractions featured in these heritage journeys, the rich history of the San Luis Valley unfolds to reveal the diversity of the region’s land and people.
Cradled between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, lies the San Luis Valley. The diverse geologic and geographic features of this vast basin including lush river bottoms, an inland ocean of sand, and craggy summits reaching elevations over 14,000 feet have enticed and enthralled people since the times of Ice Age hunters.
A cavalcade of characters, some famous, some infamous, and some downright notorious, have stepped across this landscape. Diego de Vargas, Juan Bautista de Anza, Zebulon Pike, John C. Frèmont, Kit Carson, John Gunnison, Phil Sheridan, Tom Tobin, Bat Masterson, Soapy Smith, Bob Ford, Calamity Jane, Poker Alice, Chipeta and Ouray, Otto Mears, Ulysses S. Grant, Alfred/Alferd Packer—the names associated with San Luis Valley history read like a western epic.
Nomadic hunters, including Apache, Kiowa, Navajo, and Yutah (Ute) tribal people sought out the Valley’s abundant wildlife. Spanish governors were the first to provide written descriptions of the San Luis Valley before the formation of the United States. During ensuing decades, explorers, pioneers, homesteaders, land speculators, prospectors, and travel writers were attracted to the Valley’s riches. Freely flowing clean water, comforting hot springs, verdant wetlands teeming with birds, fish, and wild game, expanses of natural grass hay, majestic mountain vistas, forests and upland meadows, plus mother lode deposits of silver and gold lured these newcomers. Today, as you travel any of the routes into the San Luis Valley, you will be struck by the expansive landscapes, rugged mountains, and endless blue skies.
By the 1850s, Hispanic settlers from New Mexico had migrated into the San Luis Valley to establish small plazas within land grants issued by the Mexican governor in Santa Fe. These pioneers gave birth to the permanent settling of Colorado. Soon after, people from a variety of backgrounds seeking mineral wealth, free land, or frontier experiences joined the progression.
The State’s oldest town is here, and Colorado’s first parish church still holds Mass every Sunday. Colorado’s earliest adjudicated water rights flow within the San Luis Valley and the State’s oldest business, R&R Grocery, is still open. Colorado’s first territorial governor, William Gilpin, and lieutenant governor, Lafayette Head, had ties to the San Luis Valley. The Valley gave Colorado its first national wildlife area and its first national monument. Here the State also built its first facility to honor and care for war veterans.
The Summitville gold rush rivaled the fame of Pike’s Peak. Colorado’s richest silver mines lured an even broader array of migrants into the San Luis Valley’s cultural mix. Rail towns, farm towns, and supply towns emerged as the railroad spread into the mountains and across the Valley floor. Agriculture finally became the sustaining foundation for the Valley’s economy. Today, center pivots irrigate crop circles of potatoes, barley, wheat, alfalfa, and other crops.
While much has changed within the Valley, traditional values and cultural practices still endure. Well-preserved architecture and historic downtowns evoke the past. Whatever your interests, exploring the San Luis Valley’s colorful history and vast beauty can make its legacy part of your Colorado heritage experience.
Itinerary 1: INTRODUCING THE VALLEY This introductory itinerary features nine sites that capture the essence of the San Luis Valley’s heritage and natural beauty. These sites reveal the area’s striking natural features, rich layers of history, and Hispano cultural arts traditions. A journey between these attractions will reveal the unique spirit and rural charm of the San Luis Valley. View Itinerary
Itinerary 2: NATURAL WONDERS Flanked by 14,000-foot peaks and towering sand dunes, bisected by the Rio Grande, and graced by the seasonal migration of Sandhill cranes, the San Luis Valley possesses incredible natural wonders and provides unparalleled opportunities for wilderness explorations. View Itinerary
Itinerary 3: IN THE STEPS OF PIONEERS A journey through the San Luis Valley reveals the influences of Native Americans, Hispano pioneers, Mormon settlers, Homesteaders, as well as ranchers, farmers, and prospectors. These groups converged within the Valley prior to the 20th century. Each brought a unique set of cultural traditions, many of which endure to this day. View Itinerary
Itinerary 4: RING OF GOLD In the rugged mountains ringing the San Luis Valley, visitors may trace the steps of early prospectors and other fortune seekers who were lured to the region by promises of gold, silver, turquoise, and other minerals. Although the bustling mining camps of the late 19th century have faded, the Valley’s frontier spirit lingers. Downtown districts, railroads, mines, and landscapes preserve the fascinating stories of the area’s rich mining history. View Itinerary
Itinerary 5: LIFE IN A HIGH DESERT VALLEY With 7 inches of annual precipitation and an elevation of 7,500 feet or above, the San Luis Valley qualifies as an alpine desert. This desert is unique in that it boasts precious water resources. Mountain runoff feeds ancient aquifers whose waters sustain central-pivot irrigation systems. Hand dug acequias carry water from streams to fields. Centennial farms and ranches can be found throughout the Valley. These operations have been in the same families for over 100 years and serve as testaments to the longstanding agricultural traditions of this high desert valley. Here herds of cattle still graze the high grasslands in the summer, and trucks brimming with potatoes ramble down country roads. View Itinerary
Itinerary 6: THE CREATIVE SPIRIT Architecture, ornamentation, and art reveal another dimension of the San Luis Valley’s history, development, and creative spirit. Visitors who tour the Valley may admire the wide range of architectural styles found among the homes, churches, and downtown buildings. Many of the Valley’s towns feature galleries that present a diversity of artists and artistic expressions. Some artists carry on the legacy of traditional arts and crafts, such as weaving and carvings, while others express their creativity through more contemporary art forms. View Itinerary