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.
1 Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge – The Monte Vista NWR combines with the Alamosa and Baca NWRs to form the 118,000 acre Alamosa/Monte Vista/Baca National Wildlife Refuge Complex. These refuges create the largest and most diverse collection of wetlands in Colorado. The 14,804-acre Monte Vista Refuge is home to mallards, pintail, teal, American avocets, killdeer, white-faced ibis, egrets, and herons. The annual Monte Vista Crane Festival in March marks the migration of thousands of Sandhill cranes and is an event not to be missed. Open daily during daylight hours | http://www.fws.gov/alamosa/Monte%20Vista.html
2 Wheeler Geologic Area – The landscape of spires and hoodoos found at the Wheeler Geologic Area is mysterious and wonderful. It was chosen as America’s first National Monument in 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt and later returned to the Forest Service. The unique formations are the result of a tremendous volcanic eruption that occurred about 30 million years ago. Located within the La Garita Wilderness Area, this attraction may be accessed by a rugged 4-wheel drive road or by a 7-mile hike. An early start or overnight camping is recommended. Directions are available at Creede museums and attractions.
3 Creede Caldera/Fossil Formations – The only place in the Valley that provides the opportunity to explore fossil formations lies just outside Creede along SH 149. Here, imprints of ancient plants and insects are trapped within the sedimentary shore of the moat that once filled the Creede caldera. A brochure published by the Rio Grande National Forest interprets this interesting formation of the Upper Rio Grande Valley. The brochure can be found at local museums and attractions.
4 Cumbres Pass – Cumbres Pass is the southern gateway to the San Luis Valley and to Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway. Cumbres and the nearby La Manga Pass provide access to the Rio Grande National Forest and excellent opportunities for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling. Forest Service roads branching from Hwy 17 along these passes lead to many trailheads.
5 Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge – Alamosa NWR contains thousands of acres of wetlands within the floodplain of the Rio Grande. Meadows, river oxbows, and riparian corridors support high species diversity and create ideal conditions for viewing waterfowl, songbirds, and other wildlife. Irrigation canals dating to the 1880s supply much of the refuge’s water. March-November | 719.589.4021 for information | http://www.fws.gov/alamosa/AlamosaNWR.html
6 Blanca Wildlife Habitat Area – This area offers ideal habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds not found elsewhere in the San Luis Valley or Colorado. Trails weaving between the shallow ponds provide excellent wildlife observation opportunities. Area is closed February 15 to July 15 to protect nesting birds.
7 Zapata Falls Recreation Area – A half-mile hike leads uphill to an intriguing waterfall. Along the trail, hikers enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding country, including the Great Sand Dunes far below.
8 Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve –The highest inland dunes in North America appeared as a “sea of sand” to Zebulon Pike in 1807. Prevailing southwesterly winds sweep up ancient grains of sand and then deposit them grain upon grain at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Two major attractions are “High Dune,” rising 650 feet above the valley floor and Medano Creek, a lazy seasonal stream that pulses with waves during periods of high water. This mosaic of sand, water, and mountains forms one of Colorado’s most distinctive landscapes. Summer: 9am-6pm | Spring and Fall: 9am-5pm | Winter: 9am-4:30pm | 719.378.6399 | http://www.nps.gov/grsa/
9 San Luis Lakes State Park – A combination of wetlands, open lakes, and grasslands provide opportunities for outdoor recreation and wildlife viewing. Level hiking and biking trails are suitable for people of all ages and abilities. Other popular pursuits include water skiing, sailing, fishing, swimming, and camping. Park Hours: 5am-10pm | 719.378.2020 | http://parks.state.co.us/Parks/SanLuis
10 Orient Mine, Valley View Hot Springs – Part of the Orient Land Trust, the historic Orient iron mine is home to the largest known colony of bats in Colorado. On the same property, a modest resort and campground has emerged around a series of hot springs with sweeping views of the Valley. Admission to soak in the springs and information about bat viewing opportunities may be obtained at the visitor center. Other hot springs are located at historic Mineral Hot Springs/Joyful Journey, just off CO 17, 1 mile south of the junction with US 285. Orient Land Trust: daily 9am-10pm | 719.256.5436 | Reservations are recommended | http://www.olt.org | Joyful Journey: 10am-10pm (closed Wednesdays) | 719.256.4328
11 Poncha Pass – At 9,012 feet, Poncha Pass is the San Luis Valley’s scenic northern entrance. Modern-day travelers crossing Poncha Pass enter the Valley via the same route as Native Americans, mountain men, and pioneers. The pass marks the divide between two mighty rivers, the Arkansas and the Rio Grande.
12 Russell Lakes State Wildlife Area – The ponds and marshes of this wildlife area are legendary among Colorado birders. With its wooden boardwalk, the Johnson Lake nature trail provides year-round opportunities to spot a variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, and raptors. Nearby upland areas are also good for birding. Most of the wildlife area is closed February 15 to July 15 to protect nesting birds | Johnson Lake nature trail is open year-round | http://www.sangres.com/stateco/russelllakes.htm
13 Penitente Canyon Recreation Area – Years ago, secluded Penitente Canyon was a sacred site for Los Hermanos Penitentes, a lay Catholic brotherhood. Today, Penitente Canyon is one of Colorado’s premier rock climbing destinations. The beautiful canyon also provides opportunities for camping, hiking, and mountain biking. http://crestonevisit.com/04/pages/13.html