The largest alpine valley in the world is located right here in Colorado. Ringed by mountains—the Sangre de Cristos to the east, the Sawatch to the north, the San Juans to the west, and the Taos Plateau to the south—the San Luis Valley is so isolated that a distinct dialect of Spanish developed among the original settlers.
It’s a harsh, yet stunningly beautiful place that most people know only for Great Sand Dunes National Park. That park is a worthy destination, but it’s often crowded in summer. There are so many options for outdoor recreation that you could spend a lifetime exploring the area. But most visitors only have a weekend, so here is your guide to a perfect weekend in the San Luis Valley.
Day 1 — Take a Hike
Those jagged mountains on the San Luis Valley’s east side hide some amazing trails into the majestic Sangre de Cristo Wilderness. If you’re driving from Interstate 25 over La Veta Pass on U.S. Highway 160, turn right at the sign for the Sand Dunes and watch for the trailhead for Zapata Falls. This stunning waterfall is a short stroll away, but you can make the trip longer with the strenuous hike to Zapata Lake, a lake so beautiful that it’s worth the effort. If you’re entering the valley from Denver on U.S. Highway 285, take Colorado Highway 17 south toward Alamosa and turn left to the eclectic town of Crestone. From just outside of town, Willow Lake and South Crestone Lake both are great, though also strenuous, hikes.
For dinner, head to Alamosa, the valley’s largest town. The San Luis Valley Brewing Company offers locally sourced food and craft beer, including some brews with a southwestern flair; try the Valle Caliente, brimming with green chile flavors. You’ll find the area’s largest variety of hotels here, along with commercial camping. More remote campgrounds can be found along the mountains, including at Zapata Falls and at the Sand Dunes as well as around the Crestone area.
Day 2 — Explore the Valley
The valley is immense, but thanks to arrow-straight roads with high speed limits, getting around can be easier than you think. So it’s time to explore. If you love history, head back east to Fort Garland, where the restored Fort Garland Museum shows what it was like to serve in this remote military outpost. Then go south to San Luis, Colorado’s oldest town, founded in 1851. Be sure to take time to walk the Stations of the Cross, a short hiking trail just above town. Then head west across the valley on Colorado Highway 142 through Manassa – birthplace of boxer Jack Dempsey, and then south toward Antonito, where you can ride the historic Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, a tourist train that follows a historic route through the San Juan Mountains.
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If mountain-biking or rock-climbing are your game, then visit Penitente Canyon on the valley’s west side near the hamlet of La Garita. The red-rock cliffs, with more than 70 climbing routes, along with the endless desert mountain bike singletrack may remind you of Utah. There’s also a campground here. Anglers should head west to the foothills town of South Fork, where two branches of the Rio Grande meet. For backpackers looking to get into the wilderness, nearby Wheeler Geologic Area, with its fabulously eroded rock formations, makes a great destination.
On the west side of the valley, be sure to stop in tiny Del Norte for dinner. Three Barrel Brewing Company has hand-made pizzas and beer. The Windsor Hotel, a restored Victorian hotel that will appeal to history buffs, offers fine dining. Boogie’s has a wide variety of American cuisine, while the Mystic Biscuit specializes in breakfast and burgers. For Mexican, try Chavolos. Don’t worry, Del Norte is small, and these restaurants are all on the same street (Highway 160).
No matter when you can squeeze it into your schedule, no visit to the San Luis Valley is complete without a stop at a hot springs, five of which occupy a 50-mile stretch on the valley’s east side. Kids will enjoy Splashland in Alamosa or the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool (which also has an adults-only section with a bar and televisions). If you’re looking for a spa experience, visit Joyful Journey Hot Springs, while nature lovers will enjoy Valley View Hot Springs, a clothing-optional resort with a dozen pools scattered over a large area.
What about the fifth hot springs? It has alligators in it, but you can still visit Colorado Gators Reptile Park. There’s just no swimming.
Other recreational opportunities in the valley include the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, a tourist train that takes you high on La Veta Pass where there are sometimes concerts and festivals. Or you can drive west out of the valley to the historic mining town of Creede and over the Continental Divide, where a 30-second walk takes you to North Clear Creek Falls.
And don’t forget to come back in winter. Ski area Wolf Creek is legendary for getting the most snow in Colorado – 417 inches in the winter of 2016-17. And that wasn’t even an average snowfall year.