By Heidi Kerr-Schlaefer
Birding, sand dunes and hot springs. San Luis Valley may be the best place to social distance in Colorado.
Located in the south central part of Colorado, the San Luis Valley is a high altitude plain surrounded by mountain peaks. It is home to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, several hot springs, hundreds of hiking trails, old mining towns, and lots of wide-open space.
The valley consists of two million acres; 500,000 acres are Bureau of Land Management property and much of the public land is in the Rio Grande National Forest. The headwaters of the Rio Grande River are located in the San Juan Mountains. The river flows through the San Luis Valley, creating green, lush growing fields for farmers and grass for thousands of heads of cattle.
Thanks to the San Luis Valley, Colorado is the second largest producer of potatoes, only behind Idaho. Take a drive down Hwy. 285, and potato farms pop up en masse around Monte Vista and Alamosa.
These are the two largest towns in the valley. Alamosa has a population of just under 10,000 and Monte Vista is home to just over 4,000. With a low human population and about 86,000 head of cattle, this is a true escape from the hustle and bustle of life.
Traffic jams in the valley are often caused by cattle drives down the middle of the road. Many roads are unpaved, and the San Luis Valley really does feel like where the sidewalk ends.
Birding in the San Luis Valley
With hundreds of species of birds, especially during the spring and fall seasons, the San Luis Valley is an excellent spot for birders who flock to wildlife refuges in Monte Vista and Alamosa. While birds are all over the valley, these two refuges boast many species in one place.
Russell Lakes is another area, west of Saguache, where birds congregate in the wetlands, although much of the area is closed to the public in the spring due to nesting birds.
The Crane Festival in March is one of Monte Vista’s biggest bashes. Thousands of sandhill cranes stop here as part of their spring migration to the northern parts of the United States and Canada. Like clockwork, birders from across Colorado and beyond descend upon this little town to get a glimpse of this big bird.
Great Sand Dune National Park
A huge pile of sand in the southeast part of the San Luis Valley is a strange sight, but it’s even odder when we find out why this 5 billion cubic meters of sand is here. Over thousands of years, sand has been carried here primarily by wind. Science suggests that the dunes started forming around 440,000 years ago. Today, intrepid visitors rent boards to “surf” down the dunes.
The dunes, the highest in the world, are truly magnificent. In the spring, the waters of Medano Creek get deep enough to allow rafting and frolicking. The creek is seasonal but during May and June guests can dip their toes into the ice-cold water.
In 2019, the dunes became a Certified International Dark Sky Park, which means it is perfect for viewing galaxies at night. Campers have long been entertained by the night sky in the valley and now programs have been developed around the certification making the park an ideal place for stargazers.
Hot Springs in the San Luis Valley
Enjoy the never-ending vista of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains while soaking at Joyful Journey. South of Hwy. 285 in Moffat, there are multiple hot spring pools here with differing temperatures.
In addition to yoga and meditation retreats, guests can stay at this northern San Luis Valley hot springs. There are lodge rooms, yurts, RV sites, camping and even tipis at Joyful Journey.
In the hills above Moffat is Valley View Hot Springs. This clothing optional hot springs allows camping and has rustic lodges. This place has devotees, so visitors must call ahead and reserve soaking space as it is limited.
About 30 minutes from the national park and 20 minutes from Alamosa, is the tiny town of Hooper. For years, locals have been soaking at the hot springs in town and playing in the pool. Now, the secret is out.
Sand Dunes Swimming Pool & RV Park is a destination unto itself. Renovated with a new, beautifully landscaped adults-only hot springs greenhouse, this 10,000-square-foot feature even has a bar.
The main pool area, complete with diving board, is a haven for kids. At the grill, patrons order everything from edamame to burgers and salads. With various onsite lodging available, a gift shop and three golf simulators, this makes an exceptional spot for families to stay during an exploration of the valley.
Hiking and Camping in the San Luis Valley
In the Rio Grande National forest, under a canopy of whispering aspen trees, hikers can explore trails here without encountering another soul. Thirty-minutes from Monte Vista, Rock Creek Campground, adjacent to Rock Creek, has 10 campsites.
North Rock Creek Trail #701 starts at the campground and follows the creek upwards and then opens into a picturesque meadow. Hikers can do a short version or hike all 7.6 miles. The trail is not open to motorized vehicles and, while it is lightly used, it is popular with hunters during the fall.
There are many hiking areas in the San Luis Valley. Browse the trails at Alamosa.org when planning a hike in the valley. Hikers are well-advised to let someone know their plan as these trails are often remote.
Movie Manor in Monte Vista
One of Colorado’s quirkiest destinations is in Monte Vista. It’s a drive-in movie theater with a twist. Star Drive In is not only home to two movie screens, it’s also home to Movie Manor.
This is a Best Western hotel where most of the 59 rooms look out at one of the Star Drive In screens. The drive-in hails from 1951, and the parking lot in front of screen one still features transmitters on a pole in each parking spot.
Today, if a customer drives up past the wall of lilac bushes and into the drive-in, he or she can listen on the car radio or on a portable radio. If the visitor is a guest at the hotel, the sound from the movie is pumped into each room.
Buy a hamburger and popcorn from concessions and watch a double feature from the comfort of a hotel room. With names like The Burt Lancaster room, there is nothing else like Movie Manor in Colorado.
No trip to the San Luis Valley is complete without visiting one or two Mexican food restaurants. This is the land of fresh tortillas and amazing green chile, and while Mexican food is on every block, Quincy’s Steakhouse has a location in Monte Vista, too. If visitors crave prime rib, this is the place to go.
Whether it’s yellow-headed blackbirds singing on swaying cattails, a rocky trail winding through scented pines or a river running fast and high through the prairie, this is the San Luis Valley. From Great Sand Dunes to the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range, this relatively undiscovered valley offers solace and escape.