There's something magical about Colorado's San Luis Valley, about four hours outside of Denver.
It's surrounded by mountains, which makes the views surreal like you're in the middle of a giant mountain embrace. This leads to surprisingly mild and warm weather in the summer (despite its desert landscape), making San Luis Valley the perfect destination for a summer road trip.
But there's much more to San Luis Valley than the views, climate and historical importance. This is one of the quirkiest regions of Colorado, with a ton of once-in-a-lifetime experiences and roadside attractions.
Instead of heading west up I-70 for your next Colorado road trip, consider driving south. Here are 11 reasons why.
Hold an Alligator
This is no swampland, and we're far from Florida. But hundreds of alligators live in San Luis Valley.
The Colorado Gators Reptile Park is an educational rescue that started in the '70s as a tilapia farm. It turned out, the area's 87-degree geothermal waters were great for harvesting the fish. Surprise.
They were also great for the 100 baby alligators that the founders bought to help dispose of the dead tilapia. Those gators multiplied and changed the emphasis of the farm, from fish to reptiles. The park began taking in gators that needed to be rescued or rehomed and opened its gates to other unwanted exotic creatures, such as tortoises, massive pythons, and lizards.
Today, you can even meet some famous animals here, including Morris, a 450-pound gator who appeared in movies and now lives in an indoor-outdoor pen on the ranch, where visitors can see him up close through the fence. You'll also be able to hold a baby alligator. You'll be shocked to learn that gator skin is silky soft—not at all rough and scaly, like the lotion commercials would have you believe.
Watch a Drive-In Movie From Bed
This is one of the strangest motels you'll ever stay in. From the comfort of your room, you can watch a drive-in movie—from bed.
Movie Manor, a Best Western chain in the middle of nowhere, is a destination itself, not only for the quirkiness of one of the few remaining, running drive-in theaters. There is also an old-school playground right at the base of one of the screens, so your kids can teeter-totter while watching the latest flick.
There are two different screens, and not all rooms have the same view. But if you land in a room with a less-than-ideal angle, you can always walk or drive your car into the parking lot and do the drive-in, traditional style.
Movie Manor is the full deal, with a concession stand in the middle, with cheap burgers and hot dogs, as well as candy, popcorn, and nachos, of course. As a bonus, a simple continental breakfast is included in your stay, and the lobby is always serving up tea and coffee.
See a Trash Castle
This roadside attraction takes recycling and repurposing to a whole new level. Cano's Castle, located in the tiny town of Antonito, is a towering "castle" constructed out of beer cans and hub cabs. Adding to the silver shine are also grills, wire, screen doors, bike parks, nails, aluminum siding and more. You can't tour it or see whatever is behind the tall walls, but Cano's Castle is worth a quick diversion for the funky factor.
Live in the Wild West
Fifteen minutes deep into the mountains past the small town of Saguache, you will come across a sign for Old Cow Town. Another drive along a winding dirt road will bring you to a small valley. Perched against the hillside is a horseshoe of Wild West-style buildings.
You have arrived at the Mill Creek Ranch at Old Cow Town.
This all-inclusive, family-friendly getaway transports visitors to another period. Dine in the Mad Cow Steakhouse, see horse-drawn carriages (and even a horse-drawn hearse) in the museum, go on a trail ride, play putt-putt golf, hike the trails and listen to live music in the dance hall. This list of activities goes on.
Guests stay in a beautifully appointed, but quirky, bright yellow guest house. At Mill Creek Ranch, every detail has been considered, down to the antique lamps, a tiny chapel with a bell and a ragtime player piano in the dining hall.
Visit Indiana Jones' Home
Another fun roadside attraction in Antonito is the Indiana Jones Home B&B, where young Indy lived in the third movie. This former movie set is now a bed-and-breakfast where travelers and movie buffs can stay the night. It's a short drive from the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, too, which makes it a popular overnight destination for train-goers.
Make sure you book a ride on this historic railroad, which crosses between Colorado and New Mexico more than 10 times in a single journey.
Look for Aliens
It's not exactly a "tower," but this stretch of land is said to have a strange magnetic pull. As the stories go, more than 25 psychics have visited the UFO Watchtower since 2000 and have all claimed it is the site of two massive vortexes. One spins clockwise and the other counterclockwise.
Watchtower signs claim there have been documented UFO sightings in the San Luis Valley since the 1600s. Visitors can browse the tiny, dome-shaped gift shop or walk through The Garden, which is a pathway of items people have left behind to ask for help from the two large beings that supposedly protect the area. You will see displays of coins, foil-covered stuffed animals, alien statues, clothes, photos — even drivers' licenses, letters, tutus, jewelry, and toys.
Sip a Hand-Shaken Root Beer
The San Luis Brewing Co. does great beer, but it also serves up old-fashioned-style root beer. Barrels here are shaken by hand, to create carbonation.
The brewery is also connected with the coffee shop next door, where they grind their own beans. So you can start your day with a cup of joe and end it with a cup of beer.
Located in an old bank building, it calls itself Colorado's first "roastery-brewery-restaurant."
Pet a Friendly Bison
Head to the stunning, sprawling Zapata Ranch, set on 103,000 open acres, for an authentic taste of the Old West. The grounds are home to about 2,000 wild bison, including Gordon, the domesticated bison who has been the ranch mascot since he was young. He used to roam the ranch free, but now that he's grown larger, he stays behind a fence and acts like a massive puppy, unaware of his size.
You can also stay at the all-inclusive ranch, which serves five-star dining (to live music played by a cowboy with a guitar) and can arrange a variety of adventures for guests. Accommodations are rustic, but spacious. You can see the sand dunes and mountain ranges from the picnic tables on the patio and the hot tub.
See the Nation's Tallest Sand Dune
Of all of the unusual sites in San Luis Valley, this has to be the weirdest of all: massive dunes below the mountain peaks, lining a warm, trickling creek.
The Great Sand Dunes National Park is no hidden secret in Colorado, but it should be at the top of every traveler's bucket list. Rent a sled or special snowboard and cruise down the sandy peaks. Build sand castles and go camping on the banks of the vast, calm Medano Creek.
If you're ambitious (and wearing sneakers; sandals are useless on these scalding hot surfaces), climb to the top of the highest dune in the country, which reaches 750 feet. With the hot sand below you and the snowy mountain peaks in the distance, this park feels otherworldly.
Ride an Ancient Steam Train
Take a trip back in time—and across the Colorado/New Mexico border 11 times—on the stunning, scenic Cumbres and Toltec steam train.
Get a seat in the luxurious Tourist Car, where a personal guide will share history and landmarks, in between bringing you drinks and snacks. This ride goes through multiple pitch-black tunnels, above a nearly 900-foot gorge, through a ghost town and stops for a Thanksgiving-style lunch halfway.
Kids love the open-air car, while adults will enjoy the caboose, which has a full bar.
This train ride is totally entertaining with unbeatable views that track landscapes and wildlife from the desert to the mountain tops. This ride is especially popular in the fall when you can see the aspen tree leaves changing color as you climb altitude.
Smoke Weed in the Steam Train Hotel
Not many hotels in Colorado openly advertise as 420-friendly, but the Steam Train Hotel in downtown Antonito isn't shy about appealing to "cannabis tourism."
Rent a Silver Surfer Vaporizer and stay in a 420-friendly room, right across the street from a marijuana dispensary. No joints, bongs or other kids of smoke allowed. But you can enjoy your vape right in your room.
This historic hotel is located in the quiet, small town (population: less than 800), a short drive from the incredible Cumbres and Toltec steam train depot. Guests get 15 percent off their train tickets.