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There's something magical about Colorado's San Luis Valley.
It's surrounded on all sides 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.
It's about four hours south of Denver, depending on which route you take. Through Colorado Springs will give you a straight shot, but the mountain routes are among the most scenic drives in the state.
Plus, this is where Colorado's first settlers landed. It's the cultural roots of Colorado.
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 our 11... favorite ways to experience San Luis Valley's weird charm.Continue to 2 of 12 below.
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1. Hold an Alligator
This is no swampland, and we're far from Florida. But hundreds of alligators live in San Luis Valley.
Yes, gators. In Colorado.
The Colorado Gators Reptile Park is an educational rescue that started in the '70s as a tilapia farm. 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 grew quickly and changed the emphasis of the farm, from fish to reptiles. The park began taking in gators that needed 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, such as "Happy Gilmore," "Dr. Doolittle II" and "Interview with a Vampire." He once even destroyed the whole set on "Coach." Today, the 50-year-old... movie star lives in an indoor-outdoor pen on the ranch, and visitors can see him up close through the fence.
This park is huge. Expect to spend at least a half day here.
But the highlight of the park is the chance to hold a baby alligator. You'll be shocked to learn that gator skin is actually silky soft — not at all rough and scaly, like the lotion commercials would have you believe.Continue to 3 of 12 below.
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2. 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, San Luis Valley, is a destination, in and of 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. (And these aren't today's ultra-safe play structures. They're old school metal, slightly terrifying and also amazing.)
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 inexpensive 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.Continue to 4 of 12 below.
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3. 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.
This is a private residence, and you probably won't have the chance to meet the builder and resident. If he does come outside, he may request a donation.
You can't tour it or see whatever is behind the tall walls. Cano's Castle is at the end of an otherwise normal neighborhood (obviously with no HOA), but you can see its towers from the main drag. It's worth a quick diversion for the funky factor, as you're traveling through Antonito, but don't count on this to occupy a full afternoon. Do plan on taking some photos for your only-in-Colorado file, if the owner allows.Continue to 5 of 12 below.
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4. 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 time 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 oh-so-quirky bright yellow guest house. At Mill Creek Ranch, every detail has been considered, down to the old-fashioned lamps, a tiny chapel with a bell and a ragtime player piano in the dining hall. Sip lemonade out of boot-shaped glasses. Country music streams from the buildings during the day. Unwind... in the indoor hot tub in a former greenhouse that is always toasty, even on chilly nights.
It's like a tiny Disney World for cowboys.
There's nowhere in the world quite like this.
Note: The property doesn't serve alcohol, but you can pack your own to keep in the fridge in your room. This isn't designed to be a big party spot. It's for families.Continue to 6 of 12 below.
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5. 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 B&B 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 ride.Continue to 7 of 12 below.
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6. 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 large vortexes. One spins clockwise and the other counterclockwise.
Some believe this is why the region has had such a large number of UFO sightings.
Watchtower signs claim there have been documented 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.
At first glance, it looks like a dusty trash yard, but the signs warn not to take any offerings from The Garden, lest you suffer bad karma. Instead,... take your pic by the big, inflatable green alien and don't forget to leave a donation in the jar. Leave an offering in the mound, if you think it might help the aliens grant your wishes.Continue to 8 of 12 below.
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7. 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.
Another thing that makes this brewery unique is it's 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.
It calls itself Colorado's first "roastery-brewery-restaurant."
It's located in an old bank building, too, so the brewery stores its kegs in a historic vault.
Food here is also great — the best in Alamosa. And the brewery is located right in downtown, so after you stuff yourself with Bavarian sausage or the Green Chili Guacamole burger, you can work it off window-shopping. The old-school JCPenny (downtown style instead of as a department store connected with a mall) and tattoo shop are some of the highlights.Continue to 9 of 12 below.
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8. Pet a Friendly Bison
San Luis Valley has some of the state's greatest luxury lodging — with a cause.
The Zapata Ranch is located just minutes from the Great Sand Dunes and across the street from the region's best place to hike, Zapata Falls. A long, bumpy, dirt road takes you up the mountain to the trailhead, and at the top is a picturesque waterfall. Wade in toward the caves to get right under the spill.
The Zapata Ranch is equally as stunning, located on 103,000 open acres that 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; he acts like a massive puppy, unaware of his size.
Stand by the fence and he'll pay you a visit. Pet him and he'll try to cuddle up against the fence.
The all-inclusive ranch serves up 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.
This is a nature conservancy, so expect to see countless birds, deer right at your doorstep and, of course, bison in the distance. The ranch boasts one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes in the nation, due to the unusual habitat: a mixture of high desert grasslands, wetlands, sand dunes, creeks, meadows and alpine forests.
It's not every day that you get to stay at a nature conservancy with a friendly bison.Continue to 10 of 12 below.
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9. 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 sand 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 wide, calm Medano Creek.
If you're really ambitious (and wearing sneakers; sandals are useless on these scalding hot surfaces), climb to the top of the highest sand 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. And impossibly matched.Continue to 11 of 12 below.
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10. 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. Adults enjoy the caboose, which is adults only and 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.
Tip: Because this train is a real steam engine powered by coal, you may get slightly coated in coal dust when you are in the outdoor car. Wear your sunglasses because tiny specks of coal may fly through the air and can... get in your eyes. Talk about an authentic experience.Continue to 12 of 12 below.
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11. 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.
Also on site: a rooftop deck, a reference library and 360-degree mountain views. The Steam Train Hotel admits it is quirky, advertising that two of its rooms are haunted. Needless to say, if smoking weed makes you feel paranoid, beware of pairing that with the supernatural.