11 Best Things to Do in San Luis Valley, Colorado

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Nancy Rose / Getty Images

There's something magical about Colorado's San Luis Valley. Situated about four hours outside Denver, it's surrounded by mountains, which makes the views surreal—almost like you're in the middle of a giant mountain embrace. Its unique location 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. 

There's much more to the area than the views, climate, and historical importance. It also happens to be of the quirkiest regions in Colorado, home to a ton of once-in-a-lifetime experiences and roadside attractions. Here are 11 reasons why instead of driving west up I-70 for your next Colorado road trip, you should consider heading south.

01 of 11

Go for a Relaxing Soak at the Spa

Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa

Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa

28640 County Rd 58EE, Moffat, CO 81143-9726, USA
Phone +1 719-256-4328

Near the northern part of the San Luis Valley, the Joyful Journey Hot Spring Spa is where you'll find locals and visitors alike going to unwind and relax in nature. Offering gorgeous views of the Sangre De Cristo mountains, the spa is located on lands that are considered to be highly spiritual and energetically active, according to American Indian elders and spiritual types coming to visit from nearby Crestone, a hub of spiritual activity in this part of Colorado.

Enjoy a relaxing soak in the geothermic hot pools, kept between 98°F and 108°F, drop in on a yoga class, treat yourself to a massage or facial, or make a staycation of it and spend a night or two at this remote oasis.

02 of 11

Drive Along the Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic Byway

Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic & Historic Byway

Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic & Historic Byway

San Luis Valley, Colorado 81136, USA

Part of Colorado's Sangre De Cristo National Heritage Area, the Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway takes you through a beautiful section of the San Luis Valley that dates back to more than 11,000 years ago.

Whether you drive it all in one shot (which takes about three hours) or spread it out over a longer road trip, the 129-mile journey is sure to impress, with 22 interesting roadside attractions and a number of places worth checking out along the way. Make time to visit the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, Great Sand Dunes National Park, Zapata Falls, the Jack Dempsey Museum (if you're into boxing), and the town of Antonito, at the very least.

03 of 11

See the Nation's Tallest Sand Dune

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Danita Delimont / Getty Images

Colorado, USA
Phone +1 719-378-6395

Of all of the unusual sites in San Luis Valley, this has to be the weirdest of them all: massive dunes below the mountain peaks, lining a warm, trickling creek. 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, as 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 place feels otherworldly.

04 of 11

Hold an Alligator

Colorado Gator Ranch

TripSavvy / Aimee Heckel

9162 Ln 9 N, Mosca, CO 81146, USA
Phone +1 719-378-2612

This is no swampland and we're very 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—turns out the area's 87-degree geothermal waters were great for harvesting the fish. Surprise. 

They were also great for the 100 baby alligators the founders bought to help dispose of the dead tilapia. Those gators have since multiplied and changed the emphasis of the farm from fish to reptiles. The park began taking in gators that needed to be rescued or re-homed and opened its gates to other unwanted exotic creatures, such as tortoises, massive pythons, and lizards.

Today, you can even meet some famous animals, including Morris, a 450-pound gator who has appeared in movies and now lives in an indoor-outdoor pen on the ranch—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 and not at all rough and scaly like all those lotion commercials would have you believe.

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05 of 11

Watch a Drive-In Movie From Bed

Movie Manor drive-in movie theater motel

TripSavvy / Aimee Heckel

2830 US-160, Monte Vista, CO 81144, USA
Phone +1 719-852-5921

This has to be 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, and not only for the quirkiness of being one of the country's few remaining and running drive-in theaters. There's also an old-school playground right at the base of one of the screens so your kids can teeter-totter while you're watching the latest flick.

Note that there are two different screens and not all rooms have the same view. If you do end up 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 thing traditional style. Movie Manor is the full deal, with a concession stand in the middle featuring cheap burgers and hot dogs, as well as candy, popcorn, and nachos. As a bonus, a simple continental breakfast is included in your stay, and being a Best Western, the lobby is always serving up tea and coffee. 

06 of 11

Live in the Wild West

Mill Creek Ranch at Old Cow Town

TripSavvy / Aimee Heckel

36710 County Rd CC 36, Saguache, CO 81149, USA
Phone +1 719-655-2224

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 in time. Dine in the Mad Cow Steakhouse, see horse-drawn carriages—and 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. The list of activities goes on. 

Guests can 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.

07 of 11

Ride an Ancient Steam Train

Cumbres and Toltec historic train

TripSavvy / Aimee Heckel

5234 US Hwy 285, Antonito, CO 81120, USA
Phone +1 888-286-2737

Take a trip back in time—and across the Colorado/New Mexico border 11 times—on the stunning, scenic Cumbres and Toltec steam train. Grab a seat in the luxurious Tourist Car, where a personal guide will share information about the history and landmarks around you, in between bringing you drinks and snacks. This ride goes through multiple pitch-black tunnels and takes you above a nearly 900-foot gorge and through a ghost town, while stopping for a Thanksgiving-style lunch about 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 tracking landscapes and wildlife from the desert to the mountain tops. The ride is especially popular in the fall when you can see the aspen tree leaves changing color as you climb altitude. 

08 of 11

Visit Indiana Jones' Childhood Home

The Indiana Jones house

TripSavvy / Aimee Heckel

502 Front St, Antonito, CO 81120, USA
Phone +1 800-497-5650

Another fun roadside attraction, located in Antonito, is the Indiana Jones Bed and Breakfast, where young Indy lived in the film "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." The former movie set is now a bed and breakfast where travelers and movie buffs can stay the night. It's just a short drive from the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, mentioned above, making it a popular overnight destination for train-goers.

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09 of 11

Keep an Eye Out for Aliens

UFO Watchtower

TripSavvy / Aimee Heckel

CO-17, Center, CO 81125, USA
Phone +1 719-378-2296

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 all have 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, 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. 

10 of 11

Sip a Hand-Shaken Root Beer

San Luis Brewery

TripSavvy / Aimee Heckel

631 Main St, Alamosa, CO 81101-2557, USA
Phone +1 719-587-2337

While the San Luis Valley Brewing Co. does great beer, it also serves up terrific old-fashioned-style root beer, thanks to barrels that are shaken by hand to create carbonation. The brewery is also connected to 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 also calls itself Colorado's first "roastery-brewery-restaurant." 

11 of 11

Pet a Friendly Bison

Zapata Ranch

TripSavvy / Aimee Heckel

5305 CO-150, Mosca, CO 81146-9718, USA
Phone +1 719-378-2356

Head to the stunning, sprawling Zapata Ranch, set on 103,000 open acres, for a true 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 here are rustic, but spacious, and you can see the sand dunes and mountain ranges from the picnic tables on the patio—or the hot tub. 

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11 Best Things to Do in San Luis Valley, Colorado