Hidden Gems of the San Luis Valley

Hidden Gems of the San Luis Valley: Explore Lesser-Known Sights and Activities near Great Sand Dunes National Park

While the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve often steals the spotlight, the San Luis Valley boasts an array of hidden gems and local businesses that offer unique experiences for adventurers, art and history buffs, and more! Here’s your guide to uncovering the hidden gems waiting to be discovered on your next San Luis Valley journey.


Delve into History and Culture:
  • Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic & Historic Byway: This scenic and historic byway is one of the best ways to explore the San Luis Valley’s cultural richness. It will take you through the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area and features 22 wayside exhibits. Here are just a few highlights:
    • Historic Churches – San Isadoro Church in Las Mesitas and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Conejos are two highlights along the byway and some of the oldest churches in Colorado. See the remaining structure of San Isadoro Church, built in 1878 but burned down in 1975, and checkout the local wildlife as well. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, built in 1858 is still operating and is open daily for worship or visitation.
    • Jack Dempsey Museum – Visit the birthplace of famed boxer, Jack Dempsey. He won the heavyweight championship in 1919, after knocking out Jesse Willard. The museum, located in Manassa, boasts artifacts from Dempsey’s career and celebrates the local legend.
    • Stations of the Cross – Located in San Luis, Colorado’s oldest town, the Stations of the Cross feature bronze statues depicting Christ’s last hours by local sculptor Huberto Maestas. The trail leads up to the top of San Pedro Mesa Overlook, where you have beautiful views of San Luis and the San Luis Valley beyond.
  • Creede Repertory Theatre: Nestled 9,000 ft high in historic mining town of Creede, is this award-winning professional theatre company. It was even named by the Denver Post as “easily among the state’s five best theater companies.” If you’re in the San Luis Valley during Creede Repertory Theatre’s summer season be sure to come see a production or two.
  • Museums: If you love history, you’ll be happy to hear there are 20 museums throughout the San Luis Valley. Click the link to see a complete list, but here are a few highlights:
    • Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center – Visitors can explore the fort, built in 1858, and five of the original adobe buildings to see what nineteenth century military life was like. Buffalo Soldiers were stationed here from 1876 – 1879 and was once under the command of Kit Carson.
    • San Luis Valley History Museum – Located in Alamosa, this museum is packed full of Native American, early settlers, ranching, and railroading artifacts. There are many historic clothing pieces, including costumes worn in the 1860’s by frontiersman, Tom Tobin. Two display rooms also feature a typical schoolroom and trading post from the 1800s.
    • Creede Underground Mining Museum – This unique museum is completely underground and showcases displays of real mining equipment and memorabilia from Creede’s mining heyday.
  • Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad: For the best views of Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico, this railroad is the best. The train takes visitors 64 miles between Antonito, CO to Chama, NM and crosses the states’ border 11 times. Many of the sights you see aren’t accessible by car so you’ll experience the best views that can’t be seen any other way. While you take in the views, you’ll also learn about the local history and lore of the region too!


Off-the-Beaten-Path Adventures:
  • Zapata Falls: Embark on a moderate hike (less than 1 mile!) to the secluded Zapata Falls. Nestled in a rocky crevasse of the San Juan Mountains, the cascading waterfall plunges into a cool pool, providing a refreshing reward for your trek. The last part of the hike before coming to the waterfall will take you through a shallow river. So be sure to wear sturdy shoes that can get wet and be prepared for some uneven terrain.
    • From the trailhead parking area and Zapata Falls Campground, you’ll have a fantastic view of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains, and a sweeping panorama of the San Luis Valley.
  • Penitente Canyon and La Garita Arch: Part of the La Garita Caldera, the canyon and arch invite both thrill-seekers and non to their rocky environments. The 100 ft walls of Penitente Canyon are popular among rock climbers. If you’d rather keep your feet on the ground, explore the network of manageable hiking trails. La Garita Arch is difficult to see from the road, but once you’re in the parking area in front of it, you’ll be able to see the 40 ft tall and 30 ft wide behemoth at the top of a steep climb. If you’re feeling brave, you can scramble to the top and be rewarded with views of the San Luis Valley.


Soak Up the Natural Beauty:
  • San Luis Valley Wildlife Refuge: Escape the crowds and discover a haven for wildlife at the San Luis Valley Wildlife Refuge. Home to over 350 species of birds, including the majestic sandhill crane, the refuge offers excellent opportunities for birdwatching and wildlife photography.
  • Valley View Hot Springs and Sand Dunes Recreation Pool: Unwind after a day of adventure at one of the local hot springs. At Valley View, natural geothermal pools offer a chance to relax and soak in the stunning mountain views. Sand Dunes Recreation offers a beautiful view of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range as well as an adult’s only section inside a greenhouse!
  • Fishing: For outdoor enthusiasts seeking a more leisurely pursuit, fishing reigns supreme in the San Luis Valley. Whether you prefer fly fishing for trout or casting a line for bass, the San Luis Valley boasts a diverse range of fishing experiences to suit every preference.
    • Rio Grande River – From Alamosa, Del Norte, or South Fork, you can catch a brown or rainbow trout in the Rio Grande. It is recommended that for the best fishing, one visits mid June through late October.
    • Crystal Lakes – About an hour outside of Del Norte, this fishing spot is much more secluded for a peaceful escape. You’ll mainly hook Cutthroat and Brook Trout, but you might get lucky and hooking a Tiger Trout or a Brown Trout as well.
    • Beaver Creek Reservoir – One of the easiest to access fishing spots, Beaver Creek Reservoir is only about 8 miles from South Fork. There are lots of fish here, but the ones you’re likely to hook are Rainbow and Brown Trout or Kokanee Salmon.


Unique Cultural Experiences:
  • Local Music Festivals and Celebrations: Throughout the summer in the San Luis Valley, nearly every town (no matter how small!) has something to celebrate. Be sure to check local events calendars to see what might be happening when you’re traveling, but here of some of the most popular:
    • Alamosa – Just a short walk from Cool Sunshine RV Park are the many Alamosa events, including the Cinco de Mayo Block Party, Beat the Heat BBQ, First Friday Festivals, Summerfest on the Rio, and the Early Iron Car Festival.
    • Music – If you’re a music lover, be sure to check out the Headwaters Music Festival in Creede, Crestone Music Festival in Crestone, and Rhythms on the Rio in Del Norte.
  • UFO Watchtower: For a touch of the extraordinary, head to the quirky UFO Watchtower near Moffat. This roadside attraction offers panoramic views of the valley and a chance to learn about the area’s reputation as a hotbed for UFO sightings.
  • Hobby Town: Located in Alamosa, this hobby store has an eclectic array of hobbies and collectibles. Whether you’re a seasoned enthusiast or a curious beginner, this local gem offers something for everyone. From remote-controlled cars and model trains to board games and crafting supplies, Hobby Town is a paradise for hobbyists of all ages.
  • The Wet Paintbrush: Unleash your inner artist and try out a paint and sip class in Alamosa. Experienced instructors will guide any and all skill levels and ages through whichever painting the class is doing (as seen when you reserve your spots). Or you could try the avant-garde method and create something totally unique.


Beyond the Dunes:
The San Luis Valley is a land of hidden treasures waiting to be discovered. Venture beyond the iconic dunes and explore the rich tapestry of history, culture, and natural beauty that awaits. From majestic waterfalls and secluded canyons to vibrant towns and diverse wildlife refuges, the San Luis Valley offers an unforgettable escape for the curious explorer. So, pack your sense of adventure and get ready to uncover the hidden gems of this captivating Colorado destination.