Looking to get somewhere off the beaten track this summer? To vacation in a place with fresh air, delicious bites, and quirky culture? Need a destination that can compete with video games for your kids' attention? Home to some authentically odd and delightfully offbeat attractions, Colorado's San Luis Valley is sure to pique their interest. Here are eight unmissable highlights for the curiosity-loving traveller. (And you won't have to stand in a queue to enjoy them!)


1. An out-of-this-world attraction

UFO Watchtower

UFO WatchtowerLarry Lamsa, Flickr.com/larry1732

Location: two miles north of Hooper on Highway 17
Admission: $2/person or $5/car, with camp sites for only $10/night.

Those looking for an experience that’s out of this world should check out this popular spot. UFO Watchtower attracts guests from all over the world - even, supposedly, some interstellar ones too. Since first opening in 2000, Watchtower has recorded nearly 100 reported sightings. With documented incidents dating back to the 1600s, this hotspot offers tours of the watchtower, camping opportunities, and plenty of UFO-related stories. 


2. Meet a gator wrangler

Colorado Gators Reptile Park

Colorado GatorsLarry Lamsa, Flickr.com/larry1732

Location: 9162 CR 9 N Mosca, CO 81146
Admission: Adults $15, kids 6-15 & seniors $7.50, kids under 6 & seniors 80+ are free 
Hours: 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. all summer (through September 4)

Offering a home to over 300 alligators, crocodiles, pythons and all sorts of reptiles, this spot was originally just a tilapia fish farm. When the owners brought in 100 gators to eat the dead tilapia that couldn’t be brought to market, people flocked to see the animals for themselves. Inevitably, some started dropping off their own pet alligators they could no longer take care of (or were illegal to own). The rest is history. Visitors are treated to gator wresting mid-day; find the schedule online. 


3. Not your average cowpoke ranch

Zapata Ranch

Location: 5305 State Hwy 150 Mosca, Colorado 81146

Zapata Ranch offers visitors a truly unique opportunity to experience life as a ranch hand - with a twist. It's not the high-class amenities or gourmet food, but the fact that you're half as likely to herd bison as cattle.

Offering a mix of horseback and ground-level activities, there is something for everyone in the family. Take part in a round-up, embark on an afternoon trail ride, go on a fly-fishing excursion or take a geology tour upon your own two feet. There are even specially-themed weeks, like one that includes a photography tour. Check out their vacation packages here


4. Find Far East Zen in the Rockies

Town of Crestone

buddha colorado crestoneLarry Lamsa, Flickr.com/larry1732

Sitting in the north of the San Luis Valley, at the bottom of the Sangre de Cristo Range’s western slope, sits the picturesque town of Crestone. Home to less than 150 people, this spot is a lovely spiritual area playing host to a whole palette of world religions and traditions. Visitors will find three Hindu temples, a Chinese Zen center, a Carmelite monastery, seven Tibetan Buddhist centers and two New Age spiritual installments. Local events include the Crestone music festival, Crestfest, and the Energy Fair, showcasing sustainable energy experts and demonstrations. 


5. An out-of-place crop

White Mountain Farm

Location: 5305 CO-17, Mosca 81146 (Just a few miles south of Hooper on Highway 17)

Right in the middle of an ancient lake bed you’ll find White Mountain Farm, home to certifiably organic quinoa. Why is this weirdly wonderful? Because quinoa originated and is most commonly found growing in Andean countries. That places this ancient crop pretty far from home. 

White Mountain Farm is the first large-scale quinoa farm in North America, originally experimenting with the high-protein grain way back in 1984. Today you’ll find plenty of fresh crops to pick from. Now that sounds like an invitation to eat! 


6. Sahara or San Luis Valley?

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Great Sand Dunes National ParkAdobe Photostock

Possibly the San Luis Valley's best-known attraction are the sandy ergs of Great Sand Dunes National Park. On North America's most expansive dunes - the park measures some 150,000 acres - is your chance to try something wildly different: sand sledding. Of course, there are also ample opportunities for camping, swimming in the various lakes (including the ever-popular Medano Creek) as well as hunting, fishing and even stargazing at night. Though the summer can be hot, especially out on those sand dunes, this park is perfect for a family camping trip this summer. For directions and pricing, check out their website.


7. Go for a toasty soak

Hot Springs

The San Luis Valley is also home to its fair share of naturally-occurring hot springs.

Allowing you to get truly close to nature, the Valley View Hot Springs on the Orient Land Trust range from two to four feet in depth. Dip into geothermal waters for a toasty soak with a view. Come nightfall there is little-to-no light pollution which treats nearby campsites and rustic accommodation to fantastic stargazing. You’ll want to book early, as campsites can fill up quickly. 

Protected by, and flowing from, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa offers a more upscale experience. A variety of massage packages are available; find out more about their services, lodgings, and pricing on their website. 


8. Walk with Christ

Shrine of the Stations of the Cross

passion of the christDenise Chambers/Miles via Colorado Tourism

Location: San Pedro Mesa overlooking San Luis, at the junction of CO Hwys 159 and 142, San Luis, CO 81152

Overlooking the town of San Luis, you'll find Huberto Maestas’ life-sized Shrine of the Stations of the Cross. They are a collection of statues depicting the classic tale believed to be Jesus’ final suffering on earth. The statues were originally commissioned as a much smaller project but grew into their current form when a local church acquired the nearby land.

Right from the beginning, visitors are greeted by a commanding figure of Pontius Pilate washing his hands. From there the trail follows Jesus’ path all the way to resurrection. Many locals will be happy to share their stories about visiting the stations and growing up in San Luis, so don’t be afraid to ask!


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