Photo of a small creek running over blonde sand. The the right, the bank contains some small rocks, sticks, and shrubs. To the left of the creek, the sands of the dunes gently rise up toward the left. A few green shrubs dot the banks of the creek. In the background, mountains covered in trees are visible on this sunny, blue-sky day.

Story

Traveling the Storied Byway of the San Luis Valley

Summer Adventures Along Los Caminos Antiguos

“Ever since my first visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Park at seven years old, I’ve always remembered the special feeling of seeing them for the first time,” says Megan Eflin, Outreach Coordinator for the History Colorado State Historical Fund. “And how much fun my family and I had there on one of our many road trips when I was young. As an adult, summers for me have become a time for packing into the car, snacks accessible, music playlist at the ready, and hitting the open road for an adventure. Giving you an opportunity to create your own path. Choosing to stop when you see something of interest, make route changes on a whim, and immersing yourself in local culture, food, and events.”

Colorado is fortunate to have stunning scenery, world-renowned historic sites, and quirky local events that draw people from around the state out and onto the road year-round. Visiting these areas is made even easier by the scenic and historic byways that stretch all through the state. Colorado’s Scenic and Historic Byways program has been around since 1989, recognizing and promoting twenty-six byways in Colorado, thirteen of them part of the National Scenic and Historic Byways program. Each year the National Scenic Byway Foundation recognizes byways that make a significant contribution to their local communities. This year’s award winner is Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway in the Sangre de Cristo Heritage Area in southern Colorado.

Starting in Alamosa, Colorado, and ending at the Colorado–New Mexico border, this 129-mile byway follows the ancient trails of the Indigenous tribes who inhabited the area. Amazing cultural landscapes highlight not only those tribes but the early Spanish settlers. Find yourself back in time as you drive through the oldest continuously occupied town in Colorado and see the historic adobe structures, jacals, and moradas. And experience unique activities like hiking to High Dune at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, or riding the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad. There’s plenty to entice and make a long weekend road trip well worth it.

Photo of the 489 steam locomotive of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad, having emerged from a tunnel and traveling around a slight curve, toward the viewer. It is a sunny day, and green trees dot the red and grey rocks of the mountains on either side of the black engine.

Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad

Megan and her colleague Katie Arntzen, Archaeologist Specialist for the State Historical Fund, have been fortunate to get to know the area through their roles collaborating with grant partners in the San Luis Valley. Upon asking them of their favorite hidden gems, tips for traveling in the valley, and don’t-miss experiences, we’ve compiled the best adventures for a road trip to take this summer along Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway!

Katie says: “Check out the Sangre de Cristo Heritage Area’s webpage and download their Travel Story app for Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway (The Ancient Roads). The app has many more stops and stories than we’re highlighting here. Second, pack for the weather and your activities. The San Luis Valley has amazing restaurants, but be prepared to not want to break away from your activity or for stretches of gorgeous highway without a restaurant in sight. Traveling for work or leisure, I always pack a small cooler of food and a full water bottle, and I keep an eye on the gas gauge, filling up at every chance.”

Where to stay depends on you.

Want to sleep in a tent and enjoy the area’s dark skies? Plan ahead and book a campsite at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Starting off on an adventure without a campsite reserved? Try the first come, first serve campsites at San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area or the Bureau of Land Management’s Zapata Falls Campground. There are also several privately owned campgrounds in the area; explore them on the Alamosa Convention and Visitors Bureau Website.

Photo of a waterfall, spilling into a rocky underground mountain crevace. The sun is shining above, where the rocks are a lighter color and the water comes from. A patch of smooth white ice is attached to the left side of the cavernous wall.

Zapata Falls

Photo by Megan Eflin

Rather wake up in a cozy bed? Our staff highly recommends picking up take-out for dinner and checking in at the Movie Manor Motor Inn (Best Western) in Monte Vista. This vintage 1964 hotel was designed next to the Star Drive-in movie theater. After check-in, you can leave the hotel to watch one of the films, or open the curtains wide and turn on the film audio to watch from the comfort of your room. Make sure to check the movie schedule before you book your stay. There are two screens showing different movies. Be ready to walk outside to watch if your room doesn’t face your preferred film. Discover other local hotels on the Alamosa Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website.

Discover the region through its food.

“Food to me is a universal language,” says Megan, “and immersing yourself in local cuisine while traveling is a separate journey unto itself. Some of my most memorable travel experiences are tied to the amazing food I’ve tried.” Stop for your morning caffeine fix at the Milagros Coffee House. Situated in the historic Emperius Block, this building was recently rehabilitated in part through State Historical Fund grants. The coffeehouse is also the social enterprise for the nonprofit La Puente Home, Inc. and helps serve the poor and unhoused in the San Luis Valley. For a unique dining experience, locally owned Calvillos has mouth-watering Mexican food. Looking for a way to finish your day on the way back from your train tour on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad? Stop by The Colorado Farm Brewery for a refreshing beer. Located on a farm that’s been family owned for eighty years, this brewery is “the nation’s only 100% estate, farm-to-glass, site-contained brewery,” according to its Facebook page.

Photo of the Fort Garland museum on a sunny day, white fluffy clouds float across the brilliant blue sky. The grass is green between the low museum buildings, and a few tents have been erected on the grounds. Four cannons are toward the back of the grounds, and it appears to be a re-enactment day at the museum. Snow-capped mountains rise in the distance, touching the sky.

Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center

Where to start your adventure?

There are so many ways to experience the byway and the San Luis Valley. Megan and Katie have gathered four day-long adventures based on their traveling experiences.


Adventure 1: Kicking off the Weekend

Driving from the Front Range? Hit the road early to avoid traffic. Take Highway 285 south through South Park. It can take over three hours to get to the San Luis Valley, so pick a side adventure to break up your drive. We suggest hiking at Staunton State Park to see the historic cabins being preserved with State Historical Fund grants and amazing vistas, catching lunch in Salida’s National Historic District, or enjoying a soak at the Joyful Journey Hot Springs and Spa along the way. Once you settle into your accommodations and eat dinner, consider jumpstarting your trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park with a full-moon hike.

Photo of a small creek running over blonde sand. The the right, the bank contains some small rocks, sticks, and shrubs. To the left of the creek, the sands of the dunes gently rise up toward the left. A few green shrubs dot the banks of the creek. In the background, mountains covered in trees are visible on this sunny, blue-sky day.

Medano Creek, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Photo by Megan Eflin

Adventure 2: Exploring The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

If you didn’t head to Great Sand Dunes National Park for a full-moon hike, pack a lunch and plenty of water, and head out early. The sand will be cool in the morning but gets hot by midday. If you want to explore the dunes on foot, make sure to bring close-toed shoes to protect your feet from the heat. Consider packing a frisbee or renting a sandboard before you go.

Once the temperatures start rising, hop back in the car and navigate to Zapata Falls. Bring hiking and/or water shoes to hike all the way to the waterfalls. The small slot canyon does not disappoint when you’re rewarded with a beautiful waterfall at the end of your journey. If you’re all hiked out after visiting the dunes in the morning, instead consider soaking those muscles and enjoying an afternoon poolside at Sand Dunes Recreation, a natural artisanal hot swimming pool and recreation center.


Adventure 3: Day Tripper Along the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad

After a day out in the elements, get ready to take a relaxing scenic ride on the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic  Railroad. Built in 1890 as part of the Rio Grande’s narrow gauge San Juan Extension, the railroad has access to scenic vistas that can’t be reached by car. Lenore Bates, Colorado’s Byways Manager, went on the all-day train ride from Antonito with her family last fall. “We went on October 14, the colors of the trees were spectacular.” Train rides can fill up, so book ahead of time to ensure your spot.

Photo of a 2-story pueblo-style building. The walls are tan, and wooden window frames and other wooden accents are painted in turquoise blue, with other accents in deep red. A long, dark wooden porchfront on the front of the building protects the front doors. The blue sign above the door says "R&R Market - Colo's Oldest - Estab. 1857." Other smaller signs hanging from the porch say "Pop," "Cards," and "Ice."

R&R Market, San Luis, Colorado


Adventure 4: A Look into Colorado’s Past

Take a step into Colorado’s past. Start with a visit to the Fort Garland Museum & Cultural Center. This nineteenth-century military fort consists of five of the original adobe buildings and highlights American expansion west. Learn about the first Spanish and Anglo residents of the San Luis Valley. Be sure to check ahead and plan your visit around a fun event at the museum. As you continue down the byway you’ll find yourself in the town of San Luis, the oldest settled town in Colorado. Stop at the R&R Market for a snack and experience this local general store that’s been operating for more than 150 years. End your day by visiting Vargas Crossing. This interpretive spot marks the location when Spaniards first traveled to the San Luis Valley in 1694.


 

While Megan and Katie only highlight a fraction of the wonderful sites and experiences to be had throughout the San Luis Valley and on Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway, we hope this will inspire you to hit the road this summer and explore an area of the state that’s rich in history. Choose your own adventure and create your own memories. 

As Katie adds, “I led my entire family along Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway for our winter holiday trip a few years back. We loaded up into the cars in Buena Vista and started driving to the San Luis Valley. Descending Poncha Pass, we saw that fog covered the entire San Luis Valley floor. Once we descended, we couldn’t see anything beyond a few hundred feet in any direction. Turning onto the road for Great Sand Dunes National Park I started getting nervous. Did I just drive everyone a few hours out of our way to see walls of fog? We stopped in the visitor center so everyone could at least see photos of the landscape. Then it was like a curtain was pulled; the fog slowly blew away to show the dunes in all their majesty. Instead of the slow anticipation of seeing the dunes for hours, they were revealed like a magic trick. After exploring the snowy sand we loaded up and continued on the byway into New Mexico. We all still talk about the byway as one of our most awe-inspiring trips.”


More from The Colorado Magazine


Don’t Leave Home Without Your Green Book The Black Travel Experience in Colorado During the Jim Crow Era

You Should Have Seen It: Colorado Mineral Palace  In the Old Historic Northside of Pueblo, Colorado, there’s a park. It’s no longer the biggest park in the city—that ended thanks to interstate construction in the 1950s—but it has a strange mystique, a stately air reminiscent of a bygone era. This may confuse visitors, transplants, and even younger residents, but there are many in the city and beyond who still remember why Mineral Palace Park has its name.

Pioneer, Indian, Cowboy, Rabbi: Jewish Summer Camping in Colorado Generations of Jewish Coloradans have spent summer days at Camp Shwayder and the J Bar Double C Ranch Camp. Colorado’s mountains have provided the ideal setting for distinctly western Jewish American experiences. Ariel Schnee examines this lesser-known side of Jewish identity in Colorado.