For a trip into history, few parts of the American Southwest can top southern Colorado's San Luis Valley, a 125-mile (200-kilometer) stretch of the Rockies front range defined by the high mountains of the Sangre de Cristos to the east and the San Juans to the west.
At altitudes above 7,000 feet (2,130 meters), the San Luis Valley is technically a high desert, but the surface is underlain by shallow aquifers that in places form lakes, marshlands, and warm springs. By the late 19th century, much of the land was cultivated, crossed by irrigation canals and wagon roads. The valley's scattered wetlands are home to eagles, waders, and waterfowl. The arrival of thousands of sandhill cranes, migrating between New Mexico and southern Idaho, is celebrated in early March by the Monte Vista Crane Festival (www.cranefest.com). Los Caminos Antiguos—a network of ancient trails that live on as modern paved highways—allow you to follow in the footsteps of Apaches and Utes, Spanish missionaries, and Western explorers such as Zebulon Pike and Kit Carson, settlers, Buffalo Soldiers, miners, and railroaders. For a sampling of Los Caminos Antiguos, follow the 140-mile (225-kilometer) semicircle from Alamosa in the north, eastward to Fort Garland, then southwest to Cumbres Pass near the Colorado-New Mexico border.
Start in Alamosa
Alamosa, a town of 9,000, is home to Adams State College—and plenty of local flavor. The school's Luther Bean Museum offers an introduction to the region's multicultural history, with artifacts that include Navajo weavings and Pueblo pottery. On Main Street, browse the Firedworks Gallery (608 Main St.; www.firedworks.com) for regional art, ranging from photography to Native American pottery and handmade jewelry. For local cuisine, stop by El Charro Café (421 Sixth St.) for green chile specialties, and Calvillo's (400 Main St.) for chiles rellenos served with an agua fresca (fruit drink).
Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge
From Main Street, drive north across the Rio Grande to the Alamosa Ranch, which offers wildlife viewing along the banks of the river. To see the area's rich birdlife, go 3 miles (4.8 kilometers) east on U.S. 160, then 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) south on El Rancho Lane to the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge. This 11,000-acre (4,450-hectare) wetland is a seasonal home to waders such as the American avocet and white-faced ibis, as well as songbirds, deer, and coyotes.
Back on Highway 160 drive west; just across the bridge turn north on Highway 17, the northern stretch of Los Caminos Antiguos. Prominent on the right is Blanca Peak, one of the Navajo sacred mountains, and, at 14,345 feet (4,372 meters), the highest peak of the southern range. Drive 12 miles (19 kilometers), passing through Mosca, and head east on County Lane 6 watching for signs indicating San Luis State Park and San Luis Lakes. A perfect picnic stop, the lakes are a sanctuary for raptors and migratory birds of all kinds.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
At the intersection of Highway 150 head five miles (eight kilometers) north to the Great Sand Dunes National Park (www.nps.gov/grsa). Designated by Congress in 2004, the 233-square-mile (578-square-kilometer) park is the newest of America's national parks. Some 300,000 visitors come here annually to enjoy the geological wonder of the dunes and associated wildlife. For "easy" access to the dunes, park at Mosca Creek picnic area and walk down one of the paths leading to the edge of Medano Creek. Until roughly mid-July, it's a wide, shallow flow of water. After mid-July it's usually a drier walk to the dune base, but while the water flows there is only one way: Roll up your pants, carry your shoes, and wade. Once you reach the dunes, you can slide or tumble down, or take an hour-and-a-half-long zig-zag hike to the crest of High Dune (650 feet/198 meters). Star Dune to the west of High Dune is actually the tallest dune in North America, rising 750 feet (229 meters). There are only campsites in the park, available on a first-come basis, but 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) south on the park road is the Great Sand Dunes Lodge (www.gsdlodge.com), with ten pleasant rooms with views of the dunes, and an indoor pool. The lodge also offers four-wheel-drive tours of the dunes.
Returning south on Highway 150, just past the County Lane 6 intersection, turn right at the Nature Conservancy's Zapata Ranch, a 100,000-acre (40,500-hectare) working ranch run by Zapata Partners. The lodge (719-378-2356; from $130) offers 15 guest rooms in three different buildings—including the main lodge and the bunkhouse—year-round. Hiking trails and horse- or truck-pulled wagons take visitors out to view the bison, antelope, elk, and cattle that coexist in what is known as the "Rocky Mountain Serengeti."
Continue south 15 miles (24 kilometers) to U.S. 160 and turn left to Fort Garland. Just east of the town center, head south on Highway 159. From here, it's a stone's throw to the Fort Garland Museum, site of a garrison once commanded by Kit Carson. Take a 30-minute tour of the adobe buildings, a re-creation of the 19th-century garrison filled with items of the times including uniforms and firearms.
Fifteen miles (24 kilometers) south on Highway 159 lies San Luis, the oldest town in Colorado, founded in 1851. There's a cluster of wooden houses and a central square with a charming church. A path leading up a mesa features a series of bronze sculptures by Huberto Maestas, depicting the Stations of the Cross. Miniatures of these sculptures were presented to Pope John Paul II and are now in the Vatican Museum.
From San Luis, drive west on Rt. 142 toward Manassa. Turn south on U.S. 285 toward Conejos, then head west on Highway 17. Here the road rises rapidly from semidesert through forested mountains to Cumbres Pass (elevation 10,015 feet/3,053 meters). A wayside at mile marker 24 offers a splendid final view of the area and Conejo Canyon.
End at Chama
Cross the Colorado-New Mexico border and continue several miles to the village of Chama. In summer, excursions on the narrow gauge Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad run daily between Chama and Antonito, with half-way round-trips from both ends.
Summer is the prime time to make this drive, though spring and fall can also be pleasant. For more information about Los Caminos Antiguos, visit http://www.rmpbs.org/byways/lca_summary.html. Additional information, plus news about weather and road conditions, can be found at www.coloradobyways.org/byway.cfm?bywayidpar=los20011203092005.
—Text by Michael and Laura Murphy, adapted from National Geographic Traveler