Must See Attractions in Colorado's San Luis Valley

Colorado’s San Luis Valley is an explorer’s paradise and a nature lover’s dream. With varying landscapes which include some of the highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains, the tallest sand dunes in North America, and the most impressive views of the stars out of anywhere in the United States, the San Luis Valley begs its visitors to explore the wonders of the great outdoors. Then, with its indulgent natural hot springs and luxurious train routes through the mountains, the majestic countryside offers its inhabitants ample opportunities to rejuvenate after adventuring. Here, I’ve listed a few stops through the San Luis Valley that are necessary attractions for those exploring this beautiful alpine valley nestled in the Rockies.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Located near Mosca, Colorado, Great Sand Dunes National Park stretches over 232 square miles and offers a wide variety of experiences such as hiking, camping, swimming, and even surfing — that’s sand surfing. Home to the tallest sand dunes on the continent, this national park allows for many sand based activities like surfing and sledding. Who knew? So whether you’re visiting the dunes during the warm, dry summer or the chilly, snowy winter, be sure to bring your surfboard, snowboard, or sled! Springtime visitors to the dunes can enjoy the seasonal Medano Creek that flows through the park, making its beaches some of the most beautiful in the state. The park also contains extensive forest trails with pristine streams and expansive views. If you want to extend your stay within the park, camping is available, with both tent and RV sites offered. Plan your trip to Great Sand Dunes National Park by visiting the national park service website here.

Natural Hot Springs

Not far from the national park will visitors find one of the many natural hot springs that Colorado is so often known for. In the small town of Hooper, guests of the family operated Sand Dunes Swimming Pool enjoy year-round access to spring-fed artesian water, sourced from a depth reaching over 4000 feet. The facilities include a large pool, a smaller relaxation pool, a greenhouse lounge, and multiple decks and picnic areas, along with camping and lodging available. Just south of Sand Dunes Swimming Pool is Splashland, another of Colorado’s natural pools, located just outside the city of Alamosa. Splashland is home to an outdoor geothermal pool, which is open seasonally. This newly remodeled pool is a community favorite, with its slides, concession stand, and many family-friendly events.

Zapata Falls

For a truly jaw-dropping outdoor experience, one must visit Zapata Falls — the majestic waterfall and hidden gem of the San Luis Valley –tucked into the side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains bordering the eastern side of the valley. This 25-foot waterfall is fed by the higher elevated Zapata Lake and is frozen solid for a portion of the Colorado winter. A four-mile trail loop takes visitors from the parking lot to the falls, crossing streams and varied terrain along the way, with other trail options winding deeper into the mountainside. Similar to many Colorado outdoor attractions, the Bureau of Land Management welcomes visitors on the recreational trails to camp among the surrounding wilderness of the Zapata Falls area. Take note, however, that the road to and from Zapata Falls is extremely rough, and the very large, loose rocks and boulders along the route will likely damage vehicles without 4X4 capabilities. 4X4 is highly recommended to make this trip.

Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge

Known for its yearly crane population, the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge is a Colorado favorite for bird enthusiasts and wildlife lovers alike. Each spring and fall season, the migrating sandhill cranes stopover in Monte Vista at the Refuge, the lush wetlands being a resting place for the birds along their twice-yearly migrations between New Mexico and Canada. The Refuge is home to many Rocky Mountain species, with hundreds of herd of elk seen roaming the nearly 15000 acres of protected land each winter, among other animals.

UFO Watchtower

The San Luis Valley sits high in the Rocky Mountains, and because of its alpine air and limited light pollution, this rugged valley offers some of the world’s best views of our Milky Way galaxy. As such, many stargazers and even UFO chasers and enthusiasts flock to the area for observations, with the UFO Watchtower being a can’t-miss attraction for anyone who’s ever pondered the night sky. With a raised platform and 360-degree views of the entire Rocky Mountain valley, this observation deck just north of Hooper is interesting as it is eclectic, and a favorite stop of travelers and tourists. But really, you’re going to get mind-blowing views of our sky no matter where you’re at in the San Luis Valley. And at the UFO Watchtower, you’re also sure to run into a few stars, of sorts, with undoubted lively conversations with intriguing people, or maybe something fascinating in the gift shop. Either way, it’s like to host a uniquely good time.

Rio Grande Scenic Railroad

For a taste of the southwestern luxury that is vintage San Luis Valley history, a trip along the route of the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad is a must. Departing in Alamosa, this scenic trip via train car takes its passengers through the winding and awe-inspiring San Juan Mountains that border the western side of the valley. Travelers aboard the classic train cars are treated to indulgent three-course meals, impressive drink and wine menus, and fine white linen service. This railroad experience is a popular attraction for those seeking the magnificent immersion with the Colorado native trees as their leaves change color in the fall. With various ride services including beer tasting trip options and even a live concert train ride, it’s no surprise that the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad is a popular highlight for visitors to the San Luis Valley. You can read more about the railway here. So if and when you find yourself in this rugged, yet beautiful stretch of southern Colorado, check these places out for yourself. Both outdoor adventure and pleasant comfort can be experienced in the San Luis Valley, and the landscape there has much more to offer than what I’ve presented here. And when you visit this Rocky Mountain valley, be sure to keep these incredible sights in mind.

Kacie Cooper Stotler

I am a writer, nomad, and bohème. I can’t live without moody forests, mountain trekking, and rainy cobblestone streets. A traveler, backpacker, and explorer of the Colorado Rockies for the last two years, I have maintained a love affair with the outdoors. And I’ve been obsessed with the written word for more years than I can remember.