Home to a Universal Ashram, an alligator farm, sand dunes, a movie motel, a UFO campground, bird nesting colonies, stupas and hot springs, The San Luis Valley is Colorado's Noah's Ark for the unusual.
Flanked by the Sangre de Cristo mountain range to the east and the San Juans to the west, the valley extends 150 miles in length and 50 miles in width. It sits above a much-coveted aquifer, making water rights issues part of a constantly charged environmental-political landscape for farmers, wetland and wildlife. But area aficionados will tell you that the real draws to the valley are lights in the sky and other anomalies.
San Luis Valley's story begins roughly 35 million years ago, when several volcanoes began forming the San Juans and Sangres in present day Saguache County. One such volcano, the La Garita, is estimated to have erupted 20,000 times more powerfully than Mount St. Helens, leaving what may have been the largest caldera (or volcanic crater) in history.
Federal officials once contemplated naming the Summer Coon volcano near Del Norte the country's first national park (though Yellowstone won the distinction). Today it offers natural arches formed from scenic lava dikes.
Colorado's first settlers called the San Luis home, and in 1822 the King of Spain granted Don Luis Maria Cabeza de Vaca almost 500,000 acres of land there, leading up to Kit Carson Peak.
Vaca's heritage was preserved in the Baca area, which became home to a large cattle ranch and a handful of landgrants known as the Baca Grande subdivisions. Baca is widely regarded as a center for alternative building and sustainable living practices, and it holds most of the valley's spiritual centers, shrines and monasteries.
Bordering Baca is the town of Crestone, dubbed by some as "Shambala, the legendary spiritual center of the world, which only manifests in the physical realm at certain times." Whatever you call it, a mysterious power is said to reside at 8,000 feet off Highway 17.
Down the road, Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve captures North America's tallest sand dunes, between the Blanca Massif and Crestone Needle. Wind continually changes the formations of sand over 39 square miles, creating an almost extrinsic landscape of deep bowls and sheer vertical ascents.
Dive, roll, tumble, even sandboard -- you'll be picking crystalline particles out of your hair for a week, anyway. This may be the only national park in which you can leap off a "cliff" at full speed and land unharmed 20 feet below.
After a bit of extraterrestrial play, the UFO Watchtower near Hooper offers a fitting follow-up. Search for little green men, away from disbelievers and light pollution.
Author Christopher O'Brien details the San Luis' paranormal activity in Enter the Valley, asserting that the expanse claims America's highest concentration of UFO sightings, crop circles, Bigfoot sightings and cattle mutilations. In celebration, the UFO Watchtower campground will host the 2005 UFOlympics on August 13 and 14. To report a UFO sighting (no joke), call 303/451-5992. The Colorado Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) might want to document the occurrence.
Before leaving the valley, stop for a soak and continued stargazing at Valley View Hot Springs. Choose between natural pools and a larger swimming pool, and break a sweat at one of Colorado's finest spas. Absorb the grandeur of the valley below, and ask yourself if a more marvelous place ever existed.
-- Matthew Schniper
Daytrip: San Luis Valley, multi-destination
Escape Route: Take U.S. Highway 24 West to U.S. Highway 285 South; to Colorado Highway 17 South.
Extra Credit: Grab a bite in Crestone's Desert Sage Cafe, or go for a sit at Baca's Mountain Zen Center.