[DESTINATION: COLORADO]

In the San Luis Valley, the Old West Lives On

Find family fun among huge sand dunes, at a working ranch, and on a mountain train ride    

My passion is the West and its majestic natural features, from its vast plains and deserts to its ascending mountains and descending deep canyons. In Colorado’s San Luis Valley, I found that Western magnificence and more.

I visited working ranches, wildlife sanctuaries, and huge sand dunes, all accented by a ring of 14,000-foot mountain peaks rising above a high-altitude basin floor with an average elevation of 7,664 feet.

The valley, roughly 200 miles south of Denver Metro, dips into New Mexico, and its land area of nearly 8,200 square miles is bigger than the combined landmass of Delaware, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.

Cumbres and Toltec train
The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad train travels through the San Juan Mountains into New Mexico.

Do

In mid-August, standing next to my fellow travelers in the open gondola car of the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad train, I saw aspens far below us already turning yellow-gold. Afternoon rain clouds formed high above as the steam-powered locomotive slowly pulled out of Antonito and into the San Juan Mountains, headed for Cumbres Pass, at 10,022 feet, the highest pass in the U.S. reached by rail. The train goes to Chama, New Mexico, but I disembarked midway, at Osier Station, for meat loaf and potatoes. Passengers can then continue to Chama or take a train headed back to Antonito—a 6-hour-and-40-minute ride round-trip. Adult fare, $95.75. 888-286-2737; cumbrestoltec.com.

As I drove south along US Highway 285, I saw the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east, with peaks soaring above 13,000 feet. Then I saw a smaller, white mountain. “Well, I guess you could say it’s a mountain,” my companion said. “It’s a mountain of sand.” At Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, North America’s tallest sand dunes spread over 30 square miles. Visitors can hike to the top of Star Dune (at 750 feet, the tallest) and sled or sand-board down. With the dunes as a backdrop, Medano Creek gives visitors a seasonal stream in which to play. $15 per-vehicle entrance fee. 719-378-6395; nps.gov/grsa

Gators and Great San Dunes
Left, a dune at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Jay Young, right, holds an alligator at the Colorado Gators Reptile Park.

Visit

“Would you like to hold him?” asked Jay Young, manager of Colorado Gators Reptile Park in Mosca. All I could see was a mouth full of teeth on the 2-foot-long juvenile alligator he held. “Maybe next time.”

The park is home to about 300 alligators, along with Nile crocodiles, turtles, iguanas, and pythons. Some are celebrities, like 10.5-foot-long alligator Morris, star of the movie Happy Gilmore. Most are rescues from owners who could no longer handle them. Started in 1977 as a tilapia farm using the valley’s 87-degree geothermal water, the park added gators in 1987 to consume dead fish. “Our alligators are warmer here in the winter than ones in Florida are,” Young said. Adults, $15. 719-378-2612; coloradogators.com.

In Saguache, the 136-year-old Saguache Crescent is the country’s last newspaper using letterpress printing. Publisher Dean I. Coombs, a third-generation newspaperman, edits, sets type using a 1921 linotype machine, and runs a 1915 flatbed press to print the four-page broadsheet, which has a circulation of about 500. He publishes news and announces events such as the Saguache County Chocolate Festival and summer clearance at the thrift store. Does he mind folks coming in to say hello? “Not at all,” he said, “just not on Tuesdays.” 719-655-2620.

The 4th Street Diner and Bakery
Esther Last in her kitchen at the 4th Street Diner and Bakery in Saguache, Colorado.

Eat

Works by local artists hang on the walls at Saguache’s 4th Street Diner and Bakery, in an 1881-era building with a high ceiling and paneled in narrow wood planking. Esther Last and her family serve hamburgers made from grass-fed beef and rolls, pies, and biscotti. “Everything is fresh,” Last told me, as I sat at the counter and munched on a sandwich piled high with grilled roast turkey and Swiss cheese. 719-655-6411.

Buffalo at the Zapata Ranch
The Zapata Ranch, which is owned by Nature Conservancy, has a herd of bison. 

Stay

The 103,000-acre Zapata Ranch, owned by the Nature Conservancy, is a working cattle operation and home to a 2,000-head bison herd. I headed out with other guests in an SUV to explore. We saw the herd in the distance, along with a couple of stragglers, and a pronghorn on the hillside enjoying breakfast. We took our meals in the main lodge, part of an original 1800s log homestead.

Today, it has large windows, a fireplace, and a comfortable sitting-reading area. All the things I was experiencing in the San Luis Valley were giving me a better understanding of how its pieces fit together in my beloved West. Rates begin at $1,380 for three nights, including activities and meals. 719-378-2356; zranch.org.

From top, photos by K. Philip Harrison / Alamy Stock Photo; Efraín M. Padró (2); Mike Harris (2); and Arina Habich / Alamy Stock Photo

Before You Go

Get a free Colorado / Wyoming map at Auto Club branches. For TourBook guides and TripTik Travel Planners, visit a AAA branch or go to AAA.com/maps. More information about the San Luis Valley is available at sanluisvalley.org.