6 quirky things in Southern Colorado to add to your travel bucket list
There’s a side to Colorado that many people do not know. A quirky, odd side packed with roadside attractions and unusual experiences.
Let’s call it the south side. San Luis Valley, in particular, is home to one of the state’s most unique pockets. Surrounded on all sides by mountains, which contribute to a slightly different climate, the valley boasts strange natural features (such as the nation’s tallest sand dune, with snowy mountain peaks in the background) and a large number of UFO sightings. Combine this with the friendly, small-town folks you’ll meet here, many with plenty of tall tales to share, and it makes for an amusing road trip only about four hours from Denver.
Most travelers know about the Great Sand Dunes National Park, where you can sled down the sand hills, splash in Medano Creek and build sand castles near your campsite. But that’s just the beginning of the adventures in this area. Here are six other weird things you can experience in southern Colorado. Put them together for arguably Colorado’s best roadside attraction staycation.
1. MEET A FAMOUS ALLIGATOR.
Hundreds of alligators live at the Colorado Gators Reptile Park in Mosca. This rescue started by accident; the founders bought a bunch of baby gators to dispose of leftover tilapia at a former fish farm. But the area’s geothermal waters were ideal for gators, and, as they grew, they became a tourist draw. Today, visitors can get up close to gators and other reptiles, pet turtles, hold a baby gator and even meet Morris, the 450-pound alligator star from “Interview with a Vampire” and “Happy Gilmore.”
2. LIVE OFF THE GRID IN THE WILD WEST.
A hidden gem about 15 minutes past Sa guache is Old Cow Town, a tiny getaway built onto the side of the hills and designed to look and feel just like a real Wild West horse stop. Buildings are carefully constructed to look authentic, historical artifacts are scattered everywhere (there’s even a horse-drawn hearse), country music streams throughout the grounds and guests can go on trail rides and hikes and enjoy live music in the dance hall. Mill Creek Ranch at Old Cow Town is all-inclusive, so you can truly immerse yourself in the era and have no need to leave the grounds.
3. SEE THE VIRGIN OF GUADALUPE WHILE ROCK CLIMBING.
Penitente Canyon in the San Luis Valley is a respected rock climbing destination, with more than 300 different routes. But the most unusual features an old painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, captured high on a canyon wall. Locals will eagerly tell you tales of the artwork, and the legend of the man who supposedly suspended himself from a car tire to paint it. While in the area, you may also see the neo-parrya, one of the state’s rarest plants.
4. LEAVE AN OFFERING FOR ALIENS.
The UFO Watchtower in Central is built on what more than two dozen psychics have deemed energetically important land. They claim this is the location of two big vortexes, which some believe may account for the high number of UFO and alien reports in this area. The “watchtower” itself is just a small domed gift shop with a metal deck, but the view of the mountainscape is stunning—regardless of whether or not you believe in alien life. The deck also overlooks a field of scattered mementos: letters, coins, trinkets, toys—all left for good luck. Leave your own offering and the believers say you’ll secure some good karma.
5. WEAVE IN AND OUT OF NEW MEXICO ON A LOCOMOTIVE.
The Cumbres and Toltec steam train that departs from the tiny town of Antonito is one of the highlights of southern Colorado. The nation’s most complete example of a late19th century narrow-gauge railroad, the coal-fueled steam engine was built in 1880, and weaves travelers across the Colorado/New Mexico border 11 times, in addition to providing jaw-dropping views of a 900-foot gorge, ghost town and multiple dark tunnels.
6. LIVE WITH WILD BISON.
Zapata Ranch in Mosca, a short drive from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, is home to about 2,000 wild bison and features one of the most ecologically diverse landscapes in the United States. Guests at this luxurious, all-inclusive ranch can ride horses out into the middle of the herd—or walk right up to Gordon, the ranch’s friendly, domesticated bison, and get a snuggle. This young bison acts like a huge puppy. Huge. Even kids can pet him through the fence. At night, unwind in the hot tub, with sweeping views of the sand dunes and mountains not far away.