Exploring Colorado’s San Luis Valley - a hidden gem

Exploring Colorado’s San Luis Valley - a hidden gem

Denise Krenning

San Luis Valley Map

Colorado's San Luis Valley is found in the lower western part of Colorado, a nice leisurely 3-5 hour drive from Denver. There are more acres and animals found in this area than people, making it a perfect weekend getaway for social distancing while experiencing the beautiful outdoors. One of the best time to visit this part of Colorado is in springtime when the San Juan Mountains are crowning with snowcap tops highlighted against our legendary blue skies. As you drive, you are surrounded with views that are simply stunning and will be with you always. 

Colorado San Juan Mountains

San Juan Mountains CO 

What brought us down to the San Luis valley was the hope of seeing the Sandhill Cane's yearly migration to the Mount Vista National Wildlife Refuge, located six miles south of the small town of Monte Vista.  

The migration path of the Sandhill Cranes starts in early February lasting into late March. Thousands of these huge birds flock from Nebraska nonstop towards New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, with their mating pit stop in Colorado

The song of mating for these great water birds is part of their DNA and has been going on for hundreds of years. The jumping and wind flapping sounds of the bird dance while trying to attract their mates is a very noisy and at times overwhelming in their quest to impress. Let me just say, those birds know how to dance! I love how she's not impressed in this photo. 

Sandhill Cranes in San Luis valley CO

On the way to find these massive winged birds, we also found hundreds, I mean hundreds of baby lambs. The first Spanish settlers introduced sheepherding in the mid-1800s in the San Luis Valley and is now known as being one of the largest exporter of livestock and wool in the nation. These ranches are run by families generations rooted deep in this valley. I was watching this flock from the truck in awe before I finally got out to take this photo and oh my goodness, the baaaaaa noise and baby cuteness overwhelmed me and unfortunately, the flock quickly moved away as mommies pushed the lambs with their baaaa yells. This was a first for me making it another memorable experience on this trip. 

Colorado Baby Lambs in Spring

Springtime means hundreds of baby lambs

We soon left all the nature of birds and babies behind and headed toward Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park. From Monte Vista headed east, it's a mere 54 mile drive on highway 6N. The park is open 24/7 year round and no reservations are required to visit. A day pass to Colorado State Parks is required at a cost of $25 per day or $120 for a yearly pass. If you are fortunate enough to be a Colorado resident, the Aspen Leaf Passes are available to anyone 64 or older and give unlimited access to all Colorado State Parks. Like a golden Aspen leaf, this pass is gold too!          

Colorado National Park Sand Dunes 

Great Sand Dunes National Park CO

There are many seasons to the Great Sand Dunes but spring is the best time to visit. Less crowds, perfect weather and if you time it right, Medano Creek will be flowing. Late May and early June gives the best opportunity to experience the "surge flow", where waves flow across the sand from the San Juan winter snow run off. Temperatures are in the high 60-70's, making this shallow river heaven for kids of all ages to float, splash and get down with the waves. It's a highlight of spring many Colorado kids look forward to each year. 

Medano Creek, Colorado National Park The Great Sand Dunes  

Family time playing in Medano Creek

One of the coolest and most Colorado thing you can do is Sandboarding and Sand Sledding down the sand dunes. While the walk up the sand is a challenge, especially in the Colorado high attitude, the ride down more than makes up for the gasping breaths up. You can rent a board at a few retailers in the San Luis Valley. Some retailers are a 45 minute drive away from the dunes so plan ahead if your planning on renting gear before arriving at the park. There is specific equipment to ride these dunes so make sure you do your research for this fun!

Sandboarding the Great Colorado Sand Dunes 

Sandboarding the Great Sand Dunes in Colorado

 Rving and Camping

There are several options for Rv'ing and camping around this area. We prefer state parks for our camping experiences and always try to snag those spots first. That means in Jan, we pull out our calendars and start reserving sites.  

For small trailers and tents, The Pinon Flats campground at the Great Sand Dunes is a great option. It's open April 1st-Oct 31st and all sites must be reserved  through recreation.gov or you can contact them by phone at 1(877) 444-6777 for possible last minute cancellations. Reservations can be made up to six months in advance. There are 88 sites, tents and/or trailers up to 25 feet.  No hook-ups are available. These book up fast especially in spring when Medano Creek is running. 

We stayed at Lathrop State Park in Walsenburg which is about a 1 1/2 hour drive from the Great Sand Dunes, making it a short day trip to and from our campsite. Lathrop is a fantastic Colorado State Park for Rving. We have a larger pull trailer and prefer hookups. We basecamp here anytime we head south. It's a perfect 1-2 night layover headed to and from Arizona as we migrate for the winter as well. 

Colorado Lathrop State Park

Lathrop State Park Campground

There are two seperate campgrounds at Lathrop. Yucca and Pinon. Yucca has 21 back in campsites and is non electric. Pinon has 82 campsites, pull through and back in sites, all with 50 amp electrical hookups. It has pay showers in each loop. There is a dump station as well. The sites are spread out and offer privacy along with incredible mountain and night views. Most of the landscape is low, Pinon Pines, hence the name of the campground. It does get windy here at times so watch that awning and tighten those tent stakes. What's really interesting about this state park is besides hiking, camping and fishing, campers can enjoy a round of golf at the 9-hole course which is operated by the City of Walsenburg.  For more information or to book a tee time, call the golf course at 719-738-2730 or golfwalsenburg.com

Enjoy this part of Colorado where less is more and social distancing is the norm!   

Happy Trails everyone!