Travel After 50: Soak up history, beauty in Sangre De Cristo National Heritage Area

Built on tradition and sheer grit, Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area continues to flourish centuries after its first founders settled the communities around Alamosa.

Now a scenic agritourism destination in the San Luis Valley, it boasts big, wide skies, snow-capped peaks and rippling sand dunes — along with an independent spirit infusing its art, landmarks and food. Explore like a history seeker, nature lover and cultural connoisseur as you travel across Colorado’s distinctive southern landscape.

History Seekers

First inhabited by Apache and Ute Indians, then Spanish explorers, Mexicans and Mormons among other ethnic and religious groups, the expansive Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area is a true melting pot. Its rich diversity of communities and farm country span an astonishing 3,000 square miles.

Pause for notable ethnic settlements like Spanish-and-Mexican-suffused San Luis, Colorado’s oldest town (founded in 1851) that also boasts the state’s oldest water rights and oldest business, R&R Market. Meander through the sleepy villages of the Culebra River (Chama, San Pedro, Los Fuertes, Garcia, Jaroso, San Francisco, San Acacio and Mesita) to experience more of the region’s traditional Hispano heritage. Or visit Conejos, Colorado’s oldest parish near the New Mexico border, for its Spanish influences (including Our Lady of Guadalupe, the oldest church in Colorado, where the valley’s first priests were assigned in the late 1850s). Alamosa — which became San Luis Valley’s center of commerce during the early 1900s — offers an even broader mix of cultural influences, including German and Dutch. And Platoro — a small, former mining town located several miles west of Antonito — got its start with discovery of both gold and silver in the early 1880s. Its name is, in fact, a combination of the Spanish words for silver (plata) and gold (oro).

Dig further into Sangre de Cristo’s Wild West history with a visit to Fort Garland. From 1858–1883, the fort operated as the San Luis Valley’s only military base, hosting notable guests like Chief Ouray along with a unit of African American Buffalo Soldiers, brought West primarily to protect new settlers. This borderland was ruled by Spain and Mexico. It only became part of the United States after the Mexican–American War (1846–1848).

Travelers seeking the spiritual side of the San Luis Valley will have plenty to see as well. Visit San Luis for its sculptural Stations of the Cross Shrine and La Capilla de Todos los Santos, a Catholic chapel on top of San Pedro Mesa. Or plan your trip around San Luis’ century-old Santa Ana Festival, which happens annually during the last weekend of July. Alamosa’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church is another National Register gem, built in 1922 in a Spanish Revival style.

More historic places: Travel through the tiny farming town of Manassa, founded in 1851 and primarily settled by Mormons, for its ubiquitous pioneer spirit that lives on even today. It’s also the birthplace of famed boxer Jack Dempsey. For Hispano-ranching history, ask park rangers about the Trujillo Homesteads while visiting Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve near Alamosa. The original homesteads, settled in 1865, are now part of nearby Zapata Ranch. Though it isn’t accessible to the public, the site plays a significant role in the settling of the San Luis Valley.

Nature Lovers

Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area isn’t just for history buffs. Its fertile landscape is as varied as its cultural heritage.

Ski, sled or simply slide down enormous sand dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. They’re all that’s left of Lake Alamosa, which disappeared from the landscape about 2 million years ago. While you’re there, explore the park’s Indian Grove — 72 ponderosa pines that were once used for medicine by Ute and Apache Indians. Or wade in the seasonal Medano Creek, Colorado’s beachfront, which appears each spring as snow melts from the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountain range.

Next, ride the rails and see the picturesque West with new eyes along the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad in Antonito or the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad in Alamosa. Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area is a partner and supporter of the Cumbres & Toltec Historic Car Project, which is working to recreate an authentic train experience from 100 years ago. (The Rio Grande Scenic Railroad will not be running for tourists in 2020, but check back in 2021 for potential new offerings.)

Or, head to the Rio Grande Natural Area for its rugged scenery and proximity to the Rio Grande, the area’s most well-known water feature. Designated by Congress in 2006, protected land spans the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge to the New Mexico state border. Explore both the Rio Grande and its tributary Conejos River, along with the region’s numerous smaller lakes and wetlands — by foot, kayak or with a fly-fishing rod in hand. Or birdwatch at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge and Baca National Wildlife Refuge.

Want a taste of ranch life? Plan an overnight retreat or a private tour at Zapata Ranch in Mosca. Or book a dude-ranch vacation at Rainbow Trout Ranch in Antonito with activities like horseback riding, moving cattle, nature hikes, family meals and much more.

Cultural Connoisseurs

Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area’s cultural offerings, influenced by the region’s many ethnic traditions, are distinctive as well. You won’t find any place like it across the West.

Travel back in time along the Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic & Historic Byway for even more American Indian and Hispano culture, recreational opportunities and wildlife viewing. The 129-mile scenic byway can take as little as three hours and spans cultural richness dating back 11,000 years — though it’s best to span the drive over three days to allow for lots of exploration. Watch for interpretive markers that tell the story of the region.

As you travel through heritage-area towns, keep watch for colorful murals. Notable locations include: Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Alamosa (religious imagery painted by a German-American artist, Josef Steinhage, 1940s); Luther Bean Museum in Alamosa (a mural depicting the naming of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains by Noel Tucker, 1937); Whooping Crane south of Romeo (a crane painted on a brick silo, Fred Haberlein); Our Lady of Guadalupe in Guadalupe (completed by local artist Rogelio Briones in 2007); the Silos in Antonito (also by Haberlein, representing inhabitants of the area, including Ancestral Puebloans, American Indians, plus Hispano, Mormon and Dutch settlers); and many more.

Also, make stops for culinary treats at numerous Mexican restaurants in Alamosa, then support the area’s burgeoning farm-to-table brewing movement at one of three breweries.

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