Located in the San Luis Valley, Alamosa is the largest city in south-central Colorado. With a population of just under 10.000, the county seat of Alamosa County is the commercial center for the area.
Alamosa is home to Adams State University and as a result, the city features many restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores and other amenities. It certainly serves as a hub to the surrounding communities, small towns about 20 miles in every direction.
Once a railroad town, now Alamosa caters to tourism. It is the gateway to the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and is a mecca for outdoor activities.
Look for Aliens
Coming to Alamosa from the north on CO-17, drivers pass by the UFO Watch Tower. The watchtower is a platform with a 360 degree view of the San Luis Valley. It costs $2/person or $5/car to visit. If you want to stay after 5pm, you must camp for $15.
Visit a Gator Farm
Aliens aren’t your thing? What about seeing gators sunning by geothermal waters with snow-capped mountains in the background? I was stunned to find out gators can handle such cold temperatures that they have been found frozen in ice and when it thaws they go on their merry way.
The Colorado Gators Reptile Park, which was started as a tilapia farm, has over 100 gators. They also have tortoises and exotic lizards. Most of these animals were previous pets that they have rescued.
The gator park is also home to the rare albino gator, emus, and two famous gators that have been featured in Happy Gilmore, the Lubriderm commercial, and TV shows.
As much as I enjoyed spending 45 minutes looking around, I felt like the admission fee for adults was a little steep especially given many tanks were in need of cleaning. Algae grew on the glass making it difficult to see certain exhibits. Additionally, I wasn’t too fond of the “Certificate of Bravery” routine when the employee clamps a baby alligator’s mouth on a piece of paper.
That said, it would be a fun place for kids, especially since a bucket of gator food is available for purchase. Also, check their website for a discount coupon.
If a gator farm in Colorado sounds hokey, and you rather be in the outdoors, then visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve. You can hike, go off-roading, splash in Medano Creek, and of course sandboard.
The sand dunes at the park cover 30 square miles and includes the tallest sand dune (750 feet) in North America. Sandboard rentals are available just outside the park at Oasis.
Note that climbing the dunes at altitude is hard and the sand can be hot. We were exhausted after only one climb up. With a group of people, you can save some money and take turns boarding!
Take a Hike
As mentioned above, there is more to do in the park than just sandboard. There are a variety of hiking options. While we visited, we hiked to Medano Lake, however, getting to the trailhead requires a 4×4 vehicle and good driving skills in the sand.
This hike is not the only option, so don’t fret. You may also hike outside the park. A short easy trail is to Zapata Falls. The trailhead may be found in the Zapata Falls Campground.
Stroll Downtown Alamosa
When you are finished hiking, treat yourself to a beer at one of the several breweries and restaurants lining Alamosa’s main street. Being a college town, there are plenty of choices. And the main street, with its old buildings is quite cute.
Tour Fort Garland
Another cool place to stroll, is through Fort Garland. Fort Garland is approximately 30 minutes east of Alamosa. Fort Garland was built in 1858, ten years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but most of the adobe buildings, many original, house a variety of historical displays. I’m not the biggest museum person, and it took me 1.5 hours to shuffle through. History buffs will love the old photos, exhibits and story boards.
The Fort housed the Colorado Volunteers during the Battle of Glorieta during the Civil War. It also served as negotiating grounds between Kit Carson and Chief Ouray to establish peace treaties with the Native Americans.
Furthermore, the 9th Calvary, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, stationed at the Fort for three years. While the origin of the name is disputed, the most common explanation is that the Indians gave the black soldiers the name, as they associated their appearance and valiant tenacity with the buffalo.
The 9th Calvary were also patrolled Yosemite National Park before the introduction of park rangers.
On a side note, did you know the Army once experimented with bicycles for transportation? I learned so much during my visit to Fort Garland. It is definitely worth the price of admission.
Walk the Stations of the Cross
From Fort Garland, consider popping down to San Luis to visit the Sangre de Cristo Catholic Church and the stations of the cross. I’m not a church goer, but walking these stations marked by magnificent sculptures in a natural setting to the church perched atop a hill is very interesting.
I really liked that each sculpture depicted a scene and include an associated bible verse. What a great way to learn about the Bible.
The church, though simple, looks beautiful up on the hill and also provides magnificent views of the San Luis Valley. I just loved the natural setting of it all.
In fact, this might sound sacrilegious, but it felt more genuine walking the stations of the cross in Colorado than it did in Jerusalem next to all the tourist stores!
Another neat area by the church is the trail that circles through busts of saints. My only beef is that all the busts depicted male saints. Regardless, the church warrants a visit.
Being south in San Luis, it might be worth a slight detour to Antonito when returning west if you like seeing unique roadside attractions like houses made of cans. Cano’s Castle is here as is the oldest church in Colorado, Our Lady of Guadeloupe Parish Church.
Shoot (as in snap a photo) the Sandhill Cranes
If San Luis and Antonito is too far to go, consider driving 20 minutes west from Alamosa to visit the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. The Sandhill Cranes migrate through Colorado in March and October and land here. The Monte Vista Crane Festival is held in March. When I visited just after a cold snap in October, I caught the last of them along with a herd of elk.
While the attractions are a bit spread out in the surrounding towns, Alamosa is at least a good stopping point on a long road trip. ETB