Front Range Family Getaway - 36 Hours in Alamosa
When was the last time you looked up into the night sky and saw a vast blanket of twinkling stars? It’s an awe-inspiring sight, one you’re hard-pressed to find living in the big city with its 24/7 lights. And when was the last time you heard no traffic, no mass of humanity rushing through their days...
It’s time to take a Colorado getaway to Alamosa. “Alamosa?” you say? Yes, because it’s not far from Alamosa that you’ll be able to see a blanket of stars and hear…nothing. Alamosa is located in Colorado’s south-central San Luis Valley, a high altitude basin with expansive views. It’s a place steeped in the history of American Indian, Hispanic and European settlers and explorers. Bordered to the west by the San Juan Mountains and to the east, the Sangre de Cristos so named by an explorer who, in 1719 upon seeing the red-tinted, snowy peaks at sunrise, is said to have fervently uttered: “Blood of Christ” (English translation). A whopping ten of its glaciated summits soar to over 14,000 feet.
Milky Way over the Sand Dunes, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Friday Drive, Dinner & UFOs
Let’s get you on your way. Clear the kids’ calendars, your calendar, download some movies or podcasts, grab some snacks, water bottles and a backpack for a Saturday evening picnic adventure and a couple of duffles packed for 36 hours of inspiration.
Even if not having to head up I-70, the earlier in the afternoon you can hop in the car the better to avoid traffic and get to Alamosa in time for dinner and relaxation. Consider US-285, a much more scenic route, one that will get you out of your city mentality more quickly. Routes driving from Denver to Alamosa.
Friday Dinner (via US-285):
Where to eat between Denver and Alamosa? About 2.5 hours into your drive, try Eddyline Restaurant in Buena Vista. They’ll have beers “for any adventure” on tap from their brewery and plenty of food options for the whole family. Simple Eatery is another option for casual dining.
UFOs: Once you hit the town of Villa Grove south of Buena Vista, you’ll be entering the north end of the San Luis Valley. It’s known for its dark skies so you might tell the kids to look for UFOs. There have been multiple sightings there since the 1600s so claims a sign at the UFO watchtower (it’s actually a viewing platform) near Hooper, just north of Alamosa. The watchtower has been named one of the top destinations for UFO fans by the Travel Channel.
Photo By © UFO Watchtower
Where to Eat Dinner in Alamosa: If you arrive in Alamosa in time for dinner, there are plenty of fast-food chains but why not try something different and support the locals? Head to the San Luis Valley Steaks, Pizza and Pasta for a hand-cut aged premium steak, hand-tossed pizza or homemade Italian meat lasagne among other menu options. Calvillos Mexican Restaurant is another good spot for the family. You can order authentic Mexican from the menu or you can dish out from the all-day buffet.
Saturday AM: Bison Tour or Colorado Gators Reptile Park
First, Breakfast in Alamosa. There’s a Starbucks for those who can’t go without, or try a homemade, humongous cinnamon roll, huevos rancheros, pancakes and all the other breakfast favs at the Campus Cafe.
Zapata Ranch. The Zapata Ranch is a 103,000-acre bison and guest ranch owned by The Nature Conservancy. The Zapata Ranch bison tours are offered on Saturdays, March through October at 9 am and 12 pm. To give you time for afternoon activities, take the 9 am tour. You’ll learn about the bison and their management while having the opportunity to see and photograph them. Also, get a feel for ranch life as you tour buildings from the 1870s that are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Bison at Zapata Ranch. Photo By: @ranchlands
Colorado Gators Reptile Park. Just 20 minutes from Alamosa is the Colorado Gators Reptile Park in Mosca. The park began as a tilapia farm with 100 gators purchased to dispose of dead fish and fish remains. It's now turned into an educational facility home not only to gators but also, unwanted reptiles like tortoises, pythons, and iguanas. Kids 4 and up can earn their “Junior Handler” certificate after taking a reptile handling class ($100). They’ll be handling snakes, lizards, alligators, turtles, and tortoises. Note that the park is open on Saturdays at 9 am or 10 am depending on the season of your visit. Be there when it opens to give you time for lunch and the sand dunes.
Saturday PM: Lunch in Alamosa, Sand Dunes and Stars with Picnic Dinner
Where to Eat Lunch in Alamosa? For appetizers, burgers, salads, sandwiches and street tacos, head over to the San Luis Valley Brewing Company. They have homemade root beer and black cherry cream soda for the kids and for the adults, a full bar, seasonal and guest brews. Also open for breakfast and dinner.
Pack a Picnic Dinner and Pick up Your Sandboard/Sled. Head to Subway, City Market or Safeway delis to pack your favorite picnic dinner nosh. Then, if you want to sandboard or sled the dunes, stop at Kristi Mountain Sports to rent one.
North America’s tallest sand dunes are in The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The park’s ecosystems range from forests to wetlands to tundra. It’s a special place during the day, let alone at nighttime, where exploration by park rangers is encouraged. Here’s what you can do in the park.
Sandboarding, Great Sand Dunes National Park
Sand sledding and sandboarding in the dunes. If you didn’t pick up your rentals in Alamosa, then stop by the Oasis Store (Spring through early Fall) just outside the park entrance. The Oasis also has groceries, a restaurant, lodging, and camping.
Hiking. Whether you’d like to hike the sand dunes, the forest wilderness or alpine lakes and summits, there are several hiking options from ¼ mile on up. See the Sand Dunes Visitor Guide for more information.
Splash in Medano Creek - if visiting in the summer, sand temps can reach 150 degrees. Cool off in Medano Creek. Water from snowmelt flows to the base of the dunes creating a wide shallow stream. Depending on the season, kids can frolic in surge flows. Underwater sand ridges build up and break, creating a wave about every 20 seconds.
Fat Biking - Medano Pass Primitive Road
A Blanket of Stars, Stillness, and Creatures of the Night - nocturnal creatures of the dunes emerge at night, like the tiger salamander. Use a dim light or red light to find them. Listen for one of 9 species of owls and perhaps you’ll spot a kangaroo rat jumping high in the air to avoid the jaws of a bobcat.
The dunes are a fascinating acoustic environment. Sand absorbs sound, making this place so quiet that you could record an album here. See how long you and the kids can be still. Take turns describing how it feels.
Plan to view the stars on a moonless night. The dune field has the most open view of the sky. Download an app on your phone (before you go - there’s no cell service in or near the park) to help you navigate the night sky or you can go to the visitor center to pick up a star chart. Spot meteors, planets, the Milky Way and satellites. Take time to marvel at the universe above you, something you can’t see once back home.
Just as spectacular but in a different light is visiting the park during a full moon. Check the Old Farmer’s Almanac for full moon dates. If you’ve never hiked by a full moon, you’re all in for a treat.
The visitor center is open year-round. Check for Sand Dunes ranger programs, including evening programs, that are offered during the summer and fall. Kids ages 3 and up can become Junior Rangers - even a Night Explorer (ages 5-12). They’ll earn a patch after completing their booklets.
Sunday: Brunch on a Historic Train or Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge
Rio Grande Scenic Railroad. Photo By © Colorado Train
It’s a lazy Sunday morning. Sleep in and relax, then...
Rio Grande Scenic Railroad. This narrow-gauge railway put Alamosa on the map after its completion in 1878. Freight trains supplied ore, lumber, cattle, sheep and farm products to the San Luis Valley that in turn, freighted out agricultural and mining products. Passenger trains came too from Denver, Durango, Santa Fe, Salida, and Creede.
Plan for brunch on the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad as you travel on historic tracks that wind through steep, rocky grades and mountain meadows. The brunch train runs September through December, departing from the historic depot in Alamosa at 12:30 pm, returning by 2:30 pm. Adults receive a complimentary glass of champagne with their ticket purchase; kids can sip hot cocoa. The railroad offers other trips including a fall colors explorer and wine trains depending on the time of year, although these are better for adults and, or longer itineraries.
If the train isn’t running, have breakfast in Alamosa and then visit the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge.
Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge. Sandhill cranes - 23,000- 27,000 of them - migrate through the San Luis Valley bi-annually. The Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge is an 11,000-acre high mountain basin that conserves and enhances the wetland and desert habitat to provide crucial feeding, resting and breeding grounds for over 200 bird species. The best time to see the migrating sandhill cranes is in mid-March and mid-October but even in the dead of winter, there are things to see. When the weather turns cold, raptors swoop into the valley including bald eagles, great horned owls, and rough-legged hawks. Deer, elk, porcupines, jackrabbits and coyotes can also be spotted during the winter and year-round.
Sandhill Cranes, San Luis Valley
Where to Stay in Alamosa
There are a number of lodging options in Alamosa, including sites for camping and RVs.
Staying at Zapata Ranch, you’d be in for a customizable, luxury experience. The ranch is a bit further afield 30 minutes from Alamosa but closer to Great Sand Dunes National Park. They offer 2 night stays March through May on a first-come, first-serve basis, otherwise stays are from 3 to 7 nights. Meals and activities are included in your stay.
About Laurie Marks: Laurie is a health, travel and tourism writer based in Durango, Colorado.