Photo: Rio Grande Scenic Railroad to Alamosa, Colorado by Larry Lamsa
Nestled in the heart of the San Luis Valley, Alamosa may be just four hours from Denver, but it’s a world away from the hustle and bustle of the Front Range. Visitors to the Centennial State often picture powder-covered slopes and mountainsides dotted with aspens, but what you find in Alamosa is a bit different—while its views of the mountains are beautiful, this town of just under 10,000 is flat and well off the beaten path. That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of adventure to still be had.
From the giant dunes on the valley floor to the sweeping Sangre de Cristos, Alamosa County has plenty to recommend. Here’s why your next vacation, be it a long weekend or a more extended trip, should be to the heart of the San Luis Valley.
1. Brush Up on Your History
Whether you stick to downtown or strike out into Alamosa, this small town is big on history. Alamosa was incorporated in 1878, just two years after statehood came into effect, and was immediately a crucial hub for the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.
Today, visitors can embark on a walking tour of the historic downtown, which includes 25 landmarks. Just east of town is a museum on the site of the now-decommissioned Fort Garland, a military outpost established to protect settlers in the San Luis Valley in the mid-to-late 19th century. For a modern spin on a truly old-fashioned experience, take a spin on the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, whose staff regales passengers with train history and the stories of the miners and settlers of yesteryear.
2. Eat Well
Visit Calvillo's Mexican Restaurant to taste the deliciousness!
The trouble with lots of out-of-the-way destinations is that the menu is pretty limited—but that’s not the case in Alamosa, which plays host to nearly three dozen restaurants. Southern Colorado is home to authentic (and seriously delicious) Mexican food, and if you’re in the market for green chili, Alamosa is the place to be.
3. Mountains are Calling
The craggy Sangre de Cristos rise thousands of feet from the San Luis Valley floor and boasts 10 Fourteeners—peaks over 14,000 feet in elevation—along with countless other hikeable summits. Just under 30 miles from Alamosa is Blanca Peak, which, at 14,345 feet, is the fourth-highest summit in the state. Several routes, ranging from Class 1 (easy hiking) to Class 4 (steep, exposed scrambling), will get you to the top. There’s also plenty of mountain biking in the nearby Rio Grande National Forest, and sport climbers will be chomping at the bit to get to the stunning Penitente Canyon.
4. Experience the High Desert
Visitors can get creative while hiking up the dunes, where there are no official trails, or rent a sandboard in Alamosa or just outside the park to glide down in style. Backcountry camping is allowed both on the dunefield and at several sites along the Sand Ramp Trail, which offers awe-inspiring views of the park’s namesake dunes, the San Luis Valley, and the neighboring Sangre de Cristos.
5. It’s got character
Alamosa is known as the Gateway too, so it’s a no-brainer: The dunes are a can’t-miss destination. It's just a 40-minute drive from downtown to the 130-square-mile park. The most famous feature—the enormous dunefield, which contains the tallest sand dunes in North America (including 750-foot Star Dune)—is worth the visit on its own. Interpretive exhibits at the entrance to the park explain the formation of the dunes, whose landscape changes daily as winds from the valley bring in and rearrange sand.
Along with the farmers’ market, which runs Saturdays from July through October, Alamosa hosts fun, family-friendly festivals throughout the year. Beyond Alamosa’s main drag, too, are opportunities to experience Southern Colorado at its finest (and most interesting)—check out the Colorado Gator Farm or take a drive along Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic Byway.