With its craggy peaks and remote canyons, the San Luis Valley attracts plenty of hardcore explorers, but it’s also a fantastic destination for families. From the Great Sand Dunes to Penitente Canyon, you’ll find fun activities suited for everyone in the family, from children to grandparents.
Kids will have a blast zooming down sand dunes and splashing in thermal pools, and everyone in the family can enjoy easily accessible campsites with nearby mellow trails that wind through striking scenery. Plus, the valley holds unique and unexpected thrills, like train rides through the rugged mountains and close encounters with alligators.
To help you plan a trip that will create lifelong memories for everyone in your family, we’ve picked out some of the best activities and must-see destinations in the San Luis Valley.
Sandboard on the Dunes
With mountains of sand and 30 square miles of desert surrounded by jagged peaks, Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is a destination that your family will never forget. While the scenery makes for awesome family photos, it’s also a place where everyone can join in some exciting fun together. Join the kids in hiking to the top of “High Dune,” which towers nearly 700 feet above the visitor center and slide back down on a special sandboard. It’s just what it sounds like: the board looks like a snowboard, but it’s meant to slide on the rough sand. Rent boards at Kristi Mountain Sports in nearby Alamosa, and then head to the park.
Soak in the Springs
Just outside of Alamosa there are four privately operated hot springs, two of which are excellent for families with kids who can’t wait to splash around. Since 1955, Splashland has been operating in Alamosa, and it includes three family-friendly water slides, plus designated family swim nights. The water enters the pools at 102 degrees Fahrenheit and varies from 88 degrees to a balmy 96 degrees.
Another great option is Sand Dunes Recreation, where the swimming pool is open year round and there are family swim nights. Plus, the pool has an area for people 21 and older where you can relax with an adult beverage. In addition to the pool, the recreation complex includes Fruition Golf, which sports three state-of-the-art golf simulator bays, a putting green, and a selection of beer and wine. All of that fun is going to make you hungry, so head to the on-site Mile Deep Grille for Mexican food, pizza, sandwiches, burgers, and seafood.
Camp at Penitente Canyon
Penitente Canyon is best known for rock climbing and mountain biking, but it also offers easily-accessible camping and a handful of great hikes of varying difficulty and length. Camping at Penitente is first-come, first-served, and it’s only $11 per night for a site that accommodates up to two cars and six people.
For a moderate hike, try the three-mile Blue Sky Loop with excellent views of the canyon and surrounding mountains and gorgeous wildflowers surround the path in spring. If you have any history buffs in your family, head to the end of North Witches Canyon Road (also Road 5207) and take the Penitente Canyon Loop Trail to a spot where wagon wheels wore tracks into the bedrock of the Old Spanish Trail. In the 1830s and 1840s, American and Mexican traders used this route to transport goods via mule train.
Meet the Gators
Humans aren’t the only ones who thrive in the temperate waters of the San Luis Valley. In 1977, a tilapia farm opened in Mosca, and the proprietors, the Young family, invested in a few alligators to get rid of the fish remains naturally. Eventually, the farm became an educational center, and today, visitors can head to the Colorado Gators Reptile Park to see these giant reptiles in the flesh. The farm has since become a sanctuary for many unwanted reptilian pets and also includes a bird sanctuary. It’s home to several rare albino gators, plus the famous gator from the Adam Sandler film “Happy Gilmore.”
Ride the Rails
There are a few undeniable truths in the world, and one is that kids love trains. That’s why the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad makes an unforgettable excursion for the whole family. Parents (especially those interested in history) will love seeing the San Luis Valley as some of its earliest settlers did, while kids will delight in rumbling down the tracks with the rugged landscape sliding by. Some of the train cars have been restored to resemble their early days, inspiring passengers to imagine that they’ve traveled back in time to the Old West.
You can catch the train at the depot in downtown Alamosa. From there, you’ll head into the high mountains and La Veta Pass, which exceeds 9,000 feet of elevation. During the trip, your family will have access to restrooms and food no matter what class of service you purchase. As you make your travel plans, keep in mind that the train operates a number of seasonal tours, including leaf-peeping and pumpkin patch rides, plus the Christmas Town train during the winter months.
Picnic at Zapata Falls
Waterfall hikes often require an arduous uphill journey, which is why the half-mile hike to Zapata Falls will come as a refreshing treat. Zapata Falls is accessible from Highway 150, so it’s a great spot to spend a few hours picnicking before or after an adventure at the Great Sand Dunes. From the Zapata Falls Trailhead, you’ll follow a well-maintained path to reach the cascade, which is starkly different from the rest of the arid landscape you’ll find in the San Luis Valley. Kids can scramble around near the base of the 30-foot waterfall, and there’s plenty of room for the whole family to hang out.
For many people, the fondest memories of childhood come from family trips, whether it was a summer visit to a national park or just a weekend excursion to a favorite swimming hole. If you want to build lasting memories, you can’t go wrong with a vacation full of outdoor adventure. In the San Luis Valley, the breathtaking scenery and easygoing entertainment are sure to create special moments for the entire family.
Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with Alamosa CVB.