Shake the sand out of your shoes after a magical time at Great Sands Dunes National Park and hit the road to uncover the best Americana nearby.
By Tori Peglar
While the Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is absolutely gorgeous, don’t miss exploring the string of unique surrounding towns and attractions that create the authentic San Luis Valley culture that is both traditional and wacky, depending on the turn in the road. We scoured the valley, which is larger than the size of Connecticut, for the top 9 stops oozing Americana. Here they are.
Colorado Gators Reptile Park in Mosca
Why go: Ok, here’s your chance to meet an alligator that’s starred in a Hollywood film. Morris the Hollywood alligator, who appeared in the 1996 movie Happy Gilmore starring Adam Sandler, lives here as do a number of alligators. Visitors can pet or feed baby alligators, as well as learn about the dangers of owning exotic pets like Burmese pythons and Nile crocodiles, both of which live at the park. You’ll also see an albino alligator.
Quirky fact: Why alligators in Colorado? While running their working tilapia fish farm in Mosca, the Youngs, purchased their first 100 alligators in 1987 to help them dispose of filleted or dead fish. They opened their doors to the public in 1990 and with that, they’ve become a sanctuary for unwanted exotic pets, in addition to being a working tilapia farm.
Get more information: 9162 W. Co. Rd. 9N, Mosca, CO.; 719-378-2612; http://www.coloradogators.com/
Great Sand Dunes Oasis in Mosca
Why go: Located at the entrance of Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve, the Great Sand Dunes Oasis offers a motel and cabins, along with a campground for tents and RVs, a restaurant and sand-sled rentals. It’s open seasonally, so check the website for opening and closing dates.
Quirky fact: Sledding down sand dunes is a really unique way to experience the park. It’s like winter sledding but without the cold and snow. Rent a sand-sled here after eating a hearty breakfast at the Oasis restaurant.
Get more information: 7800 Hwy. 150 North, Mosca, CO. 81146; 719-378-2222; http://www.greatdunes.com/
Indiana Jones Bed & Breakfast in Antonito
Why go: Featured in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, this small bed and breakfast served as the set for the childhood home of young Indiana Jones played by actor River Phoenix. In the movie, Jones runs home after being chased by robbers in a circus train filled with snakes. The train is actually the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, which you can ride today just down the road from the bed and breakfast. Call ahead if you want a free tour of this historic house built in 1888.
Quirky facts: Here are two. First, Lucasfilm Ltd. paid locals $10-$15 for garter snakes to play a cameo in the train snake scene, according to a 1988 newspaper article. Second, while actor Sean Connery played Indiana Jones’ father, he never set foot in the valley, says Sabra Lynn, owner of the bed and breakfast. Apparently, a body double was used in the house scenes with Connery’s real voice dubbed in.
Get more information: 502 Front St., Antonito, CO.; 800-497-5650; https://www.indianajonesbedandbreakfast.com/
UFO Watchtower in Hooper
Why go: Some may argue that the lack of light pollution in the valley greatly increases your chances of seeing a UFO. After hearing locals talk about UFO sightings over the years, Judy Messoline opened the watchtower in 2000. She says there have been more than 160 sightings. She’s personally seen more than 25.
Quirky fact: Good things have allegedly happened to those who leave a keepsake of sorts in the the watchtower’s Rock Garden. Even if you don’t believe in karma or extraterrestrial life, stroll to the garden to discover kitchen utensils, a chapstick container, children’s toys and books.
Get more information: Two miles north of Hooper on Hwy. 17; 719.378.2296; http://www.ufowatchtower.com/
Worth the Drive Bakery in Monte Vista
Why go: There’s a significant Amish population that has moved to the San Luis Valley in recent years, and this Amish bakery is family-owned. If you visit early enough, you may get a free donut and cup of coffee (while supplies last). Items on the menu can include fruit pies, carrot cake, caramel pecan rolls, apple cinnamon bread and more.
Quirky fact: The Amish first arrived in the United States in the early 1700s to escape religious persecution. While this fast-growing group has traditionally been farmers, many have branched out to construction and carpentry. Most Amish drive horse-drawn wagons rather than automobiles and do not use electricity, gas-powered farm machinery, computers nor radios. Photos are often banned because they could lead to personal vanity, which is highly discouraged in this community-rooted culture.
Get more information: 5115 E Rd. 9 S, Monte Vista, CO., 719-852-0967
Why go: Of all the castles you may see in your life, this will arguably be the most unusual. Rising up in the air several blocks from Antonito’s downtown, Cano’s Castle was built completely from beer cans, hubcaps and other scrap metal by a Native American Vietnam vet, Dominic “Cano” Espinoza. Its four towers are mesmerizing to look at from the roadside. Since it is his private residence, it is not open for tours.
Quirky fact: Espinoza has told visitors that he built his towering castle to honor God who saved him from being killed during the Vietnam War. He has also said the temples in Asia were, in part, his inspiration for his towers. He has a sign outside that reads “Mary Jane is healing,” a reference to marijuana, and another that reads “Alcohol and Tobacco Kills.”
For more information: State St. and East 10th Ave. in Antonito, CO., 81120
Jack Dempsey Museum in Manassa
Why go: If you’ve heard about the legendary Jack Dempsey, one of the world’s best professional boxers, head to this museum. Born June 24, 1895 in a log cabin in Manassa, he climbed out of poverty using his fists, becoming the world heavyweight champion from 1919-26. His fights broke attendance and financial records. Admission is free to the museum and is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day.
Quirky fact: Among the scores of people Dempsey knocked out was millionaire Howard Hughes. Hughes reportedly wanted to see "what it would be like to spar with the heavyweight champion,” according to the site IMDb.
For more information: 412 Main St. in Manassa, CO.; 719-843-5207; https://www.museumtrail.org/jack-dempsey-museum.html
Best Western Movie Manor in Monte Vista
Why go: Check in to this hotel and open the curtains of your room to watch a movie on the drive-in movie screen outside the motel. You’ll hear the movie’s audio through speakers in your room. Note: rooms with two beds do not have a direct view from the beds to the movie screen. However, there are chairs you can sit on to watch the film. The movies are shown seasonally in fall, spring and summer, so call ahead for the schedule.
Quirky fact: There are actually two movie screens: one visible from your room and the other accessed via your car free-of-charge. For those interested in golf, this Best Western also offers a chipping green and a driving range.
For more information: 2830 U.S. Hwy. 160W, Monte Vista, CO., 81144; 800.780.7234; https://www.bestwestern.com/en_US/book/hotels-in-monte-vista/best-western-movie-manor/propertyCode.06029.html
World’s Largest Fork in Creede
Why go: Just 50 minutes from Monte Vista up Hwys. 160 and 149 from the San Luis Valley lies the charming town of Creede, Colo. Home to a lively Creede Repertory Theatre in the summer, it’s also where you’ll find the world’s largest fork, a striking aluminum sculpture 40-feet-long. Keith Siddel commissioned Chev and Ted Yund to create the fork as a birthday present to his wife Denise Dutweiler, owner of the Cascada Bar & Grill & Cabins in Creede.
Quirky fact: In 2012, the Yunds created the fork to be longer than the Giant Fork in Springfield, Missouri, which is 35-feet-long and held the title for the world’s largest fork. Today, the fork in Creede holds the world title.
For more information: 981 La Garita St., Creede, CO. 81130; 719.658.1033; http://www.cascadagrill.com/Restaurant.html
Tori Peglar loves exploring new places, especially the unusual and eclectic stops along the road like this top 9 list. She covers national park travel for for National Park Trips Media in Boulder, Colo.