MONTE VISTA — Leading up to the first day of spring, Sandhill Cranes flock by the thousands into Colorado’s San Luis Valley. It’s their annual pit stop en route to their nesting grounds further north. Birders travel from all over the country to witness the National Geographic-type phenomenon, which for more than three decades has been celebrated with the annual Monte Vista Crane Festival (March 9-11).
“But there’s more to do in March than crane viewing in the valley,” says Monte Vista resident Jenny Nehring, who heads up the all-volunteer Monte Vista Crane Festival Committee.
The San Luis Valley is an explorer’s dream. It’s checkerboard roads roll past old farmhouses and vast fields, historic churches and Buddhist stupas. Past hot springs, UFO watchtowers and stunning rock formations. Past pronghorn, sage, rabbitbrush and prairie dog colonies. For the sports enthusiasts, there are snowshoeing, hiking, sand-dune sledding and mountain biking. For food and culture enthusiasts, there are unique restaurants, businesses and events.
Those visiting the Valley to see Sandhill Cranes might want to take a little extra time to check out these scenic drives. They're relatively short; and most roads are arrow-straight and well-maintained, with minimal traffic.
Remember to keep a lookout for Sandhill Cranes along the way. "Cranes can be seen throughout the valley on farm fields and wetlands or even flying overhead in the thermals,” says Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge manager Suzanne Beauchaine. “But to see the impressive gathering of several thousand birds, you’ll need to come to the refuge.”
Drive #1: Great Sand Dunes National Park, UFO Watchtower, Sand Dunes Recreation hot spring
Mileage: 126 miles
Alamosa is on the way to and from the Sand Dunes and provides something for just about everyone. The Garden Spot retail store is great for gardening enthusiasts, while the Rainbow Thrift Store offers a great selection of gently-used, small-town treasures (the Nazarene Thrift Store in Monte Vista also has an interesting selection). There’s even something for beer enthusiasts, who can belly up to the bar at a few of the area's farm-to-tap breweries: Colorado Farm Brewery, San Luis Valley Brewing and Square Peg Brewerks. The Colorado Farm Brewery is hosting a pre-opening for the crane festival and serving a special-brewed crane beer. Kristi Mountain Sports is another must stop to rent a sandboard, sled or ski rental for gliding across the dunes.
Great Sand Dunes National Park is about 40 minutes from Alamosa. Be sure to stop by park headquarters for information about the best stops and current weather conditions. Take warm layers to wear, water and snacks. After the dunes, check out the UFO Watchtower on Highway 17 in Hooper. Owner Judy Messoline loves chatting about aliens, UFO sightings and the purported parallel-universe portals in her rock garden.
Round out the trip with a hot soak at the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool in Mosca. “If you arrive before dusk, you’ll be soaking while watching sunset on the sand dunes and Sangre de Cristo Mountains,” Beauchaine says. The pool's grill serves surprisingly tasty food, and there's an adult area with a wine and beer bar.
Drive #2: Del Norte, Elephant Rocks, Penitente Canyon, La Garita and Saguache
Distance: 132 miles
Stop for an early breakfast in Del Norte at Boogie’s or the Mystic Biscuit. While Boogie’s is no-frills, the Mystic Biscuit has an eclectic vibe and serves specialty coffees. Made of adobe, cordwood and colored-glass, the restaurant is the product of one local couple's labor of love.
The next stop is Elephant Rocks, a 378-acre natural area about eight miles north of Del Norte at the base of the San Juan Mountains. The area's massive boulders are remnants from one of Earth’s largest recorded volcanic eruptions some 28 million years ago. Wide dirt roads, relatively flat terrain and interesting geology make it great for exploring. “It's a magical and quiet place to wander and one of the best places to see the first mountain bluebirds of spring,” Nehring says.
Penitente Canyon is about five miles north of Elephant Rocks. In the 1880’s, the Spanish religious sect Los Hermanos Penitentes sought solitude in the canyon. These days, it’s a popular destination for rock climbing, hiking and mountain biking. Look for signs to wagon tracks from the Old Spanish Trail and a bright-blue rock painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe along the canyon’s 100-foot walls.
Stop for lunch at the nearby La Garita Gas Station, which serves one of the Valley's best burgers. The station’s proprietor says her secret recipe will be passed on to the new owner when she sells the store—it's that good. Make sure to check the station’s hours before going. The historic San Juan Catholic Spiritual Center and cemetery are just up the road, offering unimpeded views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and a beautiful rosary and meditation walk that are sure to calm the troubled soul.
If there’s time, visit the Saguache County Museum (open till 4 p.m.) in Saguache. The museum is in an 1870 adobe building that has served as a school, courthouse and residence for jail-keepers and their families. Museum docents are knowledgeable about the area’s Native American, Spanish and railroad history—and the infamous Alferd Packer, who allegedly murdered and ate parts of his traveling companions.
Drive #3: Crestone, Villa Grove, Villa Grove and Joyful Journey or Valley View hot springs
Mileage: 139 miles
Crestone is a small village nestled at the base of some of the tallest peaks in Colorado, pictured above. The area is a popular destination for summer hiking and spiritual sojourns. There are more than two dozen spiritual centers in Crestone and the nearby Baca Grande community representing virtually every walk of faith---from Hinduism and New Age to Christianity, Buddhism and Native American teachings. Most centers are open to the public. Some even have ongoing events such as evening chants, devotionals, meditation instruction, mass and feast gatherings. Visit Saguache.org for more information.
To finish calming the spirit, go for a soak at one of the nearby hot springs. But stop first in Villa Grove for some light shopping (there are only two stores in town!). Always Azul Pottery sells handcrafted pottery, jewelry and other décor, while Villa Grove Trade and General Store across the street sells food, specialty coffee and knickknacks. "I love my Sandhill crane travel mug from Always Azul, which I bought at the Crane Festival,” Beauchaine says.
Hot spring options include Joyful Journey, Valley View and Sand Dunes Swimming Pool. Valley View has stunning views of the entire San Luis Valley. But take note that Valley View hot springs are clothing optional.