Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic Byway

The Jack Dempsey Home and Museum in Manassa
The Jack Dempsey Home & Museum in Manassa

Hundreds of feet high and over a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, the Great Sand Dunes are a wonder to behold. These drifting dunes accumulated here over the eons as the wind swept sand particles against the rise of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Life in the San Luis Valley hasn't changed much since the first Spanish settlers arrived here and staked out the land for the King of Spain in the 1600's. Colorado's oldest surviving community, San Luis, is here. The oldest church in Colorado is in Conejos and one of the first US military posts in the West is at Fort Garland. Take your time here, there's lots of countryside to explore and lots of history, culture and wildlife to learn about.

Los Caminos Antiguos meanders around the southern part of the San Luis Valley, essentially traveling through the areas first settled by Europeans. Native Americans only came into the San Luis Valley from late spring to first snowfall, then they left for the winter. The hunting and fishing were good but that winter... that was a killer. This part of the Valley was originally settled by Spanish settlers, coming because the King of Spain and the Government of Mexico granted them huge chunks of land if they would go there and settle on it. The Land Grants covered nearly the entire Valley from the New Mexico border up to modern-day Saguache. This was the only way the King of Spain and, later, the Mexican government could be sure to keep the Americans out in those days. When Lt. Zebulon Pike was caught on the wrong side of the Arkansas River (the international boundary in those days) he was escorted to Santa Fe and then to Chihuahua as an example (he was released soon after and sent back to the States to tell his story). Pike had problems with the winter in the San Luis Valley, as did Lieut. John C. Fremont 40 years later. Conditions were so bad for Fremont and his men that they ate their mules and just barely crawled out.

These days you'll find remnants of settlements that have dwindled away since Europeans first tried to settle in this valley. Colorado's oldest church is located in Antonito, just northwest of town at the original Conejos plaza (which is where all the county offices and courthouse are still). In the heart of the valley are the Alamosa and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuges. Monte Vista is famous for the Crane Festival that happens every year in late March when the largest surviving flocks of sand cranes and whooping cranes stop in to visit on their way back north. East of San Luis is Culebra Peak, one of Colorado's famous "14ers" (mountains more than 14,000' high). North of Blanca and Fort Garland are Blanca Peak, Little Bear Peak, Ellingwood Point and Mount Lindsey, four more of Colorado's 14ers. Manassa is where World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Jack Dempsey grew up and at his home you'll find a museum and statue of the "Manassa Mauler."

An old steam locomotive at the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad station in Antonito
One of the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad's steam engines in Antonito
Zapata Ridge in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just south of Great Sand Dunes National Park
Zapata Ridge in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, just south of Great Sand Dunes National Park
A view of volcanic knobs and plugs in the San Luis Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern
Volcanic formations in the San Luis Hills Area of Critical Environmental Concern