The Cradle of Colorado
Six Heritage Journey Tours to Explore
Cradled between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountains at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, lies the San Luis Valley. This vastness, coupled with a diversity of geologic and geographic features ranging from lush river bottoms to an inland ocean of sand to craggy summits reaching elevations over 14,000 feet, has enticed and enthralled people since the times of Ice Age hunters.
A cavalcade of characters, some famous, some infamous and some downright notorious, have stepped across this landscape. Diego de Vargas, Juan Bautista de Anza, Zebulon Pike, John C. Frèmont, Kit Carson, John Gunnison, Phil Sheridan, Tom Tobin, Bat Masterson, Soapy Smith, Bob Ford, Calamity Jane, Poker Alice, Chipeta and Ouray, Otto Mears, Ulysses S. Grant, Alfred/Alferd Packer—the names associated with San Luis Valley history read like a western epic.
The first descriptions of this homeland of nomadic hunters, including Apache, Kiowa, Navajo and Yutah (Ute) tribal people, came from Spanish governors before there was a United States. During ensuing decades, explorers, pioneers, homesteaders, land speculators, prospectors, and travel writers were attracted to the Valley’s riches—freely flowing clean water, comforting hot springs, verdant wetlands teeming with birds, fish, and wild game, expanses of natural grass hay, majestic mountain vistas, forests and upland meadows, plus Mother Lode deposits of silver and gold. Today, as you travel any of the routes into the San Luis Valley, you will be struck by the expansive landscapes, rugged mountains, and endless blue skies.
By the 1850s, Hispanic settlers from New Mexico had migrated into the San Luis Valley to establish small plazas within land grants issued by the Mexican governor in Santa Fe. These pioneers gave birth to the permanent settling of Colorado. Soon after, people from a variety of backgrounds seeking mineral wealth, free land, or frontier experiences joined the progression.
In the rugged mountains ringing the San Luis Valley visitors may trace the steps of early prospectors and other fortune seekers who were lured to the region by promises of gold, silver, turquoise, and other metals. Although the bustling mining camps of the late 19th century have faded, the Valley’s frontier spirit lingers. Downtown districts, railroads, mines, and landscapes preserve the fascinating stories of the area’s rich mining history.
With 7 inches of annual precipitation and an elevation of 7,500 feet or above, the San Luis Valley qualifies as an alpine desert. This desert is unique in that it boasts precious water resources. Mountain runoff feeds ancient aquifers whose waters sustain central-pivot irrigation systems. Hand dug acequias carry water from streams to fields. Centennial farms and ranches (30 and counting) can be found throughout the Valley. These operations have been in the same families for over 100 years and serve as testaments to the longstanding agricultural traditions of this high desert valley. Here herds of cattle still graze the high grasslands in the summer, and trucks brimming with potatoes ramble down country roads.
Architecture, ornamentation, and art reveal another dimension of the San Luis Valley’s history, development, and creative spirit. Visitors who tour the Valley may admire the wide range of architectural styles found among the homes, churches, and downtown buildings. Many of the Valley’s towns feature galleries that present a diversity of artists and artistic expressions. Some artists carry on the legacy of traditional arts and crafts, such as weaving and carvings, while others express their creativity through more contemporary art forms.