San Luis Valley: The Cradle of Colorado
These pages hold six travel itineraries designed to lead you on a journey to distinct sites throughout the San Luis Valley. Each itinerary exposes a unique aspect of the San Luis Valley’s heritage including its natural wonders, pioneering settlers, mining booms, cultural traditions and creative spirit. Along the Valley’s roads and among its attractions, the rich history of the San Luis Valley unfolds to reveal the diversity of the region’s land and people.
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.
The State’s oldest town is here, and Colorado’s first parish church still holds Mass every Sunday. The earliest adjudicated water rights flow within the San Luis Valley, and the State’s oldest business is still open. Colorado's first territorial governor and lieutenant governor each had ties to the San Luis Valley. The Valley gave Colorado its first national wildlife area and its first national monument. Here the State built its first facility to honor and care for war veterans.
The Summitville gold rush rivaled the fame of Pike’s Peak. Colorado’s richest silver mines lured an even broader array of migrants into the cultural mix. Rail towns, farm towns, and supply towns emerged as the railroad spread into the mountains and across the Valley floor. Agriculture finally became the sustaining foundation for the Valley’s economy. Today center pivots irrigate crop circles of potatoes, barley, wheat, alfalfa, plus a variety of other crops.
While much has changed within the Valley, traditional values and cultural practices still endure. Well-preserved architecture and historic downtowns evoke the past. Whatever your interests, exploring the San Luis Valley’s colorful history and vast beauty can make its legacy part of your Colorado heritage experience.
This brochure holds six travel itineraries designed to lead you on a journey to distinct sites throughout the San Luis Valley. Each itinerary exposes a unique aspect of the San Luis Valley’s heritage including its natural wonders, pioneering settlers, mining booms, cultural traditions and creative spirit. Along the Valley’s roads and among its attractions, the rich history of the San Luis Valley unfolds to reveal the diversity of the region’s land and people.