Do you ever turn a highway commute into a kind of personal challenge, where you navigate the fastest-moving lanes and take your gas tank from full to empty without stopping for a food or bathroom break?
Ever found yourself in a desolate patch of land in the middle of nowhere because you pushed that ideal too far?
That’s how I ended up on a dirt road off the Los Caminos Antiguos byway, legs stiff, stomach growling, my dog Emma exploding out of the backseat to sprint off the past five boring hours.
Emma beelined to something lying at the cul de sac at the end of the road. From afar, it looked like a brown-and-white blanket. Closer up, it turned out to the carcass of a cow, eaten bare by rodents, save for its skeleton and hide. To its left lay a similar carcass, all sun-bleached bones and sharp ribs. (For more on the area’s tradition of eviscerated cattle, go here.)
A thunderclap punctured the silence. I gestured Emma back towards the car. Instead of following me, she raised all of her hackles, starting at the neck and radiating all the way to her rump. A low growl rumbled from her throat and soon transformed into a series of spooky howls.
She stared at the car. But there was nothing there. Nothing. Until that moment, I’d never heard Emma growl. In my life.
I picked up two rocks to fend off the mystery intruder. It was either concealed in the surrounding sagebrush or it was something out of “Paranormal Activity,” because I never saw it. We drove towards Antonito in a black tunnel of clouds and rain. The sun peaked out just before we arrived, offering a full double rainbow.
This is the San Luis Valley. Rainbows, mystery, ranches, lakes, geologic wonders, art, history, the sacred and the profane. It’s one of the most amazing regions in the entire state.
The Los Caminos Antiguos byway gives you full immersion in almost everything* that the San Luis Valley has to offer. There are too many highlights to cover here, but my favorites include:
Stations of the Cross Shrine
Renowned sculptor Huberto Maestas depicts the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ in a number of stations located on a short hike to a simple and stunning chapel. Peaceful and artistically immaculate, this holy place is one of the highlights of the byway.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
The Sahara meets Colorado in this unique national park, where dunes as high as 700 feet converge with soaring mountains. For more images, please see the NPS’s photography brochure.
The Cumbres and Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad
Ride to New Mexico like it’s 1899 on this immaculately-preserved narrow-gauge train. The trip takes you over Cumbres Pass–which when I drove it was rife with antelope and mountain goats–to the tiny town of Chama, New Mexico.
Every time I visit the San Luis valley, I see something new and unexpected. This trip, I discovered bolita beans, a tasty local delicacy (if you can call beans a delicacy).
I also made a detour into the New Mexico artist’s town of Costilla to visit a plaza said to be haunted by the ghosts of sleeping inhabitants, massacred there by the Ute in an act of vengeance for being given smallpox by the government. Look at the carriage below and tell me that’s not a haunted carriage.
There’s much more to the San Luis Valley. To read about Los Caminos Antiguos in mile-by-mile detail, please crack open the Backroads and Byways of Colorado—Second Edition.
*Almost, because it skirts the alien viewing platform, the majestic hikes and developing-country-meets-spiritual-mecca that is Crestone, and a few other select cuts of territory.