By Brian Puccerella
Welcome to the San Luis Valley (SLV)! Tucked in between the massive mountains of the Sangre De Cristo range and the San Juans the west, the SLV is the largest alpine valley in the world. With over 8,000 square miles to explore, there is quite a lot to do here. From the Rio Grande river, to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, there is plenty for everyone. Below are the top 5 destinations for outdoor enthusiasts in the San Luis Valley.
1. Great Sand Dunes National Park
Ok, we can’t talk about outdoor places in the San Luis Valley without first talking about our most famous location, the Great Sand Dunes National Park (pictured above). National parks offer accessibility to the masses and are a perfect place to take families and kids. The Great Sand Dunes are most famous for the sand dunes that rise over 750 feet tall from the valley floor. Must-do’s include sandboarding or sledding, lounging in Medano creek, and hiking the tallest dune, called Star Dune. Stop by the visitor’s center to learn why there are sand dunes there in the first place, and make sure your visit extends into the evening to see the stars!
For the more adventurous, try skiing down the dunes. Pull out your rock skis, scrape off all of the wax ahead of time, and let it rip!
2. Penitente Canyon
Penitente Canyon is a recreation hotspot on BLM land on the western side of the San Luis Valley, known locally for some of the best rock climbing and mountain biking in the valley. This a great spot to spend a long weekend, with designated camping available by reservation on rec.gov. For more detailed information on rock climbing, you can check out the mountain project or MTB project for trail information. While this is one of the most popular outdoor locations in the San Luis Valley, you will most likely have the trails to yourself.
3. Del Norte Trail System
If you want to explore like a local, the Del Norte Trail System is a main stop in the valley. There are no amenities, so come prepared. But you will be treated to an endless amount of trails with very few people on them! This area generally encompasses all of the trails on BLM land, and some National Forest service trails, in the area south of the town of Del Norte. Highlights include the Middle Frisco trail, the stone quarry area, and the Pronghorn trail. Check out your favorite trails app for more information.
4. Rio Grande River
The mighty Rio Grande river starts in the northwest corner of the San Luis Valley and flows all the way down to New Mexico. 198 miles in length, there is plenty for every type of river recreator. In the upper stretches above the town of South Fork, there is Class II to Class III whitewater and gold medal trout fishing, with local guiding companies for both. The stretches between South Fork and Del Norte offer excellent Class II stretches for beginner boaters, and the town of Del Norte has a whitewater park with a play wave for surfing. The town stretch in Alamosa makes for excellent tubing and stand-up paddleboarding, and the southernmost stretches offer remote overnight float trips. American Whitewater provides information about each stretch.
5. San Luis Gravel Riding
Recently, San Luis Valley Great Outdoors partnered with Gravel Adventure Field Guides to put together a gravel guide for the San Luis Valley. Released in the fall of 2022, you can pick up a free copy at your local bike shop or check out the routes online. Try to ride them all if you can, but there are some monster rides to check off. For all of us who worked on the guide, the gravel riding near the town of San Luis has become a new favorite riding destination. Check out the Rito Seco route, La Culebra, or the Ancient Bison route to learn why!
Limiting our list to 5 places was quite difficult as we didn’t even talk about all of our 14ers or deep powder skiing at Wolf Creek, but hopefully, this has provided enough ideas and resources for you to get out and explore on your own. The valley is vast down here and down every road lies a potential adventure. So do your research, or don’t, break free of the crowds, and see what the SLV is about.