A Perfect Colorado Road Trip through the San Luis Valley
San Luis Valley, Colorado
I grew up in Colorado Springs and have been all over Colorado, but I’ve spent very little time in the San Luis Valley. When Visit Colorado reached out wanting to send me back to my home state, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to travel south and explore for a week. Spoiler alert: it was a great trip, and one of my favorite road trips ever.
I flew into Colorado Springs, drove south to Great Sand Dunes National Park, headed north to Crestone and Joyful Journey Hot Springs (between Moffat and Villa Grove), drove southwest to Del Norte, and then returned to Colorado Springs via Manitou Springs – 567 miles total over five days. The vast majority of the drive was beautiful. It’s Colorado after all.
Great Sand Dunes National Park / Zapata Ranch
I remember camping at the Great Sand Dunes as a kid, well before it was a National Park. I hadn’t visited in decades however. It’s an easy park, with one road in and just a few major areas to park and camp. Of course once you’re parked you can walk and explore as far as you want to.
I stayed at Zapata Ranch, roughly 12 minutes from the sand dunes – the best, closest place to stay to visit the park. Zapata Ranch is a great ranch destination even without the dunes nearby, so when you combine them you get kind of a perfect vacation spot. I checked in the afternoon, walked around the ranch a little, and then joined the other guests for dinner at 6pm. Dinners and breakfasts are communal, which as a solo traveler I really enjoyed. I ended up across from a woman from Boulder who had already been over to the dunes and was heading back for sunset, so I joined her!
Note: the sand dunes are typically windy. They wouldn’t exist without the wind. That sunset excursion was a little chilly and very windy, but absolutely beautiful. Definitely head over for sunset if you’re staying at the ranch. We crossed the river and walked up and down dunes for roughly an hour. Then back to Zapata Ranch.
Horseback Riding at Great Sand Dunes National Park
I woke up, sat outside with coffee, and then joined everyone for breakfast at the ranch. After that, the day was all about horseback riding!
A typical ranch stay is 3+ nights, and horseback excursions are included every day. The normal riding destinations are to the bison herd, around the ranch or at the sand dunes. I chose the sand dunes of course – how often do you get to ride in a National Park? And while I’ve ridden camels through deserts several times, I had never been on a horse in sand dunes.
I walked over to the corral, met Maddie, my guide for the day, and met Snookie, my horse for the day. Maddie made sure my stirrups were the right length, I got some basic riding instruction, and we trailered over to the park.
I loved this ride! For four hours we rode through the river, the dunes and several meadows, stopping briefly for a picnic lunch (the ranch had made me a bison burrito). It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and not too windy, and Maddie and I talked the entire ride. Not sure if I’ve had a private guide on rides before this? I was definitely rusty when we started – it had been a few years since I had been on a horse – but by the end Snookie and I had bonded and I was far more comfortable with the reins and my seat.
From the dunes we went back to the ranch where I joined a leather working demonstration/workshop, had dinner and headed back to the dunes for another sunset. It was warmer and less windy and I climbed up for over an hour. Really enjoyable night!
I thought about going to the sand dunes for sunrise, but being solo it wouldn’t be interesting from a photography perspective, since you really need people on the dunes to add scale, and there weren’t many people at the park that week (mid-May). Next time!
After breakfast at the ranch I packed up and drove a few minutes away to the Zapata Falls trailhead, and hiked half a mile to the falls. The trail was rocky but fairly easy, but the river near the falls got challenging, with lots of rock hopping and ice walking. Some of the ice seemed fairly thin too. I know when the ice melts the only way to the falls is through the cold river, so from that perspective May was a good time to visit, but it would have been a tough excursion for young kids.
A Colorado Road Trip Stop in Crestone
From Zapata Falls I drove a little under an hour to Crestone. Crestone is tiny but fascinating – a spiritual base for a lot of religions, with numerous temples and retreat centers just outside of town. And as one person put it in a DM, it’s one of the last truly authentic Colorado mountain towns and will likely never change, since it isn’t near a ski area. I had lunch at Cloud Station (part of Elephant Cloud Market), walked around downtown (which takes all of 15 minutes), and then drove around the temple area, getting out a few times for short hikes.
Joyful Journey Hot Springs
There are numerous hot springs throughout the San Luis Valley. Some are natural but most have been turned into pools, which makes temperature control far easier! One of the most famous is Joyful Journey. I drove half an hour from Crestone, checked into my yurt (they have normal rooms, tipis and yurts), put on my swimsuit and a robe, and walked over to the hot springs. I can’t speak to the health benefits from soaking in the mineral-rich waters, but I spent an hour in several of their pools – at different temperatures – and it was utterly relaxing.
Like Zapata Ranch, Joyful Journey includes dinners and breakfasts. I had dinner in the dining room and then explored the hotel until it was dark. The labyrinth and geodesic dome greenhouse are particularly cool. I then woke up at sunrise to spend more time at the labyrinth before having breakfast and packing up to continue my roadtrip through the San Luis Valley.
A note on yurt life: there are no bathrooms in the yurts, but the communal restroom was less than a minute from my yurt (1A). I’d stay there again, since how many times do you have the option of sleeping in a yurt? If you want an in-room bathroom though you need to go with one of their standard rooms.
I did a lot of research on San Luis Valley hikes between Joyful Journey Hot Springs and Del Norte and found Penitente Canyon. I loved this hike! It was roughly a mile and a half loop, leaving from the main parking area (when you drive into the park, keep going straight until the end). At one point I somehow got off the trail, but there was enough cell coverage to find the hike in the AllTrails app and see how to get back onto the loop. I highly recommend downloading your planned hikes in AllTrails before setting out anywhere.
I hiked the loop clockwise, but that meant I had the sun in my eyes as I was walking through the canyon, which is the most beautiful part of the hike. If you’re hiking in the morning I’d recommend going counter-clockwise instead.
Del Norte, Colorado
Penitente Canyon is only 20 minutes from Del Norte, mostly on a dirt road. I had a standard rental car and had no problems at all. I drove into Del Norte and headed to Three Barrel Brewing Company for lunch. After an excellent pizza I walked around downtown – larger than Crestone, but still it didn’t take more than 30 minutes to see most sites.
The hotel options in Del Norte come down to the Windsor Hotel and the Mellow Moon Lodge. I usually opt for iconic, historic hotels but this time I went for the retro motel and absolutely loved it! Mellow Moon is my favorite motel stay ever. My room was great, and I slept amazingly. I’m not sure when I’ll be back in Del Norte, but I’d stay at Mellow Moon Lodge again in a heartbeat. Highly recommended for a night (or two) on a Colorado road trip.
Dinner was excellent – at the Windsor Hotel Dining Room.
The Pikes Peak Cog Railway
My final day in Colorado I was supposed to sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast in Del Norte, and slowly make my way from the San Luis Valley back to Colorado Springs for my afternoon flight. However, Pikes Peak was on the way to the Springs, and as many times as I’ve been to the top of the mountain, I had never taken the Cog Railway (officially the Broadmoor Manitou and Pikes Peak Cog Railway) up. So I went online, got a ticket, and left Del Norte at 6am. With a few scenic stops along the way I arrived in Manitou Springs at 9:30am.
My train departed from Manitou at 10am. I had a window seat on the left side, so I was facing forward heading up the mountain (9.8 miles), and then backwards coming back down. I really enjoyed the train! It was far more relaxing than driving up, it was a beautiful day, and the conductor on board was entertaining.
We had roughly 45 minutes at the summit of Pikes Peak. The donuts at the top are world-famous, but I took too long getting off the train and the donut line was at least half an hour long. So I chose to skip the donuts and explore in and around the new visitor’s center instead. There’s a new summit sign as well.
About the weather: Manitou Springs was nice (70s/80s) but the wind chill at the top of Pikes Peak was 1 degree Fahrenheit. Take layers and maybe a hat and gloves with you. There were people in shorts and t-shirts and they survived but were visibly uncomfortable! I had two layers of merino wool and a fleece, in addition to a merino wool beanie, and I was warm.
When I’m back in Colorado Springs, I’m usually at the Broadmoor with my kids or staying with family. With this being a solo trip, I was able to choose my two favorite places for lunch – Ivywild School (an old schoolhouse that now has multiple restaurants and a brewery) on the way out of town and Shuga’s my final afternoon. Both are excellent and highly recommended.
My San Luis Valley Road Trip – Summary
As I said at the beginning, I loved this San Luis Valley road trip! Colorado Springs is an extremely easy airport to fly into and rent a car, I was able to see family (briefly), I stayed at amazing, interesting places, I had a couple of great hikes, I soaked in hot springs, I went on a fun, unique horseback ride, and I made it to the top of Pikes Peak! Plus every meal was excellent. All of this in the span of five days and four nights. The weather was excellent – blue skies and warm temperatures every day. Colorado is sunny the vast majority of the time, so you can likely expect the same on your Colorado road trip.
My only disappointment: there was a full moon the week of my visit, so the stargazing wasn’t as great as it usually is. All three of the places I stayed had clear, unpolluted views of the night sky.
Colorado Road Trip Resources
I have a lot of Colorado content on my site. For more of my favorite things to do in Colorado Springs, click here. For Vail, Aspen, Telluride and elsewhere, just use the search box at the top (at the bottom on mobile devices) to find my relevant posts.
Last year I worked with Conde Nast Traveler and Wheels Up on itineraries for Colorado Springs, Aspen and Vail as well. Click here!
Colorado.com is also an amazing resource. They have literally everything on their site. Do Colorado Right is a good place to start. Summer trip ideas are here.
Colorado Road Trips – Your Turn
What’s your favorite Colorado road trip itinerary? Where should I go next time? What amazing things did I miss in the San Luis Valley?