Sand dunes, stupas and UFOS

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Just up the road north from Taos is the San Luis Valley, a place the size of Connecticut in Southern Colorado that’s boxed in by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east, the San Juan Mountains to the west and the Taos Plateau to the south.

Home to world-class fishing, hunting and bird-watching, chances are you may have been to the valley a time or two.

It’s been a while for us here at The Taos News, so we took a lazy Saturday in March for a powerhouse road trip to check out some of the high notes of the valley north of the New Mexico border.

Great Sand Dunes National Park

Many Taoseños have been to the Great Sand Dunes National Park, either on a weekend jaunt or one of the annual school field trips. But the dunes are worth so much more than a passing glance.

The dunes look almost like a hologram — seemingly real, yet so unreal. They are the natural result of millions of years of elemental action. Wind carried individual grains of sand across the valley toward the western slopes of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where they’ve slowly settled into the dunes seen today.

People have been fascinated with the dunes for a long, long time. One archaeological site within the park shows evidence of 49 prehistoric buffaloes — the famed Bison antiquus — that were butchered by hunters about 10,000 years ago. In the early 20th century, the attraction was gold. Prospectors thought the dunes might also have veins or nuggets of the stuff. The Volcanic Mining Co. set up shop, but shuttered because the laborious mining wasn’t profitable enough.

Mining gave way to the efforts to protect the dunes as a hallmark of the American landscape. The local branch of P.E.O, a women’s organization, took up the call to protect the dunes and eventually secured its status as a national monument. Bill Clinton elevated the dunes to a national park in 2000, while purchases of swaths of nearby ranches made the creation of the park’s wildlife preserves possible.

But history aside, the parks are just plain fun, especially during the spring before lightning storms, 150-degree sand and trains of RVers set in for the summer. There are no marked trails into the dunes, so just follow the footsteps in the sand.

We were doing a one-day trip, so we didn’t get to camp. But we’ve heard that moonlit hiking around the dunes is spectacular once the main park campgrounds open in April.

UFO Watchtower

The UFO Watchtower was maybe our favorite place in the valley because it’s the central hub for UFO info and lore along Colorado State Road 17, the stretch of road running north to south through the valley that’s known as the “Cosmic Highway” or the “UFO Superhighway.”

The watchtower is a metal porch and balcony built on top of a stuccoed dome. Judy Messoline built the watchtower around 2000 after a failed run at raising cattle in order to get a close-up view of the strange, cosmic and paranormal sights that run deep in the valley.

Stories of sightings are almost impossibly common — from random lights to coordinated shows of dots and streaks in the sky, from crafts to the vortexes (portals to parallel universes à la Sedona, Arizona) that are said to swirl at the watchtower.

Messoline is usually on hand to tell you all about the tower, the sightings and the beings that watch over the vortex garden, where folks are invited to sit and mediate or leave a rock, treasure or trinket. And there’s plenty of metal ET sculptures, so, yes, the selfies are glorious.

Want to hear from the experts? The Cosmic Highway Conference is coming up this summer, July 28-30, at the watchtower.

Crestone

To get to this tiny Colorado town, head east off of the UFO Superhighway at High Valley Retail Cannabis. Crestone is probably best known for being an oasis of spiritual wanderers and settlers. It’s eclectic, with multiple stupas from different Buddhist traditions, labyrinths, pyramids and a ziggurat built by the father of the queen of Jordan, according to a 1989 LA Times article.

Crestone sits right up against the mountains, sort of like Taos County’s own Arroyo Seco, meaning there’s plenty of national forest hiking within spitting distance of “downtown.” But there are also little shops with used books and such, a free box and Elephant Cloud Market, a grocery store and gas station that happens to be where everyone was hanging out on a Saturday afternoon.

Crestone Brewing Co. was our destination that day. After the dunes and watchtower, lunch was in order. The nanobrewery has a slate of creative brews, from the “Azteka II,” a mole stout, to the “Cranberry Taffy,” a sour ale with cranberry and hibiscus. Also on the drink menu are several types of jun (similar to kombucha). If the beer is good, the food is great. Our fish and chips and the yak burger – from a yak farm not 10 miles down the road – were to die for.

Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge

To finish off the day, we stopped by the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge to get a firsthand look at the fabulous sight that is the sandhill crane migration.

The greater sandhill cranes — gargantuan, red-faced water birds with a 6-foot wingspan — migrate every year from their winter home at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque to summer breeding areas in Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and some as far north as Canada. Nearly 20,000 sandhill cranes (the entire Rocky Mountain population of the birds) spend the first couple of weeks of March in the valley, completely filling the soundscape with their rattling, trumpeting calls.

The migration is a sight and sound that wasn’t always as grand as it is. Wildlife managers estimate only 400 or so sandhill cranes passed through the valley in the 1940s. The Monte Vista refuge is one of three in the San Luis Valley Refuges Complex, which includes more than 118,000 acres of wetlands, riparian corridors, meadows and grasslands.

Cranes aren’t the only visitors. Someone with a bit more of a working knowledge of bird identification is sure to enjoy the nearly 200 species of birds that dot the valley, from ducks and herons to egrets and raptors.

We happened to be there for the annual Monte Vista Crane Festival, where birders (and the the clickly-clack of their cameras) seemed to outnumber the birds. If you want a more solitary experience and have the time, check out the refuge near dusk on a weekday.

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