Natural Wonders Itinerary

Flanked by 14,000 foot peaks and towering sand dunes, bisected by the Rio Grande, and graced by the seasonal migration of Sandhill cranes, the San Luis Valley possesses incredible natural wonders and provides unparalleled opportunities for wilderness explorations.
Zapata Falls
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Alamosa/Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge

Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge- The Monte Vista NWR combines with the Alamosa and Baca NWRs to form the 118,000 acre Alamosa/Monte Vista/Baca National Wildlife Refuge Complex.  These refuges create teh largest and most diverse collection of wetlands in Colorado.  Many species of birds and waterfowl can be spotted here such as mallards, pintail, tea, American avocets, killdeer, white-faced ibis, egrets, and herons. 

Penitente Canyon Recreation Area – Years ago, secluded Penitente Canyon was a sacred site for Los Hermanos Penitentes, a lay Catholic brotherhood.  Today, Penitente Canyon is one of Colorado’s premier rock climbing destinations.  The beautiful canyon also provides opportunities for camping, hiking, and mountain biking.

Russell Lakes State Wildlife Area- The ponds and marshes of this wildlife area are legendary among Colorado birders.  With its wooden boardwalk, the Johnson Lake nature trail provides year-round opportunities to spot a variety of waterfowl, shorebirds, and raptors.  Nearby upland areas are also good for birding.  Most of the wildlife area is closed February 15 to July 15 to protect nesting birds. 

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve- The highest inland dunes in North America appeared as a “sea of sand” to Zebulon Pike in 1807.  Prevailing southwesterly winds sweep up ancient grains of sand and then deposit them grain upon grain at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  Two major attractions are “High Dune”, rising 699 feet from its base and Medano Creek, a lazy seasonal stream that pulses with waves during periods of high water.  This mosaic of sand, water, and mountains forms one of Colorado’s most distinctive landscapes.

Zapata Falls Recreation Area- A half-mile hike leads uphill to an intriguing waterfall. The falls were formed when South Zapata Creek wore a groove in the crystalline rocks of the Sangre de Cristos, allowing its water to spill onto the soft alluvial soils below.  Over millennia, the creek has carved a dim, deep and narrow chasm through which water tumbles some 30 feet.  In the summer, the falls offer a cool respite; winter temperatures turn them into a giant ice sculpture.   Along the hike, enjoy panoramic views of the surrounding country, including the Great Sand Dunes.