For people who think heading west out of Denver for a great weekend is the be-all, end-all of adventures, stop reading now. This story isn’t for you. But for those who want a real Colorado adventure, there is a little secret tucked away a few hours south and west of Denver. It doesn’t have the reputation or amenities that dot the I-70 corridor. Instead, it has the rugged appeal that makes Colorado special. It’s Monte Vista and Rio Grande County.
This town of 4,500 is most assuredly off the beaten path. Most of its traffic is headed east or west out of town on Colorado Highway 160, the road that cuts right through its core. But a stop in Monte Vista, is worth the time, said Peg Schall, a long time resident and President of the Monte Vista Historical Society.
Schall’s roots in Monte Vista go back to the early forties when World War II was raging. Her father National Guard unit was activated, and he moved the family here from Texas to stay with her grandparents. They had moved here when the Dust Bowl was suffocating huge swaths of America’s heartland.
Except for her college years, this has been Schall’s home and she wouldn’t live anywhere else. Why would she? Monte Vista, she said, has something going on during all four seasons. Or, more correctly, all five seasons. Winter, said Schall, is a season all unto itself. Temperatures across the Valley can deep-dive well below zero. “I can remember fifty-below, and it hits thirty-below regularly.” Those marks to locals like her are virtually indistinguishable. “It’s just cold.”
But signaling the end of Monte Vista’s deep freeze is an annual---and amazing--- rite of Spring. “In March, the Sand Hill Cranes stop here,” said Schall. The town marks their arrival with the Crane Festival. “They stop here and eat for the last leg of their journey.” The cranes---hundreds of thousands---alight across the San Luis Valley each March as they migrate from Siberia to Mexico. Bird watchers also flock to the Valley to witness one of the greatest bird migrations in the world.
If you missed this year’s migration, put it on your calendar for next March or visit the Monte Vista Historical Society where Schall has more than 4,500 photos, many of which chronical the journey but most just tell the story of the region. And the story, including cranes, is rich and appealing.
The Valley is a motherlode for hunters who come from across the country for the game that populates the nearby La Plata Mountains, including Mount Blanca, one of the state’s most alluring peaks. The region has deer, elk, big horn sheep and antelope in abundance. “In general, the populations are good,” said Joe Lewandowski, Public Information Officer for the Southwest Region of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “People who are willing to hunt and get into the woods,” he said, “are going to see animals.”
Rio Grande County also has lakes and reservoirs “that are really good for fishing,” said Lewandowski. For fly fishers, there are also plenty of streams.” And, where there’s water and wetlands, there is waterfowl, another attraction for hunters.
Seasons are divided for different game and for different hunters. “The archery season is the first season,” said Lewandowski. It starts in late August and runs through September. Seasons are designated for different weaponry, including one for muzzle-loaded rifles. They are also specified for the different game, including moose, mountain lions and prong horn antelope.
Before heading to Rio Grande County, said Lewandowski, head to a gun safety class. All hunters are required to have a hunter safety card. Next, he said, “is learn how to correctly identify what you’re going to shoot.” Never shoot “unless you know what’s behind it (the target).” Make the kill, “clean and swift,” he said. “It’s a Colorado law that if you hunt and kill an animal it has to be dressed for consumption.” The various seasons, fees and rules for hunters can be found at cpw.state.co.
Rio Grande County is also rich in agriculture with potatoes, alfalfa and carrots grown in abundance. It is also famous for the barley that is essential in another Colorado namesake, Coors Beer.
Though agriculture and recreation are the city and region’s sustaining forces, scattered in various pockets across Rio Grande County are rich deposits of minerals, including lead, coal and even gold. But more than that, said Schall, “it’s just a nice place to raise a family.”