For first time travelers to Colorado’s San Luis Valley or for others who’ve just driven through, here are a couple of suggestions; one that will interest, the other that’ll amaze. Either will make the trip one that you’ll remember for a long time.
On any given day in Alamosa County, frequently called America’s ice box for its arctic-like winter temperatures, Jay Young is busy tending his herd. But here, in the foothills of some of Colorado’s most majestic peaks, the herd’s not cattle but reptiles. Young’s the guy running the show at the Colorado Gators Reptile Park.
“Lots of people are surprised and curious,” said Young when visitors get off the road and actually see what the signs have teased. The farm is a fifteen minute drive from Alamosa on Colorado Road 9 in Mosca. Once there, visitors can see things they never imagined living and thriving at 7,600 feet and a world away from the tropics.
Since 1990, the congregation---the term for a grouping of alligators---has grown steadily, said Young. Each of the creatures---now around 200---is a rescue. “We’ll take any rescue,” said the farm’s general manager. That includes the ones that arrive in poor health, the result of owners who thought owning a reptile would be fun only to realize they require real care.
Most will survive and eventually thrive in the geothermally heated water. The ones that don’t make it, “We’ll feed that meat to other alligators and bury the skeleton for two years.” After two years, the skeletal remains are dug up and sent off to museums. One resides at Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science. A couple of others have found homes in Boston and Mexico City.
The operation, which began in 1977, didn’t begin with alligators as the main draw. Young’s parents, who moved from Texas, just wanted a fish farm. No one even thought of alligators. But after ten years, they needed something to deal with the Tilapia who died. They needed something that would keep the geothermal waters clean and brought in about a hundred baby alligators to clean up dead fish. It’s called recycling, said Young. “Everything is recycled.”
As the carnivores grew, so too, did curiosity. People wanted to see these relatives of the dinosaur with their own eyes. Annual visitation, said Young, now averages around 40,000, more than the population of the entire Valley. For $20 for adults, visitors can get up close and personal with the Jurassic-era ‘farm animals.’
For visitors, “First thing is hands-on with the babies (alligators),” he said. There are also tortoises, including ‘Digger,’ a 200 pound Salcata tortoise, Cayman, pythons or iguanas. There are even a few anomalies like the albino alligators. There have been a few accidents involving careless visitors, but nothing serious. Everyone signs a waiver. “We also do a head-count photo,” said Young, “in case someone disappears.”
A place not far away and a stop that doesn’t require special warnings about safeguarding digits or limbs is The Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The Dunes are the tallest in North America and are open year round. The attractions include grasslands, wetlands, forests, alpine lakes and tundra.
The Dunes may be the Valley’s number one tourist attraction, said Erin Keck, Executive Director of the Alamosa County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s just a unique place,” said the Wyoming transplant. “There were sand dunes in Wyoming, but nothing quite like these.”
The Park’s visitor center sits at around 8,200 feet above sea level but the highest point in the 30-square-mile geological phenomenon is nearly a mile higher. Visitors opting to avoid the climb can choose between the ‘beach,’ a short-lived experience resulting from the mountain runoff that takes place at Medano Creek or try sandboarding or sand skiing the dunes.
Some, not all, visitors can even say they ‘surfed the Dunes.’ That happens in the spring when temperatures begin to rise and the mountain runoff begins. As it drains off the mountains and trails off into Medano Creek, it actually produces what park rangers call ‘a surge.’ In a good runoff year, the surge actually allows visitors to body surf or ride a tube or floating device. A good ride is measured in yards, not minutes.
For the more adventurous, you can drive up into the dunes to Medano Pass. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a two-to-three hour drive and four-wheel drive is required. Park rangers advise to use caution. Drivers need momentum to keep their appointment with their destination. Getting stuck in the sand is a seasonal hazard.
Reservations for visitors are not required and admission fees have recently risen. Fees range from $15-$25 dollars and are good for seven days.