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Sangre de Cristo National Heritage open on the weekends
Photo courtesy: Rick Manzanares

By Joshua Pilkington

Nestled in Southern Colorado and encompassing three counties is the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area. An area full of history, recreation and beauty that requires multiple visits to capture it all.

Comprising Conejos, Costilla and Alamosa counties, the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area is the gateway to where Colorado began and it holds to its cultural resources that express old world traditions and the native beliefs of those that first settled the Centennial State.


On the recreational front Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area has hundreds of square miles of public lands, thousands of acres of wildlife rich wetlands, marshes, and bodies of water and two designated wildernesses that provide for diverse recreation experiences.

One of the recreational tours that visitors can take while trekking through the heritage area is through the rich archaeological areas in the San Luis Valley. Several tours have been conducted in cooperation with History Colorado classes. There are petroglyphs along the Rio Grande near the de Vargas Crossing, there is Fort Garland Museum and Fort Massachusetts as well as additional historical sites in Alamosa and Costilla counties. Visitors will need to contract tour guides to visit many of the sites and should contact the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area for assistance.

One of the most popular recreational tours is the Los Caminos Antiguos Scence and Historic Byway. The byway provides visitors with some of the most spectacular vistas in the region. Dotting the byway are several historical landmarks such as the San Luis Historic District, which contains the oldest church as well as the oldest congregation in Colorado. Places like Manassa, Sanford and La Jara are rich with Mormon culture. The aforementioned Fort Garland Museum has some of the oldest state-owned adobe buildings along with a rich cultural and military history. And, of course, there is the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve where nature has taken liberties to create one of the most recognized and spectacular landscapes in the country.

History and spirituality

Another important aspect of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area is its history, particularly its historical ties to religion. Some of the most cherished landmarks in the area are spiritual by nature. Several churches in the three counties that make up the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area are considered mission churches. They have unique architectural features that bring to mind centuries past and four of the churches in Costilla County were recently placed on the National Register of Historic Sites.

The Stations of the Cross Shrine in San Luis is the most famous of the spiritual landmarks in the area, not only for its spiritual presence with bronze statues and dome-shaped chapel, but also for the spectacular views available from the top of the “Mesa de Piedad y Misericordia” (Mesa of Piety and Mercy).

As Mormons from the Mormon Battalion came to settle in Southern Colorado, they too left a rich history behind and documented throughout the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area.

Also keeping with the spiritual theme is a relatively new garden just outside of San Luis. Mother Mary’s Garden features two labyrinths, remarkable statuary, seating areas and it marks a concentrated effort to celebrate the many religions that make up the San Luis Valley.

Communal maintenance

In order to maintain the massive land area that comprises the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area, the board takes a community-driving approach that engages communities in heritage preservation activities. In the past year 110 recreation projects were undertaken, including 395 miles of trails that were maintained and 25 new miles of trails that were developed.

For more information on the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area visit





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