What is Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway?
The San Luis Valley is a landscape speckled in a diverse cultural richness, that dates back over 11,000 years. As you crest one of the four major road passages into the San Luis Valley, your eyes lay sight on the majestic open skies, it is as if you traveled back in time. The 8,000 square foot alpine desert valley, is tucked away where the southwestern culture of New Mexico tangles together with the western frontier culture of south-central Colorado. Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway will take you through the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area; an experience that will immerse you in vast, untouched natural beauty and inspiriting narratives of native tribes, explorers, frontiersmen, buffalo soldiers, ranchers, miners, and railroad boomers. Where today you can sand board down the tallest dunes in North America at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, have room to breathe, lay under a blanket of infinite stars in one of the nation’s darkest places, and drift through the history between quaint towns of generations past in the back of beyond. This is where Colorado began and where the old west spirit of honesty, adventure, and small town hospitality is still very much alive.
Length: 129 miles
Driving time: As little as 3 hours or as long as 3 adventure packed days
As one of Colorado’s Scenic and Historic Byways, Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway (The Ancient Roads) is a premier example of why collections of roads are deemed significant enough to be recognized as a byway. To be designated a byway must possess exceptional and/or distinctive scenic, recreational, natural, archaeological, cultural and historic features. Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway has all six of these criteria. Along its 129 mile, three-county route, interpretive markers tell the story of the land, the people, and the history that intersects in this place. The scenic drive will take you through the heart of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area.
This 129-mile state scenic byway links the four Cornerstone Communities of Alamosa, Fort Garland, San Luis, and Antonito, as well as the Great Sand Dunes National Park, the San Luis Lakes State Park, the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, Zapata Falls, the Medano-Zapata Ranch, the Rio Grande National Forest, the Conejos River, Culebra Creek, and the Rio Grande. Smaller communities along this route include: Mosca, Blanca, San Acacio, Manassa, Romeo, Conejos, Paisaje, Mogote, Las Mesitas, and Fox Creek. There are 22 wayside exhibits along the way that provide interpretation of speciﬁc topics and sites.
Interpretive topics include the Rio Grande River, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, Conejos Canyon, Adams State University, Spanish Entradas, the Aquifers & Closed Basin, the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, dune formation, Blanca Wetlands, Zapata Falls, Paleo-Indians, Tewa Indians, Blanca Peak, Penitentes, the Alpine Desert, Fort Massachusetts, Fort Garland, Buffalo Soldiers, San Luis the Oldest Town in Colorado, La Vega, Acequias, Stations of the Cross, Lt. Zebulon Pike, Pike’s Stockade, King’s Turquoise Mine, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, Jack Dempsey Museum, and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
Points of interest
Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway, a Colorado state scenic byway, is the primary means through which the landscape’s resources and experiences are threaded together. It is the way in which the overall landscape can be experienced. Interpretatively focused upon the valley’s Hispano culture, the byway links communities and sites within the heritage area and features orientation kiosks and interpretive waysides along its route. The Old Spanish National Historic Trail, which follows part of the same route, is under development and will add to the National Heritage Area’s ability to satisfy the interests of visitors seeking to traverse the entire region.
The Cumbres & Toltec Railroad Section House. The Nation’s longest and highest narrow gauge railroad passes this way between Antonito, CO and Chama, NM. CO HWY 17, near mile marker 4.
The coniferous forest along this mountain stretch of the Byway are home to many small mammals and songbirds. In winter, these habitats are buried under a deep blanket of snow. CO Hwy 17, near mile marker 8.
As the byway does a switchback high above Conejos Canyon, the overlook wayside site provides an unbelievably beautiful view. The byway then drops off the mountain and follows the Rio Conejos through the montane forest of ponderosa pine and aspen, out onto the dry Valley floor. CO Hwy 17, mile marker 14, 24 miles southwest of Antonito.
Conejos River Canyon Bighorn Release Area. Look for deer and bighorn sheep in areas along the Conejos, west of Antonito. Once out on the Valley floor, the habitat changes dramatically. Pronghorn antelope replace deer and elk in some of the dry high-desert habitats along the road, On CO Hwy 17, southwest of Antonito.
The Ruins of the San Isidro Church in Las Mesitas, Colorado. Built in 1878, destroyed by fire in 1975. sits along CO Hwy 17, between miles marker 32 and 34, 6.8 miles southwest of Antonito. While driving, hiking or floating river corridors you might see golden eagles, songbirds, woodpeckers, waterfowl, shorebirds, beavers, deer and porcupines.
In Conejos, there is a beautiful mission church, the oldest parish in Colorado and on the National Historic Register of Historic Places.Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish was founded in 1858 the parish is the oldest in Colorado. The foundation of this pioneer church were those of a log “jacal”(vertical logs lashed together and plastered with adobe). A larger adobe structure with prominent bell towers was built around the church in 1863. The original statue of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, brought by the first settlers of the area, sits above the exterior entrance. The church is open daily for worship or visitation.
The water table here abuts hard, volcanic formations creating warm natural springs and streams. In the winter of 1807 Lieutenant Zebulon Pike built a small stockade nearby, now a National and Historic Landmark, where the warm springs thawed the frozen Conejos River, assuring a water supply. Located northeast of Sanford, CR 20 & CR Y. A side trip from Manassa.
Visit the Jack Dempsey Museum in Manassa, then explore the Sego Springs State Wildlife Area. Sego Springs is 3 miles east of Manassa on CO 142, then .5 miles north on a dirt access road.
The dark, rocky slopes of the San Luis Hills rise from the Valley floor near the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico, located 12 miles east of Manassa on CO Hwy 142, 19 miles west of San Luis. Watch out for rattlesnakes!
A century after Columbus’ landing, Don Juan de Onate claimed all lands drained by El Rio Bravo del Norte (The Rio Grande) for King Phillip II of Spain. Trails and traces of Spanish Entradas (probes) are evident in this area. This crossing is 11.5 miles east of Manassa on CO Hwy 142. just east of mile marker 14 BLM. From the Rio Grande crossing, the scenic Byway crosses the dry, cold desert of the Velley floor to the foothills of the Culebra Ranch, an offset portion of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range. This area was once part of the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant and since the 1840’s has been private land. One of Colorado’s largest and most successful Ranching for Wildlife Projects, the Trinchera Ranch, occupies the northern part of this range.
The Stations of the Cross Shrine is a series of bronze sculptures by Huberto Maestas along a trail leading to the exquisite All Saints Chapel at the top of San Pedro Mesa. Located at Intersection of Hwy 142 and Hwy 159. in San Luis, Colorado’s oldest town and oldest business, R&R Market (on the list of Colorado’s Most Endangered Places.) The San Luis Museum and Cultural Center and villages of San Acacio, Chama, San Pablo and San Francisco are very special. The pilgrimage up the side of the mesa that borders the main street of San Luis is worth the effort. Along the meditative journey, the 3/4 life size bronze statues, by local sculptor Huberto Maestas, depict Christ’s last hours. The Capilla de Todos los Santos, the ‘Chapel of All Saints”, offers pilgrims a place for meditation and prayer. With panoramic views of the southeastern reach of the San Luis Valley, the top of the mesa also offers other walks with sculptures of martyrs and saints.
At Fort Garland, stop at the Community Park to rest. Enjoy the stained-glass master pieces in the Holy Family Church just west of the park. Take several hours to enjoy the Fort Garland Museum for a historical treat of the Valley’s Civil War days. Follow US Hwy 160 to just west of the historic railroad town of Blanca.
The Zapata Falls Picnic Area gives an outstanding view of the immense San Luis Valley floor. Take a short, steep hike through the pinon-juniper forest to the impressive natural falls along Zapata Creek. Take CO Hwy 150 at mile marker 10.5, five miles south of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, watch for the Zapata Falls Recreation Area sign on the east side of the highway, take the improved gravel road to the parking area at the falls trailhead. Then take the short trek to see Zapata Falls. The easy hike from the parking lot to the falls is rewarded with a spectacular 40 foot waterfall located in a steep, narrow crevice. This waterfall can be enjoyed year-round and is just as beautiful when it is frozen. The entrance to the crevice is accessible by walking through a stream, climbing a small ladder and walking through a gorge. There are picnic areas and restrooms available in the day use area.
The historic Zapata Ranch is a National Historic Site with an old stagecoach station. This riparian area is a birder’s paradise, especially during spring and fall migrations. Take CO Hwy 150 at mile marker 12, five miles south of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. This 103,000 acre ranch is a working cattle and bison ranch that is managed privately but open to the public through prearranged guided tours and ranch vacations. Cattle and bison roam the high desert grasslands in managed grazing patterns to conserve and enhance cultural resources. Two ranches comprise the property, the Medano Ranch and the Zapata Ranch, and both are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Just to the north of Zapata Ranch is the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Plan to spend a morning, afternoon or all day. Bring binoculars, a camera, water and some sunscreen. The Great Sand Dunes have the distinction of being the tallest dunes in North America and offers fun for families and outdoor enthusiasts. In addition to dunes, there are trails, camping, educational programs, art exhibits, special event programming, a gift shop, towering peaks and wonderful wildlife watching opportunities. Unique to the park are insect species found nowhere else in the world and some of the oldest known archaeological sites in North America. If you have a 4WD vehicle, ask Park Rangers about traveling the Medano Pass 4WD road into the heart of the Sangre de Cristo Range of the Rio Grande National Forest.
Next to the National Park is the historic Medano Ranch, where domesticated bison roam the wet meadows and dry uplands of the Valley floor. Watch for them along the road. County Lane 6 North, 10 miles east of CO Hwy 17 and 4 miles west of CO Hwy 150/ Lane 6 north intersection. A Nature Conservancy Preserve.
San Luis State Park and Wildlife Area has a modern campground, picnic facilities and wonderful watchable wildlife trails and blinds. Elk, songbirds, coyotes, kangaroo rats and rabbits are common sights here. An excellent spot for fishing when water levels are high enough, with spectacular views of Mt. Blanca and the Dunes. Alamosa County Lane 6 North, 8 miles east of CO Hwy 17 and 6 miles west of CO Hwy 150/ Lane 6 North intersection. A variety of activities can be enjoyed while visiting the Colorado State Park. Hiking and mountain biking trails are suitable for most ability levels, wildlife is abundant and waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors never disappoint bird watchers. Fishing and other water sports can be enjoyed when water levels are high enough. Camping is also available through www.parks.state.co.us/parks/sanluis/pages/sanluislakes.aspx
Near the intersection of CO Hwy 17 and the “Sand Dunes Road” (County Lane 6), the Byway is surrounded by agricultural lands, often popular feeding and loafing areas for migrating cranes, geese and waterfowl. Pause to learn more of the local history at the Byway Interpretive Sign.
East of US HWY 17, seven miles north of Alamosa, take Alamosa CR 2 southeast approximately 6 miles to entrance. Closed during waterfowl nesting season.(Feb 15-July15). Rare snowy plovers nest here and the area is a birder’s delight during spring, summer and fall. The Blanca Wetlands is a series of ponds, playas, marshes and wet meadows that were once part of a larger network of wetlands connecting the desert scrub floor across the San Luis Valley. A lower water table and decreasing amount of snow in the mountains has meant shrinking wetland areas in the valley. It is a birder’s paradise with sandpipers, snowy plovers, avocets, white-faced ibis and the yellow-headed black bird. The area is closed from Feb 15-July 15 during nesting season.
The byway continues along Hwy 17 into the Valley’s largest urban area at Alamosa. There is plenty of wildlife along the Rio Grande as it runs through town, and around the old oxbows, wetlands on the Alamosa Ranch, irrigated hay meadows and farm fields along the river. Visit the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, 3 miles east of Alamosa, south of US Hwy 160 on El Rancho Road.
Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway explores the wide and flat expanse of the valley floor that served as a gateway into Colorado for Spanish explorers arriving from the south. As a result, the state’s oldest communities are found here. The historic byway takes you through the heart of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area and its rich historic, cultural and natural resources. Enjoy alpine views of the magnificent Sangre de Cristo Range along the way.
Thinking of taking a ride along the Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway see the itineraries here:
Colorado Itinerary: 3 Scenic Byways: Short Walks, Long View- https://grandcircle.org/itineraries/1566-colorado-itinerary-3-scenic-byways-short-walks,-long-view
4 Days to Explore the Historic San Luis Valley- https://www.colorado.com/byways/los-caminos-antiguos
3 Scenic Byways: Leaf Peeping in Southern Colorado https://www.codot.gov/travel/scenic-byways/assets/scenicbyways_leafpeepinginsouthernco.pdf
What is a Historic Byway
As you travel through the roads of Colorful Colorado you are bound to come across a blue sign with a Rocky Mountain Columbine, Colorado’s state flower. These signs signal that you are traveling on one of Colorado’s Scenic and Historic Byways. These byways have been designated by the Colorado Scenic and Historic Byways Commission and the Colorado Department of Transportation for their scenic or historic values. To receive a designation requires the presence of one or more “intrinsic qualities” of the area: archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational, and scenic. The program was established to protect the nation’s most scenic but often less traveled roads. This is done to promote economic development and tourism in the area. The National Scenic Byways Program (NSBP) is administered by the Federal Highway Administration(FHWA).
For designation as a National Scenic Byway a road must have one of six intrinsic qualities. The Los Caminos Antiquos Scenic and Historic Byway has all six.
is the heightened visual experience derived from the view of natural and manmade elements of the visual environment of the scenic byway corridor. The characteristics of the landscape are strikingly distinct and offer a pleasing and most memorable visual experience.
applies to those features in the visual environment that are in a relatively undisturbed state. These features predate the arrival of human populations and may include geological formations, fossils, landform, water bodies, vegetation, and wildlife. There may be evidence of human activity, but the natural features reveal minimal disturbances.
encompasses legacies of the past that are distinctly associated with physical elements of the landscape, whether natural or manmade, that are of such historic significance that they educate the viewer and stir an appreciation for the past. The historic elements reflect the actions of people and may include buildings, settlement patterns, and other examples of human activity.
is evidence and expressions of the customs or traditions of a distinct group of people. Cultural features include, but are not limited to, crafts, music, dance, rituals, festivals, speech, food, special events, or vernacular architecture.
involves those characteristics of the scenic byways corridor that are physical evidence of historic or prehistoric human life or activity. The scenic byway corridor’s archeological interest, as identified through ruins, artifacts, structural remains, and other physical evidence have scientific significance that educate the viewer and stir an appreciation for the past.
involves outdoor recreational activities directly associated with and dependent upon the natural and cultural elements of the corridor’s landscape. The recreational activities provide opportunities for active and passive recreational experiences. They include, but are not limited to, downhill skiing, rafting, boating, fishing, and hiking. Driving the road itself may qualify as a pleasurable recreational experience. The recreational activities may be seasonal, but the quality and importance of the recreational activities as seasonal operations must be well recognized.
To the west of Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway you can travel to the Silverthread Scenic and Historic Byway and to the east you can travel to the Highway of Legends and Gold Belt Scenic Byways.
For a list of all Colorado Byways and National Byways you can visit the links below for more information.
Colorado Scenic Byways https://www.codot.gov/travel/scenic-byways
Nations Byways https://scenicbyways.info/