Not only are the massive sandy hills of Colorado's Great Sand Dunes National Park a totally unexpected landscape, they also provide endless amusement in one of the country's most underrated national parks. From sandboarding or sledding the dunes to swimming in Medano Creek, this is one of the best parks for unfettered fun. Great Sand Dunes is one of the country's darkest and quietest, and it's also, weirdly enough, a hotbed for UFO sightings. Take advantage of the other activities in the area, like hot springs, camping, and gator-wrestling on an awesome road trip that promises to be fun for the whole family.
Kick off your trip with a stay at the conveniently-located Royal Gorge / Canon City KOA Holiday. This campground is bursting with amenities and activities, from a giant slide and go-kart track to local wine tastings and s'mores buffets. The lodging options are excellent as well. Beyond the standard Tent and RV Sites, there's a canvas Glamping Tent, Camping and Deluxe Cabins, and a rental apartment. The staff here know a ton about the local area and are ready to help you explore the area, whether you're interested in antiquing, fishing, or anything in between. And the best part? The stargazing from this KOA is out of this world.
Meet Colorado's historic Royal Gorge Bridge, built in 1929. It's 1,260 feet from one side of the scenic Royal Gorge Canyon to the other, and along the way, you'll get views from 956 feet above the Arkansas River. For a whopping 72 years, the Royal Gorge Bridge held the prestigious honor of being the world's highest bridge, and even though it was dethroned in 2003 by China's Liuguanghe Bridge, it remains the tallest in the country. The bridge is the main attraction, but there's an entire park built around it. After walking across the bridge, ride the Royal Rush Skycoaster, which swings riders horizontally 1,200 feet over the canyon at 50 mph. You can also zipline over the canyon-- soaring over 1,000 feet above the canyon floor is an experience you won't soon forget. And if you're looking for a more relaxing way to experience the canyon, you can take a gondola ride from one side to the other as well. The visitor's center has a deck that's perched right on the canyon's edge, so you can take a breather after all that adrenaline and watch the red gondolas glide back and forth across the gorge. You can learn about the devastating wildfire that nearly leveled the park in 2013-- and about several of the attractions that were lost forever, like the vintage incline railway, as a result.
After a full day of thrills at the Royal Gorge Bridge, relax for the night at the Cotopaxi / Arkansas River KOA. Crafts and classes at the art shed, a pool, mini golf, hay rides, and ice cream socials get campers excited and engaged, or simply relax in your accommodation of choice. There are RV and Tent Sites with patios and decks overlooking the river, or spacious and shady forest Sites, as well as Camping Cabins and the Loma Linda Motel, which has duplexes with private baths... some even have kitchenettes. Don't miss out on the camp store, which sells locally-raised grass-fed meat and fresh salsa and jams. The store sells fresh apples and pumpkins in the fall.
Colorado has a lot of hot springs, so take advantage and go for a dip in the naturally-heated spring-fed pools at Joyful Journey Spa. Passes are $15 per person, and get you access to three pools, which are kept between 98 and 108 degrees. The water contains minerals like boron, calcium, lithium and magnesium, which some believe provide health benefits. And, the coolest thing is that the mineral spring water at Joyful Journey doesn't have the sulfur smell you experience at most hot springs. If you're feeling particularly stressed, you can take advantage of the spa services as well. Enjoy a massage, detox wrap, facial, or scrub in between dips in the pools or time in the sauna. Joyful Journey also has a labyrinth, a greenhouse, and a meditation hill, to round out your relaxing day here.
The San Luis Valley, surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo mountains, is a hotbed for UFO sightings. The UFO Watchtower was founded by Judy Messelin, an expert on UFO sightings in the Valley who claims to have experienced sightings of her own. She’s the alien chronicler for the San Luis Valley, in a way. She claims that there are reports of mysterious objects in the sky here dating back to the 1600s. She built the UFO Watchtower as a place where those who believe in life beyond our planet can gather to discuss sightings in a place where they’ll be taken seriously, and have a good time– there’s plenty of kitsch thrown in for good measure. Psychics report the presence of two vortexes on her property, which serve as gateways to parallel universes. She’s got a vortex garden, with rocks arranged in specific patterns, where people often leave tokens and mementos. You’ll have to visit and decide if you believe in the UFOs and vortexes yourself.
Another pool to soak in is the Sand Dunes Recreation Hot Springs Pool. The big pool is family friendly and kept at a perfect 98 degrees, and even has a 25-person hot tub. There's also the Greenhouse, an adults-only room with four more warm and hot pools, a 10-person sauna, and a bar. Two onsite restaurants provide grub to hungry patrons, and the facility rents out towels and water toys, as well as sand sleds and sand boards, which will be useful if you're heading into the nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park.
One might not expect to find alligators in the Centennial State, but the Colorado Gators Reptile Park has a whole bunch of them. Every visitor gets to pet and hold a little alligator, and have a photo taken with it. You'll also get to see albino alligators and Morris, an alligator who appeared in the film Happy Gilmore. In addition to the gators, the reptile park has tortoises, Nile crocodiles, massive pythons, anacondas, red tail boas, rattlesnakes, monitor lizards, iguanas, turtles, and more. If you want to get really up close and personal with the animals, the park offers reptile handling classes and gator wrestling classes as well. Pro tip: It only costs an extra $2 to buy a bucket of gator chow to feed the alligators.
Close by Great Sand Dunes National Park, the Alamosa KOA Journey is the perfect spot to set up camp before exploring. Enjoy the absolutely incredible views of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from a Tent, RV Site, or Camping Cabin, and take advantage of the activities offered at the campground. There's also a pool which is a great way to cool off after a long day of hiking in the park, and if you're too tired to cook, you can order pizza, wing bites and cheesy bread and have it delivered right to your campsite.
The main feature of Great Sand Dune National Park is, of course, the 750-foot tall dunes, which happen to be the tallest in the country. Back when glaciers covered North America, ice melt would run off and form rivers across the San Luis Valley. When all of the glaciers melted off, the rivers dried up, leaving behind tons of loose sand and soil. Wind picked up the dust and dirt and carried it to the edge of the valley before dying off at the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. The process continues to this day, causing the dunes to grow even more. The wind also causes the dunes to change shape from day to day-- it's practically a different park every time you visit. But there's much more to the park than just sand. Here, you'll also find mountains, forests, wildlife, and streams. Hike to the top of the dunes and sandboard or sled down them; Just know that normal sleds won't work on the dunes here, so you'll have to buy waxed sleds from the visitor center or rent gear from in town. You also might be able to swim or skimboard on Medano Creek if the water is high enough. Bonus: This is the quietest National Park, and is home to some pretty amazing stargazing.
Hot springs, UFOs, and gator wrestling are just the beginning of the offbeat fun that can be had on the way to Great Sand Dunes National Park. There aren't many places in the country that can offer sand dune sledding and hot springs during the day, and UFO spotting and world-class stargazing at night. That's the beauty of the San Luis Valley, and it's best experienced on a road trip.
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