Road Tripping with Rod Serling across the San Luis Valley
By RICH GRANT
There are many “Twilight Zone” episodes in which a road trip goes strange. A cute couple might be driving along and somehow, somewhere, they take a wrong turn and find themselves (as Rod Serling would put it so magically) “traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop: the Twilight Zone!”
And there’s few places where a road trip screams “Twilight Zone” more than the backroads from Denver to Taos though the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. I’ve done it many times in all seasons and weather and never lost the feeling that the stranger I just passed, standing out there alone in the desert, smiling as I zoom by, is Rod Serling.
Certainly, he would have found great inspiration in the San Luis Valley. It is the largest alpine valley in the world. Covering an area the size of Massachusetts, this billiard-table-flat, sandy valley floor receives less rainfall than the Sahara. There are only 40,000 humans living here, making it one of the most isolated, quietest and darkest places on the planet. And you know what happens when things get quiet and dark. They also get strange.
San Luis has attracted more UFO sightings than nearby Roswell, New Mexico. It’s well known for unexplained cattle mutilations. Many believe the little San Luis Valley town of Crestone sits on a deposit of quartz crystals, making it a vortex to other dimensions.
And then there are the alligators, the sand dunes, the steam train ride back in time and, of course, don’t forget legalized marijuana. All of which makes the San Luis Valley a little looney. And the people there like it that way.
Here’s a quick guide for road trippers who find themselves on a journey where the signpost up ahead reads: “Your next stop: the San Luis Valley.”
A Quick History of the Forgotten Zone
One of the first recorded mentions of the San Luis Valley was by Zebulon Pike, who claimed his 1809 expedition stumbled into it by accident. They were sent out by then-U.S. President Thomas Jefferson to look for the southwestern edge of the Louisiana Purchase. They found it, but then they went another 100 miles or so across the border into what was then Mexico. Pike built a small fort in the San Luis Valley before he was arrested by the Spanish and sent home.
As Colorado grew, Denver became the hub and since there was a much easier route from the Mile High City to Santa Fe on the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, there was virtually no reason to go into the huge desert valley to the west. As a result, almost no one did.
Though there were gold and silver booms all around Colorado, the route from Denver to Taos through the San Luis Valley was only traveled by mountain men, outlaws, a rancher or two, a few artists and possibly some UFOs.
The San Luis Valley Today
As you leave Denver and head west and then south on Hwy. 285, you stay in the pretty mountainous Colorado of postcards and calendars until you come down from Monarch Pass to the one-café town of Villa Grove, known for, of all things, pie. Why pie? Who knows? But stop and check out their pies. There’s nothing else to eat for a long time.
If Rod Serling was going to stand on a corner, it would be here, where Hwy. 17 branches out from the fairly normal Hwy. 285.
Take a left, enter the flat sandy desert and look for signs to Crestone. This small town of 150 people sits at the end of a dead-end road that slams into the base of the Sangre de Cristos.
As you enter the town passing a large herd of yak (yes, yak!), you’ll learn that Crestone has more ashrams, stupas, Catholic retreats and spiritual centers per capita than any place in the world. There are 30 of them!
Many locals believe that Crestone holds an energy vortex and is perhaps a portal to other dimensions. Why not? At any rate, something strange is going on, as witnessed by the steady stream of pilgrims and religious retreats.
Crestone made international news in May 2021 when seven members of the strange cult Love Has Won were arrested for keeping the mummified body of their leader (called Mother God) as a shrine. The body was decorated with Christmas tree lights and had glitter in the empty eye sockets.
You can learn about this, and the artists who live in the area, at the Crestone Historical Museum and Welcome Center. It’s a 24-mile trek out and back from the highway, but you won’t forget it.
UFO Watch Tower
There’s a whole lot of nothing as you return to Hwy. 17 south, driving at whatever speed your stomach can handle on a two-lane road. Signs warn that your speed is being watched and enforced by flying aircraft. Ha! This becomes somewhat ominous when you see signs for your next stop, the world’s only UFO Watchtower. Built by local Hooper, Colorado, resident, Judy Messoline, it’s really just a wood deck surrounded by strange UFO art. There’s a “campground,” or at least a place to park overnight, for a fee. There are lots of signs featuring ET.
A small museum details the history of the strange number of astral sightings and cattle mutilations that have taken place in the San Luis Valley, some dating back to the 1700s.
In theory, the tower is as good a place to park and look for UFOs as any. Judy claims that 88 UFOs have been sighted from the tower since it went up in 2000.
Of course, her autobiography is titled, “The Crazy Lady Down the Road.”
See You Later, Alligator
Literally just down the road are 300 alligators, along with a collection of rattlesnakes, pythons, snapping turtles and, oh, about 350,000 Tilapia fish. Welcome to the Colorado Gators Reptile Park, one of Colorado’s craziest and most fun roadside attractions.
It started in 1974 when Erwin and Lynne Young decided to use the valley’s geothermal waters (the water stays at a constant 87 degrees) to farm tilapia, a tasty perch fish that needs warm waters. Fish in fish farms die pretty regularly, and to deal with all the dead fish, they imported 100 baby alligators in 1987.
Flash forward, and today, the fish farm makes more money showing off the exotic animals than from selling fish. Many people have donated alligator pets that became too large, and the park has become a sanctuary for reptiles, crocodiles, three types of rattlesnakes and tortoises. For extra fun, you can hold a two-foot-long baby alligator, then have the gator bite and leave bite-holes on your “certificate of bravery.”
Whereas many places have signs proclaiming how many months they have gone without an accident, at Colorado Gators, their safety record sign is measured in hours. Sometimes minutes! Maintaining dozens and dozens of gators is no easy task, and these gators are not pets. Ask the staff to show you bite marks!
Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve
Head east from Hooper and you come upon one of the most amazing sights in the West: 50 square miles of soft, curving and dramatic wind-sculptured sand dunes. They are the highest inland sand dunes in North America, rising to more than 750 feet. Pink, cream, brown, tan or gold – depending on the angle of the sun – they are shifting mountains of sand.
Each day, the winds go to work on them. A strong wind can set the whole 50-square-mile-dune surface moving, creating ripples, and building the sand into elegantly shaped crescents. But sooner or later, reverse winds blow down from the mountains and the dunes are returned to near their original shape.
Scientists think the dunes have been here 440,000 years. Maybe. No one really knows. But photos taken in 1927 show that the main dunes have undergone very little change in the past century.
There are many activities in the park, but everyone’s first choice is hiking the dunes. There are no trails – they wouldn’t last an afternoon – so visitors can go anywhere they want.
For decades, people have been trying to slide down the dunes on snow skies. Unfortunately, they don’t work. But there are specially designed sand boards and sand sleds that do work and are available for rental outside the park at the Oasis store.
Whatever you do, hike the highest dune you can (you slip down almost as much as you advance with each step), but the views the higher you go are amazing. And as you climb, you’ll remember the “Twilight Zone” episode where astronauts land on similar sand dunes on a distant planet and climb looking for a view until … well, it’s not fair to ruin a “Twilight Zone” ending.
Smoke, Steam & Steel
Many “Twilight Zone” episodes involve train rides, especially those that go back into the past, and there’s perhaps no train ride in the world where you can do that more than the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TSRR). You can pick up the train at the southern edge of the San Luis Valley in Antonito, Colorado, the hometown of Indiana Jones. Yes, that Indiana Jones. In the film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the hero lives within running distance of the C&TSRR (used in all the railroad scenes) and the house he runs to in the film is now a bed & breakfast you can stay in!
Owned by the states of Colorado and New Mexico, and crossing the state borders 11 times, the C&TSRR is the highest, longest and most authentic steam railroad in North America, chugging through an off-the-grid wilderness for 64 miles at an impressive speed of 12 miles per hour. Your cell phones won’t work, your ride can be stopped by a herd of sheep on the track, and if you see a bear from the outdoor gondola car, well, you won’t be the first one. Keep your hands inside the car, but you can let your mind drift back to 1880, when the tracks were first put down.
Taos: Art, Beauty and Blood
There’s no place quite like Taos because on one end of town there are people still living in Taos Pueblo, a 1,000-year-old adobe village without electricity or running water that may just be the oldest continually inhabited spot in North America. And on the other end of town? Welcome to the future, where people living in a small community of “Earthships,” environmental homes built below the earth, using 1,400 rubber tires as a foundation with walls made out of tin cans.
In between these two extremes is Taos Plaza, a 200-year-old village green surrounded by adobe buildings in the Spanish Colonial and Territorial Revival style that drip with New Mexico charm of covered verandas, exposed wood beams, adobe walls and shops sparkling with turquoise jewelry, silver and bright Indian blankets.
But don’t be fooled! Taos has that strange “Twilight Zone” history lurking on the horizon and is a place filled with ghosts. In 1847, during the Taos Revolt, New Mexico Territory Governor Charles Bent was grabbed from his home near the plaza and literally ripped to pieces by a mob, right in front of what is now the wonderful, cozy bookstore, op.cit.
And that peaceful looking cemetery of wood crosses in Taos Pueblo? Well, they are there because when the U.S. army showed up after the revolt, the Taos people went to the San Geronimo Church for protection and the army wheeled a cannon up to the windows and fired canister into it point blank, killing dozens of women and children. The ruins of the church became the cemetery, and the leaders of the revolt were hung in that now oh-so-peaceful Taos Plaza.
Yes, Taos is a wonderful place to end a “Twilight Zone” road trip, which is perhaps why Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper showed up there in 1969 in the ultimate road trip movie, “Easy Rider.” Of course, shortly after leaving Taos (perhaps roaring off into the San Luis Valley) the two motorcycle-riding hippies are gunned down in the movie’s final scene, adding perhaps two more ghosts and another Rod Serling ending to this strange and haunted landscape.