The San Luis Valley
The San Luis Valley, North America’s largest alpine valley, sits at the south-central border of Colorado and New Mexico, beginning just above of Taos, NM and extending north to Poncha Pass, near Villa Grove, CO. Highways 160 (east-west) and 285 (north-south) are the region’s primary transportation veins.
Zapata is located at the eastern edge of the valley, at the junction of Highway 150 and Lane 6 North — about 15 miles east of the town of Mosca and five miles south of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
The San Luis Valley sits at about 7,500 feet above sea level, in a semi-arid region ringed on all sides by mountains. The climate is dry and temperate for three seasons, with sunny, warm, pleasant summers and cool, breezy springs and falls. Winters can be harsh, with daytime temperatures averaging in the 20s and often dipping well below zero at night. Snowfall is common from October through April and accumulates in the foothills and mountains (including Zapata), usually melting off quickly in the lower elevations.
Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve
Just north of Zapata is one of North America’s largest dune fields, and one of the most biologically diverse park in the United States. Miles of drifting, changing, ethereal dunes stretch out in every direction, and soar as high as 700 feet above visitors. In the lush landscape surrounding the dunes, mule deer, elk, black bears, mountain lions, coyotes, eagles, hawks and other wildlife share the park with more than 300,000 visitors each year. Many of these animals share a community back yard with Zapata residents.
Mosca and Hooper
These two small, rural towns on State Highway 17 serve as the gateway to Zapata and the Great Sand Dunes for travelers coming from points north. Mosca is home to the Colorado Gator Park and the Mosca Pit Stop – a convenience store, gas station and popular, local watering hole. Just north of Mosca near Hooper is the famed UFO Watchtower, a collection of other-worldly memorabilia and a raised platform for prime outer space viewing. Hooper is also home to the Sand Dunes Swimming Pool – a family-friendly, geothermal swimming and soaking experience.
Called the Hamlet of the San Luis Valley, Crestone is a small but active arts community on the north side of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Holistic living, eco-building, solar power and other modern, back-to-the-land values are popular here, as is a connected community devoted to artisan culture.
Blanca, Fort Garland and San Luis
This trio of small towns on the southeastern edge of the San Luis Valley have a rich Hispanic history visible in their architecture and community events. Blanca’s two small grocers are a popular place for Zapata residents to stop for the basics, and the community center along US Route 160 between Blanca and Fort Garland offers residents an array of fitness and educational opportunities at low cost.
San Luis, just a few miles from the New Mexico border, is seeing a resurgence in its arts and cultural community. Between these three towns there’s no shortage of hometown-style diners – both Mexican and americana – to choose from.
Alamosa and Monte Vista
The business and cultural center of the San Luis Valley, Alamosa is home to just under 10,000 people, dozens of dining options, several hotels, retail stores, grocery stores, parks, galleries, the fabled Rio Grande and its namesake, the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad.
Despite being just half that size, Alamosa’s sister city, Monte Vista, is also bustling, with a charming, active downtown, a rural livestock events center and a wildlife refuge that’s home to some 25,000 migrating Sandhill Cranes each spring and fall.
Other unique facts and fables about the area
The San Luis Valley covers an area of about 8,000 miles, about the size of the state of Connecticut, but its total population is less than 50,000.
The valley’s economic engines are tourism and agriculture. Potatoes and barley are the main crop.
There are more than 500 known artists live in the San Luis Valley today.
Native American legend holds that the San Luis Valley is the site of “Sipapu,” or place of emergence. They believe their ancestors gathered to this special place to be led underground and await the cleansing of the earth and the coming of the new world. It’s believed that the exact spot of Sipapu is near the San Luis Lakes, not far from Zapata.
Eighty acres of fields outside Mosca are now home to one of the largest solar installation of its kind in North America.
The San Luis Valley enjoys more than 300 days of sunshine each year.
Alamosa often makes the list of coldest spots in the U.S. each winter, with temperatures sometimes diving as low as -50. (Because of inversion, the Zapata enjoys temperatures that average 10-20º warmer than Alamosa and the Valley floor in winter, and 10-20º cooler in the summer.)