Sangre de Cristo
Spanish-American History, Sand Dunes, Charming Downtowns, Railroad History
Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area is the gateway to southern Colorado and preserves and protects the unique cultural heritage here. This area is rich in history, religion, culture and bio-diversity protecting and promoting the villages and lifestyles of some of America’s earliest Spanish settlements and early railroad communities. It is among the most unique and well-preserved cultural landscapes in the nation, with stunning natural resources. From scenic drives along Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic Byway, fishing on the Conejos River, sledding down the Great Sand Dunes, or visiting the oldest Catholic parish in Colorado, there’s a lot to appreciate and enjoy here.
Be sure to see:
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 inspiring 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.
Places to See
As the headquarters for La Sociedad Proteccion Mutua de Trabajadores Unidos since 1925, the building represents an important aspect of Hispano history. Originally created to combat exploitation of Hispanic workers by mine owners and barons, in the San Luis Valley. This fraternal organization later expanded to provide mutual aid, thereby playing an important role in the overall social history of Colorado. Construction of this building popularized the use of steel trusses, introduced changes in massing, and promoted hybridized Southwest vernacular designs subsequently utilized in other Hispano enclaves.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Church
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.
This large 1912 brick and stucco home, with a red tile roof, was built for Fred B. Warshauer, a German immigrant who rose to county prominence in the sheep business. Denver architect George F. Harvey drew the plans according to Warshauer’s specifications. Unusual for the period, the house boasts a central vacuum cleaning system and a fire control system. This building is now owned and operated by the Town of Antonito.
Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway
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.
Things to Do
Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic and Historic Byway
Travel 64 miles between Antonito, Colo. and Chama, N.M. on a network of three-foot-gauge tracks, built by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in 1890. The line helped to sustain the ranching and logging activities in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado and formed a link for the transportation of precious metals from the San Juan mining camps to Denver. The train has been featured in films including “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, “Bite the Bullet”, “A Million Ways to Die in the West” and “Hostiles”. Currently the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area is a partner in supporting the Engine 168 and Historic Car Project. This initiative will recreate an authentic Denver and Rio Grande passenger train experience as it would have been over 100 years ago. You can catch a daily ride on the steam engine from May 25th through October 20th. There are also specialty rides that feature food, music, photography, geology and botany among other themes. Learn more about the excursions, history and ongoing projects at cumbrestoltec.com
Great Sand Dunes National Park
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.
Jack Dempsey Museum
Located in Manassa, the Jack Dempsey Museum celebrated the life of heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey. Dedicated in 1966, the museum is housed in the cabin in which Dempsey was born. It contains several artifacts of Dempsey’s career, including the gloves he wore in the New York fight and numerous black and white photographs of his life. Learn More at MuseumTrail.org
Fort Garland Museum
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.