Bordering great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve is Zapata Ranch, 5305 Colo. 150, Mosca, CO 81146 (tel. 888/592-7282 or 719/378-2356; www.zranch.org), owned by The Nature Conservancy. It is a working cattle, bison, and guest ranch where visitors can take ranch vacations, City Slicker style, and enjoy other activities. All-inclusive rates for 7 nights (lodging, food, and all activities) are about $2,000 per adult and $1,600 for children under 9. The ranch also rents rooms by the night, starting at $250 double, which includes all meals. All rooms have private bathrooms and Wi-Fi, and there is a hot tub. Day visitors are invited to take Bison Tours to see the ranch's herd of some 2,000 head of bison, as well as other wildlife such as elk, deer, pronghorn, porcupines, and large numbers of birds, the historic ranch headquarters. Bison tours are by reservation only and cost $50 for adults (13 and older), $25 for children 6 to 12, and free for kids under 6 with four paying customers.
The Alamosa/Monte Vista/Baca National Wildlife Refuge Complex (tel. 719/589-4021; www.fws.gov/alamosa) together have preserved nearly 118,000 acres of vital land for a variety of marsh birds and waterfowl, including many migrating and wintering species. Sandhill cranes visit in early to mid-October and early March; at other times of the year, there may be egrets, herons, avocets, bitterns, and other avian species. A wide variety of ducks are year-round residents, and waterfowl numbers are at their peak March through May. There is also a herd of several hundred elk that often winter in the Monte Vista refuge.
The Baca National Wildlife Refuge is currently closed to the public, but the Alamosa and Monte Vista refuges have self-guided driving tours with a number of view points, and several hiking trails. Bring binoculars, since they'll be useful. To get to the Alamosa refuge, which contains the visitor center (tel. 719/589-4021) and refuge headquarters, go 4 miles east of Alamosa on U.S. 160 and then south 2 miles on El Rancho Lane. Monte Vista refuge is located 6 miles south of the community of Monte Vista on Colo. 15. Admission to the refuges is free, and they are open daily from sunrise to sunset. The visitor center is open sporadically (based on volunteer availability) from March through November, and closed the rest of the year.
Visitors staying in Alamosa might want to check out the Rio Grande Scenic Railroad, with its depot at 601 State Ave. (tel. 877/726-7245 or 719/587-0520; www.riograndescenicrailroad.com). Steam or diesel locomotives haul classic Pullman passenger railroad cars through the mountains and valleys of southern Colorado, with several trips available, over routes more than 100 years old. Typical is the half-day round-trip excursion between Alamosa and the mountain community of La Veta. The passenger cars are climate controlled with comfortable seating, and the trains have snack bars and open-air observation cars. Allow at least a half-day. Round-trip coach fares are from $48 adult (13-59), $38 senior (60 and older) or child (12 and under), and infants under 2 who do not occupy a seat ride free. Rates for the open air car are $58 and $48, respectively; and for the very upscale club car, $149 and $139, respectively. The season generally runs from spring through fall, and there's a "North Pole Express" train that runs weekends in November and December ($15-$20), where kids get to meet Santa.
Built in 1880 to serve remote mining camps, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad follows a spectacular 64-mile path through the San Juan Mountains from Antonito, Colorado, to Chama, New Mexico. This narrow-gauge steam railroad weaves through groves of pine and aspen and past odd rock formations before ascending into the striking Toltec Gorge of the Los Piños River. At the rail-junction community of Osier, passengers enjoy lunch while the Colorado Limited exchanges engines with the New Mexico Express. Round-trip passengers return to their starting point in Antonito, while onward passengers continue a climb through tunnels and trestles to the summit of 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass, then drop down to Chama. A joint venture by the states of Colorado and New Mexico, the train is a registered National Historic Site.
A trip from Antonito to Chama (or vice versa), traveling there by train and returning by bus, costs $95 to $179 for adults, $49 to $69 for children 12 and under. A regular round-trip to Osier is a little less, but this omits either the gorge or the pass. Regardless, it’s an all-day adventure, leaving in the morning and returning in the late afternoon. Fares include lunch at Osier. The train runs daily from late May to mid-October. For reservations and information, contact the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad ([tel] 888/286-2737; www.cumbrestoltec.com). The depot is 28 miles south of Alamosa via U.S. 285.
Among the best preserved of all 19th-century Colorado mining towns, Creede had a population of 10,000 in 1892 when a balladeer wrote, “It’s day all day in the daytime, and there is no night in Creede.” Over $1 million in silver was mined every day, but the Silver Panic of 1893 eclipsed Creede’s rising star. For most of the next century, area mines produced just enough silver and other minerals to sustain the community until the 1960s, when tourism and outdoor recreation became paramount. Today this mountain town, at an elevation of 8,838 feet, has a population of about 400. It’s fairly easy to see most of the town in a day.
To get to Creede from Alamosa, drive west on U.S. 160 about 48 miles to South Fork, and turn north on Colo. 149, which follows the Rio Grande about 23 miles to Creede. You can obtain information on what to see and do, as well as lodging and dining options, from the Creede & Mineral County Chamber of Commerce, in the County Annex building at the south end of town at 904 S. Main St. ([tel] 800/327-2102; www.creede.com). Another good source for information is the Divide Ranger District office of the Rio Grande National Forest, 304 S. Main St. ([tel] 719/658-2556), which can provide maps and information on hiking and all sorts of other outdoor activities in the nearby San Juan and Rio Grande national forests. Ask for directions to the Wheeler Geologic Area, region of volcanic rock formations accessible only by 4X4, horseback, or a 5-hour hike, or North Creede Canyon, where remnants of the Commodore Mine, whose workings seem to keep a ghostly vigil over the canyon.
The Creede Historic Museum, located in the old railroad depot behind City Park ([tel] 719/658-2004; www.creedehistoricalsociety.com), offers the outlaws, saloon shootouts, and other stories of the onetime boomtown. The museum is typically open daily from 10am to 4pm from Memorial Day to Labor Day with $2 admission for adults, $1 for seniors, and $5 for families.
The Underground Mining Museum, on the north edge of town ([tel] 719/658-0811; www.undergroundminingmuseum.com), is contained in a series of rooms and tunnels blasted into a cliff face. Inside this subterranean world are exhibits that trace the history of mining. Guided tours are offered at 10am year-round, as well as 3pm in summer ($15, reservations recommended). The museum is open daily from 9am to 4pm in summer and 9am to 3pm Monday through Friday the rest of the year. Admission costs $7 for adults, $6 for seniors 60 and over, and $5 for children 6 to 11; kids 5 and under are free. Bring a jacket.
Rugged wilderness, outlaws, and miners aside, the absolutely best way to spend some time here is to take in a production by the Creede Repertory Theatre, 124 N. Main St. ([tel] 866/658-2540 or 719/658-2540; www.creederep.org). Established in 1966 by a small troupe of young actors from the University of Kansas, this theater company is now nationally acclaimed, and offers matinee and evening performances from late May through September. Tickets are $11 to $35.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.