Rafting, hiking, mountain biking, sledding on sand dunes, soaking in hot springs: There are so many activities and adventures to be had in Southern Colorado. Because we have family in this area, we’ve brought our kids several times to explore the spectacular sights around Salida and Crestone. With an overnight stop, usually in Santa Fe, it’s a reasonable two-day drive from Austin. During our most recent trip in late spring, gorgeous weather and the colorful infusion of blooming flowers made it a perfect season to visit.
Crestone, Colorado is a funky little mountain town. A few years ago, my mom and step dad bought a little round house with crystals embedded into the walls and made plans to eventually retire here. I had never heard of Crestone until then. Set next to the 93,000-acre Baca National Wildlife Refuge and many religious and spiritual sites, the community feels otherworldly. We quickly appreciated Crestone as a natural retreat, set back from the road and nestled into the San Luis Valley. A tangle of dirt roads at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, the town is known as an oasis for spiritual seekers. The small community is home to a Zen Center, Hindu Temple and Tibetan Buddhist Center. The downtown area has a few restaurants and an organic shop called Elephant Cloud Market, but Crestone is really made for contemplation, for quiet reflection, for a break from civilization.
Our first morning, we hiked a trail densely shaded by trees. The path hugged an icy stream, and we followed its cascading waters as they navigated the rocky creek bed. We hiked with a group of kids, the youngest being 5. At the top of our hike, we were rewarded with a visit to Karma Thegsum Tashi Gomang Stupa. The Stupa is a delicate structure of gold and white, pointing into the sky to represent the enlightenment of the Buddha; the KTTG Center around the Stupa exists as a preservation site to Tibetan Buddhism.
That afternoon, with the light growing long across the valley, we visited the Crestone Ziggurat. The ziggurat is a type of tower that originated in ancient Mesopotamia and was believed to be a connection to heaven. The Crestone tower swirls up in a sunny yellow color. This ziggurat is open to the public and visitors are encouraged to climb and take in the expansive valley. From this vantage point, we could catch a view of Great Sand Dunes National Park in the distance. (More on that below.)
Our last hike in Crestone was on the Willow Creek Trail. Lush and green with spring flowers exploding out in vibrant color, we explored a kid-friendly hour-long portion of this much longer trail. The full trail is quite challenging and takes about six hours in and back. We also enjoyed biking on the dirt roads around Crestone. Gazing at the mountains, which rise up jagged and extreme and cut into the blue of the sky, cannot be beat. I felt like I could imagine glaciers carving their way through the valley, the rocks giving the appearance that they are caught in movement.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Less than an hour’s drive from Crestone and set against an awe-inspiring mountain range, the dunes at Great Sand Dunes National Park are impressive in size. Within this swirling, flowing landscape of sand is the Star Dune. At 750 feet high, it’s the tallest dune peak in North America. Visitors use sleds and snowboards to navigate down cascading inclines. Sleds specifically made for sand are available to rent a few miles from the park. We enjoyed a day sunbathing, climbing the dunes and playing in the shallow flowing waters of Medano Creek at the base of the dunes. Little waves flow through the water created by ridges of sand breaking underneath. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of joy here, with the disparate views of rocky sheer mountain peaks, blue sky and shadowy peaks of sand from the cool water below. The landscape is marvelous to just admire while eating big bites of cold sandwiches under sun hats or while digging in the sand.
After a day of hiking and playing in the sand dunes, I recommend a stop for a restorative soak at Joyful Journey Hot Springs. The hot springs offer a spa and an eclectic mix of lodging and yoga in addition to heated mineral water pools. They also offer private soaking tubs. Open until 7 p.m. most evenings, this is a heavenly end to a day at the dunes.
After two days visiting our family, we traveled from their house in Crestone for a quick day in Salida. On the one-hour drive, the landscape changes dramatically, transitioning from broad high-mountain desert valley to a tight canyon surrounding the lifeblood of the river. Now that our kids are 7 and 10, we are finally ready for more challenging outdoor experiences. For me this means rafting! I worked for a whitewater rafting company through college and spent many happy days on rivers in Colorado, Utah and Arizona. Independent Whitewater, located outside of Salida, outfitted us and bussed us into Brown’s Canyon for a scenic and tranquil float trip down the Arkansas River. Our kids both loved it but our youngest little adrenaline junkie was demanding “more rapids!” next time. The day was warm and the sun glinting off the water was intoxicating. Whitewater is rated according to difficulty, and most commercial companies run trips on rivers with rapids rated between two and five. Independent Whitewater has trips for every level, including high adventure trips for adults with class four rapids. We will get to that level as a family one day!
After our rafting trip, we headed into Salida proper. We have stayed in Salida before and we have our much-loved spots to revisit. Salida has one of my favorite historic downtown areas in all of Colorado. We leisurely browsed small art galleries, a used book store, a quaint toy store, an apothecary and a plentiful supply of vintage and thrift shops. For lunch we dined at Amicas Pizza Microbrew and More, under a striped awning along the busy street. We love Amicas for their freshly made pizza and expansive beer offerings. Amicas served up the culinary highpoint for the kids: cherry Italian soda with a delicate swirl of whipped cream and a ruby red cherry on top. After lunch, we walked down the street, holding a couple excellent cups of coffee from Brown Dog Coffee Company, to sit in the glossy green grass of Riverside Park and admire the flow of the Arkansas River.
From Salida to Crestone, there are unique sights and plenty of opportunities for quiet reflection and relaxation. This has become a familiar and welcome road for us to travel when we head out of Texas. We seem to always strike a good balance of restful quiet, outdoor splendor and delicious food.