A POV from Orbit to the San Luis Valley.
Gravel Cyclists can enjoy expansive views of this ancient land.
Extending nearly 8,000 square miles, averaging 7,262 ft of elevation, and receiving less than 10 inches of rain a year makes it the largest high-altitude desert in all of North America. The San Luis Valley encompasses six counties, including Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Rio Grande, and Saguache, and has a relatively low population size.
Touring the San Luis Valley exposes gravel cyclists to a region rich in cultural history with a deep spirituality for nature and all it has to provide. Routes in this guidebook are challenging and will test the endurance and skills of any seasoned rider. Those with a mountain bike background will appreciate routes with little pavement and sections of rough technical gravel. The remote terrain and distanced agricultural communities of the San Luis Valley combine to provide gravel adventure cyclists with a distinct Colorado riding experience. Time spent here is a chance to calm the mind, find peace in the open landscape, and connect with a less busy way of living.
San Luis Valley Greater Outdoors (SLV GO!) invites everyone to visit and explore the culturally diverse agricultural communities of the valley. Our heritage is influenced by Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo customs, with a continued strong Hispanic presence today. Many of our residents identify themselves as descendants of original Mexican land grant settlements. This cultural mix is what makes the San Luis Valley so special and worth a visit.
The San Luis Valley has an immense unpaved network of county, BLM, and national forest roads. There is plenty to explore while feeling like you’re the only one around. Please take the necessary precautions to stay safe. You must adhere to responsible recreation practices established by Leave No Trace. The SLV ecosystem is delicate and needs conservation in order to maintain the valley’s ability to foster a human spiritual connection with the natural world.
The SLV’s landscape was influenced by a series of supervolcano events approximately 30 million years ago. One, La Garita Caldera, produced the largest known volcanic eruption on Earth. As the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges lifted upward, the area between them dropped to create the valley and Lake Alamosa, which was as deep as 200 ft, formed. Then 500,000 years ago, it drained and exposed the sediment deposits left behind to create the rich agricultural conditions of today. It also contributed to the formation of the Great Sand Dunes, and the sandy condition of some roads.
Due to the SLV’s remote and rugged terrain, it was initially largely used as a migration corridor by indigenous people beginning almost 10,000 years ago. Over the years trails began to form as human activity increased. The sacred Blanca Peak (14,326 ft) was considered the easternmost boundary of the Navajo Nation, and later other Native groups (Pueblo, Comanche, Kiowa, Arapahoe, Jicarilla Apache and Cheyenne) would visit to hunt bison and collect resources. However, it was the Ute who were the first to really call the valley home.
The first European to see the valley was the Spanish explorer Juan de Onate in 1598. Over the next 400 years, Spain, then Mexico, and lastly the U.S. claimed the SLV. Unchanged during all these transitions was the remote and rugged landscape of the valley. Beginning in the 16th century, the Old Spanish Trail (Sendero Viejo) was utilized as a trade route that connected northern New Mexico to California. After the U.S. acquired the southwest in 1848, immigrants heading to the west coast began to stay and occupy the SLV outside the influence of Hispanos who migrated from New Mexico.
Traveling the SLV’s unpaved roads today on a gravel bike takes one back in time. It is the same remote and rugged terrain, but with a multi-ethnic legacy that gives it texture and uniqueness within the state of Colorado.
North American Bison on the SLV plains
— San Luis —
Located at the southern end of the valley, San Luis is the
oldest permanently settled community in Colorado. Founded in 1851, this town best reflects the multi-ethnic and shifting borders of the Southwest. Originally part of the Sangre de Cristo land grant from Mexico, San Luis retains the pastoral quality of life that drew early settlers. With a small population (700) and little traffic, riding gravel here affords one the chance to experience what residents have for generations.
— Fort Garland —
First established as a military fort in 1858, Fort Garland sits at the eastern end of the valley near La Veta Pass. It served as an outpost that protected settlers from Native American attacks as tensions grew in the 19th century. Among the soldiers stationed at Fort Garland were the famous African American Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. 9th Cavalry regiment. They arrived after the Civil War paved the way for the first railroad tracks to be laid into the valley. Today, while not a sizable town, Fort Garland offers convenient access to an impressive network of unpaved roads.
— Alamosa —
Founded on the Rio Grande River in 1878, the town serves as a hub for the entire valley due to its central location. Alamosa’s name signifies “cottonwood groves” in Spanish. Similar to other SLV communities, its settlement was directly related to the arrival of the railroad as a result of mining discoveries in the San Juan Mountains to the west. This led to an expanded farming, ranching, and timber economy that persists even now. Alamosa’s central location makes it an ideal base to explore the valley’s abundance of gravel riding, including the Great Sand Dunes area.
— Monte Vista —
Unlike other towns, Monte Vista is an example of a community that claims no single name or person with its founding. It started as the site where the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad placed a sign in 1881. It was once referred to as Henry, but after outside investments, it earned the name Monte Vista because of its “mountain views”. Today, Monte Vista plays host to the state’s oldest pro rodeo (1915) and the Crane Festival, while also holding a number of registered historic places. Monte Vista gives gravel cyclists plenty to explore due to its close proximity to BLM property.
— Del Norte —
Del Norte’s name was inspired by its location, where the Rio Grande del Norte, ‘large river of the north’ flows into the San Luis Valley. The area was first inhabited by Ute tribes in warmer months seeking wild game, plants, water, and timber, with Spain and Mexico following suit. Land grants issued by Mexico encouraged settlement, but this proved difficult as Utes fought to preserve their sovereignty. After the U.S.-Mexican War, Euro-American migration accelerated and the town was formed In 1871. Del Norte quickly grew as a supply station for freighters and miners from the East Coast and Europe. Now, it’s a gateway for gravel cyclists to access the unpaved roads and trails of the Rio Grande National Forest, and the renowned Continental Divide Bike Route.
— Saguache —
Situated at the north end of the valley, Saguache was one of the last areas to see permanent settlement. The name refers to a Ute camp found there as Euro-American traders and trappers passed through on the Old Spanish Trail. Farming of wheat, hay, vegetables, and grazing of cattle and sheep quickly took hold after Otto Mears opened a store and brought the first mover, reaper, and threshing machine into the valley in 1866. He later gained road building notoriety by connecting Saguache (Route 285) over Poncha Pass. Today the town boasts a number of historical buildings and access to the Rio Grande National Forest, BLM, and extensive unpaved road network of Saguache County.
— Creede —
Historic Creede is the one, and only, town in Mineral County. Despite a small population (>300), it possesses extraordinary Colorado history. Situated at the end of a box canyon and the headwaters of the Rio Grande del Norte, the hanging cliffs above town makes this a unique SLV stop. One visit, and you’ll see why it was chosen as a shooting location for the 2013 Lone Ranger film. At one time, Creede was home to as many as 10,000 people seeking fortune and fame, including criminal underworld and outlaw personalities like Robert Ford, best known as the man who killed Jesse James. However, it all came to an end with the Silver Panic of 1893, which led to a U.S. economic depression until 1897. The current gravel bike boom has given people a new reason to visit this stunning place on the map.
No organization does more to improve outdoor recreation infrastructure and access in southern Colorado than San Luis Valley Greater Outdoors. Since 2018, the mission of SLV GO! is to provide residents and visitors throughout the San Luis Valley with accessible and inclusive outdoor recreation opportunities that balance conservation, connect communities, improve wellness, encourage stewardship, and contribute to the economic vitality
of the region.
The organization provides resources such as training and employment to local crews to design and build trails throughout the valley. Focusing on educating new and experienced users on outdoor etiquette, and promoting the protection of the SLV ecosystem with thoughtful consideration around climate and habitat consciousness is a priority.
Examples of the organization’s philosophy and success is the improved trail system emerging at Rito Seco Park near San Luis. In the last few years eight miles of bike-friendly trails have been constructed to complement SLV GO! efforts to establish an International Dark Sky Park, which can be enjoyed by cyclists camping at the park at night. This benefits Costilla County, which has the least amount of access to open space in the state.
SLV GO! helps organize, support, and guide over 100 coalition partners and community efforts to implement recreation resources that break down barriers for the historically marginalized communities of southern Colorado. SLV GO! efforts are improving the health, recreational and traditional use of outdoor spaces across the valley. Every time you visit, spend money, and engage with each town highlighted in this gravel guidebook it makes a difference. Not only with your personal travel experience, but in the lives of those who live in the valley.
Since the first known human presence in the valley, the SLV has always been considered to be a “thin place”, with the physical and spiritual worlds uncannily colliding. Native Americans considered the SLV to be a sacred destination, with many myths originating here. The mysterious allure and spirit that permeates from the valley is why vision quests were undertaken and Blanca Peak is so revered.
Today the valley continues to be a place where the known and unknown converge to create a sense of wonder. Over the years, stories of religious miracles, UFOs, cattle mutilations, and a number of other unexplained phenomena have been shared by residents and visitors alike. Investigative journalists, authors and television show producers from around the world have devoted time and resources to try and understand what is happening along the 37th Parallel in south-central Colorado.
If you’re looking to add a little strange or weird to your gravel bike experience, then there is no better spot to do it. Keep your eyes on the night sky. You never know what you might see while in the SLV.
On the following gravel route pages, scan the QR code with your smart phone to land on our digital RWGPS route page, making it easy, safe, and fun for cyclists to go on great rides. We empower people to get outside, reconnect with nature, and embark on two-wheeled adventures. Our mission is to build a global community of riders who create and share routes, discover new adventures, and go on better rides, more often.
SCAN THE QR CODE AND ACTIVATE OUR ROUTES
One press and you’re off riding
Start navigating and recording your ride on the Ride with GPS app with just a single tap, or get spoken turn-by-turn directions for your routes using the signature voice navigation feature. No data? No problem! You can download routes to navigate while offline and record rides without a data connection. The GPX file is also available and you can link RWGPS to your Strava account.