Connected by a mosaic of county roads and cradled by the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains, the San Luis Valley is a high-desert playground for outdoor adventures.
The region lures in travelers who come to sand surf at the Great Sand Dunes National Park, soak in the area’s hot springs or summit its jagged 14,000-foot peaks. But since its boom days in the late 1800s, the vast valley has experienced hard times as one of the poorest rural areas in Colorado.
Now, thanks to a few local hopefuls and spirited newcomers, a rural renaissance is making its way across the valley as a collection of communities looks to one another to help the area thrive, not just survive.
Del Norte sits at the epicenter of this change. Named as the gateway to the San Juans, Del Norte touts itself as an epic outdoor recreation destination. But with its latest influx of entrepreneurial transplants and loving locals, it’s quickly becoming a travel haven for so much more.
Corey Hubbard, a self-proclaimed cowgirl and spirited newcomer from all over, planted roots in Del Norte as a full-time business owner of the General (Specific) Store. Hubbard brings not only a gold-mind of antique treasures to her store but a social presence that has reinvigorated the community.
“I was inspired by the space and the spirit of the place,” says Hubbard. “Del Norte is a confluence of communities with a well-spring of artists, culinary innovators, outdoor enthusiasts and locals who have worked to lay a solid foundation of community.”
Hotelier and Denver-transplant, Lauren Coleman, feels the same way. Coleman has brought a fresh take on lodging with the Mellow Moon
Lodge. A retro revamp of the 15-room vintage motel in 2019 by its previous owner helped recapture the spirit of travel and the local community.
Coleman aims to create a gathering place for both travelers and locals alike by offering events, such as farm-to-table dinner parties along with social gatherings inside the onsite Moon Bar. Envisioning a shoppable boutique hotel, rooms will be outfitted with purchasable items from local artists along with an onsite boutique marketplace — the Rodeo Mercantile.
But, it’s not just about retail and roadside motels. “People aren’t going to travel just for a retail shop; they need a good place to eat,” says Hubbard. The Windsor Hotel, a restored historic Victorian beauty, added a menu of items to its offerings with the 1874 Food Truck and its award-winning 1874 Distillery. A social hub for the town, the distillery also makes a name for itself with its Bloody Mary brunches and social events.
When they say “it takes a community,” that is exactly what helps so many new businesses in the valley thrive. David Carlberg, a valley -native and owner of SLV Food Company and local food truck Boomtown Breakfast Co., attributes the valley’s revival to its community connection and cultivating its own resources.
“We throw a lot of business at one another. It’s nice to have allies in this process,” shares Carlberg. In fact, he credits part of his boom in business to Hubbard, who hired him to cater an event she threw in town.
Aside from running his food truck and catering business, Carlberg has even bigger dreams of creating an accelerated food program for those who want to start a food concept in the valley. “I would like it to be an official program, like a non-profit, that gives access to resources for those who want to start a food concept,” says Carlberg.
Roughly 30 minutes from Del Norte, another culinary creation sprouted last year in Alamosa. Housed inside a nearly 100-year-old church, the Friar’s Fork, a casual Italian eatery, and its next-door neighbor, the Sanctuary, an elevated cocktail and coffee lounge, are the latest innovations from owner, chef and Alamosa-native Denise Vigil.
After years of studying under a number of James Beard award winning chefs, Vigil returned to Alamosa with her own restaurant concept that was recently nominated for best new restaurant by the James Beard Foundation.
15 miles north of Del Norte, along US 285, other creative visionaries see the valley as a thriving arts and culture scene. Frontier Drive-Inn, once an old drive-in movie theater, aims to celebrate the agriculture presence of the valley with movies, architecture, food and art.
Plush yurts and re-imagined SteelMaster sheds provide a campground of overnight experiences with summer movie nights on a field of grass. In addition to movies, there are cultural programs and art installations helmed by program director, Adam Gildar.
“The ethos of the Frontier Drive-Inn is to connect the past with today’s contemporary technology,” says Gildar. They are doing so with award-winning artist, Ron Rael and his 3-D printed, adobe, open-air observatories — connecting earth to sky.
For those who grew up in the valley like Vigil and Carlberg, and for those new-comers like Hubbard and Coleman, there is a sense that blending some of the old with the new brings a fresh way of thinking about how the valley can become more than a place you just pass through.
Originally published in Summer + Fall 2023 issue of Colorado YOGA + life.
Writer + Photographer