Many Twilight Zone episodes feature a road trip gone strange. A couple are driving along, make a turn and find themselves (as Rod Serling put it so magically) “traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop: The Twilight Zone!”
There are few places where a road trip screams “Twilight Zone” more than the San Luis Valley of Colorado and New Mexico. Certainly, Rod Serling would have found great inspiration here. It is the largest alpine valley in the world. Covering an area the size of Massachusetts, this billiard-table-flat land receives less rainfall than the Sahara. There are only 40,000 humans living here, making it one of the most isolated, quietest, and darkest places on the planet. And you know what happens when things get quiet and dark. They also get strange.
San Luis has attracted more UFO sightings than nearby Roswell, NM. It’s well known for unexplained cattle mutilations. Many believe the San Luis town of Crestone sits on a deposit of quartz crystals, making it a vortex to other dimensions. And then there are the alligators, the sand dunes, the steam train ride back in time and of course, don’t forget legalized marijuana. All of which makes the San Luis Valley a little looney. And the people here like it that way.
The Dead-End Town of Crestone
If Rod Serling were to stand on a San Luis corner, it would be on Hwy. 17 at the start of the road that dead ends at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in Crestone. As you enter the town passing a large herd of yak (yes, yak!), you’ll learn that Crestone has more ashrams, stupas, Catholic retreats and spiritual centers per capita than any place in the world. There are 30 of them! Many locals believe that Crestone holds an energy vortex and is perhaps a portal to other dimensions. Maybe you won’t experience that, but you can learn about it at the Crestone Historical Museum.
UFO Watch Tower
There’s a whole lot of nothing but distant mountain views as you return to Hwy. 17 south, driving at whatever speed your stomach can handle on a two-lane road. Signs warn that your speed is being watched and enforced by flying aircraft. Ha! This becomes somewhat ominous when you see signs for your next stop, the world’s only UFO Watchtower. Built by local hooper and Colorado resident, Judy Messoline, it’s really just a wood deck surrounded by strange UFO art. There are lots of signs featuring ET. A small museum details the history of the strange number of astral sightings and cattle mutilations that have taken place in the San Luis Valley, some dating back to the 1700s. In theory, the tower is as good a place as any to look for UFOs and Judy claims that 88 UFOs have been sighted here since 2000. Of course, her autobiography is titled, “The Crazy Lady Down the Road.”
See You Later, Alligator
Literally just down the road are 300 alligators, along with a collection of rattlesnakes, pythons, snapping turtles, and, oh, about 350,000 tilapia fish. Welcome to the Colorado Gators Reptile Park, one of Colorado’s craziest roadside attractions. It started in 1974 when Erwin and Lynne Young decided to use the valley’s constant 87-degree geothermal waters to farm tilapia. To deal with dead fish, in 1987, they imported 100 baby alligators.
Today, the farm makes more money showing off the exotic animals than by selling tilapia. The gators are everywhere, held in place by flimsy chain link fences. You can hold a two-foot-long baby alligator, then have the gator bite and leave bite-holes on your “certificate of bravery.”
Where many places have signs proclaiming how many months they have gone without an accident, at Colorado Gators, their safety record sign is measured in hours. Sometimes minutes! Ask the staff to show you bite marks!
Just east of here is one of the most amazing sights in the West — 50-square-miles of soft, curving, and dramatic wind-sculptured sand dunes. They are the highest inland sand dunes in North America, rising to more than 750 feet.
Scientists think the dunes have been here 440,000 years. Maybe. No one really knows. Whatever you do, hike the highest dune you can (you slip down almost as much as you advance with each step), but the views get better the higher you go. As you climb, remember the Twilight Zone episode where astronauts land on similar sand dunes on a distant planet and climb looking for a view until… well, it’s not fair to ruin a Twilight Zone ending.
Smoke, Steam & Steel
Many Twilight Zone episodes involve train rides, especially those that go back in time and there’s no train ride in the world that does that more than the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TSRR). You board at southern edge of the valley in Antonito, Colorado, hometown of Indiana Jones. Yes, that Indiana Jones. In the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the hero lives within running distance of the C&TSRR (used in all the railroad scenes) and the house used in the film is now a bed & breakfast where you can stay!
The C&TSRR is the highest, longest, and most authentic steam railroad in North America, chugging through an off-the-grid wilderness for 64 miles at an impressive speed of 12 mph. Your cell phones won’t work, your ride can be stopped by a herd of sheep on the track, and if you see a bear from the outdoor gondola car, well, you won’t be the first. Keep your hands inside the car, but let your mind drift back to 1880, when the tracks were first put down, and if there’s a signpost up ahead, well don’t be surprised if it says you’re entering the Twilight Zone.