Colorado: Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area

The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, listed in the National Register of Historic Places
The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, listed in the National Register of Historic Places

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Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area encompasses more than 3,000 square miles of south-central Colorado spanning Conejos, Costilla and Alamosa counties. The area rests within the San Luis Valley and is a treasure trove of impressive historic, cultural and natural treasures. Sangre de Cristo’s heritage resources represent a profound convergence of the area’s cultural past; one in which the stories of American Indians, Hispanics, Mormons, Amish, Japanese-Americans, Dutch and Anglo all continue to be represented. Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, has noted that, “The cultural and historic value of the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area to Colorado and our nation is immeasurable.” This national recognition includes the whole landscape and involves government agencies, private organizations, businesses, and individuals in conserving and interpreting the importance of the region.

Visitors to the heritage area have the opportunity to experience history in San Luis, the oldest town in Colorado (established 1851), impressive natural splendor at the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, and a diverse built environment that includes over 20 cultural properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.


Early American Indian Tribes and the Fertile Desert Valley
The San Luis Valley saw its first settlers almost 12,000 years ago. The Utes, the oldest continuous residents of what is now the State of Colorado, were referred to as the “Blue Sky People” by visiting tribesmen from the eastern plains due to the startling, intense clarity of the sky. By 1400 A.D., other American Indian tribes joined the Utes in the San Luis Valley region: Apache and Navajo from the North, Tiwa and Tewa people from the south, and Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapaho from the eastern plains. Although the 8,000 square-mile valley is an alpine desert with stark expanses and North America’s tallest sand dunes (some as high as 750 feet), two enormous aquifers lie beneath its dry surface. These supply water to a series of fresh-water lakes and rivers, including the beginnings of the Rio Grande, the continent’s third-longest river system. The availability of this water in the San Luis Valley made the area a highly valued seasonal hunting ground for early tribes as the warm season brought the area to life with a rich diversity of flora and fauna.

Today, the Sangre de Cristo Heritage Area showcases and preserves the natural beauty of the valley as well as petroglyphs and pictographs, which narrate the stories of some of the region’s earliest known residents. The area boasts the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, three national wildlife refuges, a national forest (and two forest wilderness areas), 15 State wildlife areas and a Nature Conservancy preserve, the Medano-Zapata Ranch. The working bison ranch features a National Register listed main headquarters and guesthouse with both private and corporate accommodations. A stay might include horseback rides to the nearby dunes, white-water rafting on the Arkansas River or fly fishing in the Rio Grande.

Hispano Culture: Spanish and Mexican Influence at Sangre de Cristo 
In 1694, Don Diego de Vargas became the first European known to have entered the San Luis Valley, though herders and hunters from the Spanish colonies in present-day New Mexico probably entered the valley as early as 1598. In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza II and a huge entourage of men and livestock probably traveled near the dunes as they returned from a punitive raid against a group of Comanche. Passes in the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains that border the valley provided routes between the High Plains and Santa Fe for the Comanche, Ute, and Spanish soldiers venturing into the area from the south.

Spain and the United States disputed claim to the valley in the early 1800’s, but settlers began spreading northward from Spanish-occupied territories regardless. Some eventually received Mexican land grants in the mid-19th century such as the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant and Guadalupe Land Grant, which gave new arrivals space to raise herds and grow crops in the region. Descendants of these settlers still live in the San Luis Valley today.

Because the valley is somewhat geographically isolated, many early Hispano cultural traditions and practices still endure in the Sangre de Cristo Heritage Area. Hispano art, language, architecture, and authentic cuisine characterize the region. Established in 1851, San Luis in Costilla County is the oldest town in Colorado. Its town center, the Plaza de San Luis de la Culebra, is a nationally registered historic district. The district includes low-scale traditional adobe buildings in the early Spanish style, most of which have been in continual use since their construction in the early 1860’s. More elaborate structures from the 1880’s also help explain the architectural evolution of the town including the Spanish-inspired Church of the Most Precious Blood and its convent. Built in 1886 by Father Francisco Garcia, the church was a place of worship and learning as well as refuge for early settlers. Its nearby convent eventually became San Luis’ first high school. 

The historic district is also home to the State’s first water right, the San Luis People’s Ditch, and the Vega, a large public grassland, given to the town in 1863 for the pasturing of livestock. The town retains much of its overall historic integrity, and residents have continued to build new structures using traditional forms and methods. The San Luis Museum and Cultural Center helps celebrate and interpret these cultural and artistic traditions for visitors.

Just outside San Luis sits Fort Garland. This National Register listed fort was built in 1858 on land from the Sangre de Cristo Land Grant and was commanded by legendary frontiersman, Kit Carson from 1866 to 1867. The Fort Garland Museum offers tours, events and educational programming. Visitors to the fort may also enjoy a trip west to Conejos County, home of Pike’s Stockade where American explorer Zebulon Pike camped with his men in the early 1800’s. The stockade is a reconstruction of the original based on Pike’s journal and is a National Historic Landmark.

To the south of the stockade, in Antonito, CO, the Sociedad Proteccion Mutua De Trabajadores Unidos (Society for the Mutual Protection of United Workers or SPMDTU) is also a preserved National Register listed property. This mutual aid society was founded in 1900 to help combat racial intolerance and protect Mexican property rights during the contentious time following the United States’ annexation of the Mexican Territory in 1848. One mile north of Antonito, in the town of Conejos, visitors can see Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, seat of Colorado’s oldest parish, first established in 1856 (though the current building dates from the 1920’s).

Mountains of Silver: The Impact of the Railroad and Mining Industry
By the mid 1870’s, Colorado was officially a State and had extensive silver mines within its borders. The San Juan Mountains, which rise from the south-western arm of the Sangre de Cristo Heritage Area, were especially rich with ore. As American Indian peoples were being forcibly removed from the region, prospectors from the east flooded the mineral-rich area. The trans-continental railroad had recently been completed and various branches of rail continued to spread rapidly across the western States as the mining industry boomed. The narrow-gauge Denver and Rio Grande Railway constructed its San Juan Extension in 1880, which serviced the region currently within the Sangre de Cristo Heritage Area. 

The introduction of the mining industry and the loss of native tribal peoples changed the cultural climate yet again as immigrants from various backgrounds moved to the San Luis Valley with dreams of getting rich. The diverse group of prospectors and settlers brought new ideas about farming practice, architectural style, and engineering; all of which affected the landscape.

Today several branches of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, as well as the railroad depot in Alamosa County, are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad, once part of the original San Juan Extension, still runs during the summer season between Antonio, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico, passing through the Sangre de Cristo Heritage Area en route. The original trains, tracks and trestles are on the National Register of Historic Places and are a popular tourist destination. Visitors can board restored passenger cars in either Antonio or Chama and experience the journey through some of the valley’s most beautiful and historic scenery. Expansive views from the 10,015-foot Cumbres Pass (the highest mountain pass reached by rail in the United States) include aspen forests, alpine meadows and vast mountain vistas. Many of the railroad’s original structures still remain along the route as well, including the historic Cumbres Section House, Cascade Trestle, Mud Tunnel (still supported entirely by wooden beams), and Phantom Curve. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 1-888-286-2737.

Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area (SdCNHA) is located in south-central CO in Conejos, Costilla and Alamosa Counties, along the northern New Mexico border and is easily accessible from both the north and south on Interstate 25. For a map of the area and its cultural resources, click here. A number of heritage organizations assist visitors in further trip planning including the National Park ServiceSangre de Cristo Heritage Area AssociationHistory ColoradoSan Luis Valley Heritageand San Luis Valley Museum Association. A comprehensive pamphlet about the heritage area created in partnership with the National Park Service can also be viewed here. For more information about National Heritage Areas, visit the National Park Service National Heritage Areas website. Visit the National Park Service Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve website for information on how to visit the park.

Two passes in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are the subject of an online lesson plan, Glorieta and Raton Passes: Gateways to the Southwest. The lesson plan has been produced by the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places program, which offers a series of online classroom-ready lesson plans on registered historic places. To learn more, visit the Teaching with Historic Places homepage.



Last updated: May 4, 2018