Millions of years ago volcanic eruptions formed the San Juan Mountain Range and earthquakes formed the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range and in the middle of these massive mountain ranges lay the San Luis Valley. The San Luis Valley of Colorado is the largest alpine valley on earth.
The Valley floor is approximately 7500 feet above sea-level and surrounded by beautiful mountain peaks many of which are 14,000 foot tall. It is the highest valley in the world capable of sustaining agriculture. The amount and variety of crops grown in the valley is incredible.
The first people to enter the valley were nomadic hunters and gatherers who were hunting the prehistoric bison and other meat supplying animals which were numerous on the valley floor. Credible evidence has been found dating these hunts as far back as 10,000 years ago.
About 400 years ago the Southern Utes and Jicarilla Apaches were coming to the valley to camp and hunt during the summer season. There is evidence that the Utes may have been hunting and camping in the valley as long as 1,000 years ago.
Many Spanish explorers such as Don Diego de Vargas found the valley in the late 1600’s. Travel from Santa Fe was relatively easy and as people discovered the fertile soil of the valley civilization as we know it was soon to follow.
Legend has it that a Spanish missionary, the Rev. Francisco Torres, named the Valley after a Spanish Saint known for his purity. The same missionary wounded and near death watched the fiery sunset over the nearby mountains and shouted “Sangre de Cristo”-Spanish for the “Blood of Christ”, naming the mountain range forever.
The pristine nature of the area soon attracted fur traders and mountain men as well as Hispanic people from Santa Fe who had been given sections of land from an early land grant. The fierce Utes and Apaches prevented much serious settlement until the mid 1800’s. Under Spanish and Mexican rule the area was part of the Nuevo Mexico Province and was sold to the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. In the 1850’s settlers flocked to the southern part of the valley and in 1851 the oldest town, San Luis, was settled.
Fort Garland was established by the U.S. Army to protect the settlers in the early 1850’s and a town quickly formed near the fort. At one point the famous “Kit” Carson was commandant of the rugged fort. Kit Carson’s brother-in-law settled and farmed what is now known as “Wagon Wheel Gap” in 1840. Several years later this area was to become a tourist attraction with all the therapeutic warm springs in the vicinity. The Utes were not completely removed from the valley until 1895.
In 1858 a Catholic Parish was established anchored by Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church and the first pastor started the first school in the valley that same year. Hispanic influence was very strong in the valley in the early years and still is very strong today. Some of the valley’s leading citizens are of Spanish ancestry.
In 1889 precious metal was discovered in Willow Creek Canyon and the race was on. Gold and silver brought thousands of people seeking their fortune and with them came the railroad and with the railroad came progress as we call it and the valley was changed forever.
With the influx of people the incredible fertility of the valley was discovered and small settlements appeared throughout and the San Luis Valley soon became the wonderful and exciting place that it is today.