This Surreal Colorado City Is a Magnet for Spiritualists and UFOs

Photo: Joe Amon/Getty Images, Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

THERE IS ONLY ONE ROAD IN AND OUT OF CRESTONE, COLORADO. The pavement stops on mountain slopes at 8,000 feet, with Himalayan-like fourteeners looming above the town’s seven square blocks. In the other direction, the road unfurls into the high desert of the San Luis Valley, an 8,000-square-mile break between the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges.

The largest alpine valley on Earth, it can seem like a strange geologic void — like a vortex. Many claim it is.

Crestone—and the greater San Luis Valley—has been viewed as sacred for thousands of years. Today, it’s the “New Age Religious Capital of the World,” with more spiritual centers per square foot than any other place on the continent. To some, it seems close to psychedelic. To others, it’s a saner spot than most. Should you find yourself here—which almost never happens by accident—there’s plenty to discover, both on the ground and above.

Andrew Geiger / Photodisc / getty images

JUST SOUTH OF TOWN, DEEP IN THE JUNIPER AND PINE, YOU’LL FIND “THE BACA.” The Camino Baca Grande—the “Holy Way”—leads you to the vast majority of the town’s spiritual retreat centers, with prayer flags and global architecture confirming you’re in the right place.

Pre-COVID, the centers attracted 30,000 visitors and retreatants annually, some staying for an afternoon fire ceremony, others for as long as they needed.

The most well-known spot in the Baca is perhaps the Crestone Ziggurat, a sandy-colored tower that rises above the hillside: you’re welcome to hike up the short switchback trail and climb to the top, where ancient Mesopotamians believed was closest to the gods.

“It’s probably the only place in the US where a ziggurat doesn’t look out of place,” notes Kairina Danforth, city mayor. The Baca is also home to several Buddhist monasteries, a Tibetan stupa, two Hindu ashrams, a Catholic retreat center, labyrinths, temples, and various other places of worship and healing.

But Crestone’s reputation as a spiritual site began long before asphalt and prayer flags: Both the Navajo and Hopi considered the nearby Blanca Peak a sacred mountain, and artifacts prove Indigenous people gathered here far before any European would set sight on the “Bloodless Valley.” US News and World Report—a very strange arbiter of the divine— even named Crestone one of the world’s most sacred sites.

The average tourist, of course, will get distracted by places like the UFO Watchtower and clothing-optional hot springs (and, of course, legal weed). While these places are an integral weave in the valley fabric and the watchtower is certainly worth your $2—this is, after all, the “Bermuda Triangle of the West,” with purportedly more sightings than Roswell—keep this sacred context in mind as you visit. And leave the selfie stick at home.

Mike Berenson / Colorado Captures / Moment Open / getty images

“WHEN I MOVED HERE IN 1999, (Crestone) wasn’t designated on any map, and there was no sign on any road or arrow indicating the road toward town,” explains Danforth. While there are still no traffic lights, signs do now indicate the way off Highway 17, the town moving from, in Danforth’s words, “an intentional pull-up-the-moat isolationism to an off-the-beaten-path recreation and tourism destination.”

That “destination” Danforth is referencing isn’t just for spiritual pilgrims and UFO chasers—it’s also for outdoor-lovers.

“In the Rocky Mountains, only Wyoming’s Teton Range offers a greater visual spectacle,” she adds, and she’s not wrong: The Crestone Group contains some of the state’s most beloved fourteeners (Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, Kit Carson, and Humboldt), with world-class trails around and up their slopes. The 4.8-mile trek to Willow Lake is Colorado hiking at its best; nearby Penitente Canyon has 300 climbing routes and great hiking and mountain-biking as well.

And then there’s the Milky Way. The town has had mandated protection from artificial light pollution since 2004: Views into the universe can be had just about anywhere, from the nearby 78,000-acre Baca National Wildlife Refuge right to the town’s main drag. No telescope required.

Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa

“MONKS AND BIKERS, BUDDHISTS AND BAPTISTS, RETIREES AND HIPPIES…” Danforth is clearly well-rehearsed at describing Crestone’s diversity. It happens to be architecturally diverse, too, with some 100 sustainable homes varying from straw-bale to air-block to corn-cob. Accommodations like Joyful Journeys, with three mineral hot springs pools and yurts for overnight guests aren’t the exception. By and large, they’re the rule.

As for the food scene, there isn’t much: Check out the Cloud Station for coffee any way you like it (and healthy smoothies, paninis, and wraps); Our Food Is Art for dinner you’ll want to frame; and Crestone Brewing Co. for a pale ale on the patio. Retreat centers and accommodations like Joyful Journeys also offer full meals, but beyond that, the list quickly dries up. After all, this isn’t Sedona. Crestone barely embraces gas stations and WiFi.

And that’s for a reason: You’re not meant to stay. Whatever you seek, Crestone is here to give you the experience you came for—then send you on your way. In 2020, an ethos like that might as well be magic.

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