Surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks, Colorado's San Luis Valley is the largest and highest inhabited alpine valley in the world. Though settled, it's home to relatively few inhabitants; in fact,a mere 47,000 people live in the basin, a Rocky Mountain wonder tucked between the San Juan Mountains to the west and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east.
The valley spans about 74 miles at its widest point and is drained by the Rio Grande River. From north to south, the valley is approximately 122 miles long, with Ponchas Pass as its northernmost terminus. In the south, the valley ends in northern New Mexico.
The photographic wonders of the valley include Great Sand Dunes National Park, which contains the highest dunes in the country, with some stretching 750 feet into the heavens.
Valley weather is typical for any mountain region. As locals often say, "If you don't like the weather, wait a minute and it will change." Winters are typically cold, with some of the lowest recorded temperatures in the state found in the largest valley town of Alamosa.
But sunshine often prevails, and you can expect winter highs in the 40s as well. Summers are warm, with almost daily afternoon thunderstorms. Highs reach as high as the low 90s, but nights are always cool and often dip into the 50s. Winds are prevalent in the spring, which is one reason that the dunes tower above the valley.
I still use film (though my first digital camera is on its way) so, to date, 35mm SLRs were used for shooting in the valley. Useful lenses include everything from a wide-angle to supertelephoto. I love the wide-angle lens for scenics, including Zapata Falls, but my 600mm is tops when it comes to wildlife photography. A 105mm macro is wonderful for wildflowers.
The valley is easy to access. Once there, visitors can hike, ski or snowshoe (depending on the season) to some of the sites. Penitente Canyon is a popular haunt for rock climbers, and it's a wonderful destination for photographers as well. A favorite place near the sand dunes is Zapata Falls. Photograph the falls any time of the year. They're an extra delight in winter when frozen solid. Wear sturdy boots if you're trekking, and bring plenty of water and wear sun-protective items such as sunglasses, sunscreen, lip balm and hats. Also, don't forget to pack rain gear.
The valley is home to a variety of wildlife. In March, the abundance of sandhill cranes at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge warrants a festival to welcome them back; there are also large numbers come fall. The valley is a mecca for elk, deer, pronghorn, mountain lion and black bear, too. Smaller mammals include porcupine and the recently reintroduced Canadian lynx. In addition to the cranes, a variety of birds are seen in the valley, including bald eagles.
The San Luis Valley is a great place to make images any time of year, but it's especially quiet in the spring, fall and winter. Summers are busier because those in the southern states come here to escape the heat, but the valley is never crowded. Late summer and early fall are extra special: the aspens and cottonwoods are brilliant yellow and gold, and there's a chill in the air. Winter brings beautiful snow scenes and icy waterfalls.
Contact: San Luis Valley Information Center, (800) 214-1240, www.sanluisvalley.org.
One useful accessory for outings in mountain valleys is the waterproof, breathable yet packable Marmot Minima jacket. Extremely light but offering 40 PSI waterproofness (thanks to Gore-Tex® PacLite technology), the windproof Minima features a full-visibility storm hood, pockets that can be accessed while wearing a pack and more. Contact: Marmot, (888) 357-3262, www.marmot.com.