Vast San Luis Valley is Colorado’s newest cultural destination – The Denver Post

They came from the Bay Area, Boulder, Nashville, Tenn., and Denver. They bought old homes, found new communities and then got to work creating. Listening rooms, live music venues, artist residencies, social spaces and live-work co-ops are all parts of the quiet movement happening in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.

And if the artists are any indication — and they usually are — then the tiny southern Colorado towns of Saguache and Del Norte, along with more communities down valley, are on the verge of entering our collective imagination.

Though, for some, these places have long been cemented.

Colorado’s high alpine desert, the San Luis Valley is larger than the state of New Jersey with fewer than 50,000 residents and an outsized concentration of natural wonders — from the Great Sand Dunes to the headwaters of the Rio Grande.

This swath of the West once comprised border territory between the U.S. and Mexico, and 175 years later, its land and water divisions remain complex, if not contested. With a relatively harsh climate, the approach to living necessarily starts with survival before turning to artistic expression.

But surviving and creating can also be intertwined, necessarily, according to a new generation of valley creatives. They’re building off of established artistic foundations in the region; nearby Creede’s professional Repertory Theater, just one example, has been performing for 57 years and counting.

Now these four latest cultural draws, among others, are giving travelers new inspiration to stop over in the San Luis Valley.

The listening room and dance hall

On Del Norte’s main street, Paul Fennell opened up his Trade and Post this winter, selling records from a vast collection that spans folk music to psychedelic rock, while also offering camping gear and pantry supplies for fellow outdoors enthusiasts.

“I’m trying to (replicate) that feeling when I’m entertaining friends, and open up a bottle of wine and put a record on,” Fennell explained of the store’s purpose, “and kind of deliver an experience I’ve found elsewhere, here in the San Luis Valley.”

A midcentury-inspired sitting area at the front of the shop allows vinyl listeners to stop and stay awhile. By mid-May, Fennell expects to hear about his liquor license approval, so he can pour wines and ciders and create more of an all-day lounge destination.

Above the shop, a renovated historic “ballroom,” once a community center, will hold concerts and social events starting this season. Fennell hopes to work with fellow arts venues across the valley and the state. But for now, he’s focused on piloting the project within his community and for local visitors.

“I don’t want to have that delusion of grandeur to say that ‘I’ll build it and they’ll come,’” Fennell said. “I’m in a community that has made some great decisions over a very arduous 30 years of evolution … And now we have a new generation that has come in and is carrying the torch and continuing those efforts, in our own way, and in a way that resonates with us.”

Keep up with Fennell’s progress at

The eco retreat

Front Range muralists and designers Gigi Douglas and Victor Rivera had been traveling to the San Luis Valley for years to find inspiration before they finally purchased an early 1900s homestead in the Rio Grande National Forest outside of Saguache.

Their rustic property is a work in progress that visitors can experience in real time by staying in one of two glamping tents that the couple have set up for visitors. Glampers are encouraged to explore the historic homestead that inspires Douglas’ and Rivera’s work, including the original barn and miner’s cabin, which they’ve restored using hempcrete and other environmentally friendly materials.

Their land also features an outdoor shower for camping guests and a composting toilet — all part of a larger vision to promote sustainable working refuges in nature. And the pair have hosted workshops on-site to teach permaculture practices and natural building techniques that can benefit their community.

Now in their second year opening New Sky Ranch to glampers as well as resident artists, Douglas and Rivera have introduced more offerings to guests, including a “Middle of Nowhere Market.” They’re partnering with local growers and makers to provide fresh produce and farm goods, as well as coffee, tea and dehydrated meals.

“Our vision for the future is to just slowly and organically invite people in,” Douglas said, “either for just a night or so, or to do artist residencies. And we’re never trying to be this blown-up (attraction), but we’re trying to keep it pretty rootsy and organic.”

Find out more about New Sky and book a tent at

The travelers’ lodge

Lauren Coleman is one to watch in Denver and Lakewood, where her White Swan Motel has been serving as temporary housing for the unhoused community in Jefferson County. But in the San Luis Valley, Coleman has over the past year or so been working on another motel project in the community where she relocated with her husband and son during the pandemic.

Mellow Moon Lodge is a renovated 1940s roadside motel at the entrance to Del Norte. It first underwent an overhaul in 2019 under the direction of Jessica Lovelace, who had moved to Del Norte from Santa Fe. Last year, Lovelace decided to pass the property on to Coleman, who has her own vision for the motel’s future.

A Bar and Lounge opening this season, plus a boutique mercantile and repurposed camper van-turned-local-food business, will make Mellow Moon more of the community space that first Lovelace and now Coleman have imagined.

Coleman plans to host weddings and other events on the desert property, and she’s starting to stock Colorado artwork and home goods that she hopes will inspire locals and travelers.

“Our little main street is alive and well,” Coleman said regarding Del Norte’s crop of new businesses. “In my opinion, it’s the cutest small town in America.”

Check into Mellow Moon and check out its offerings at

The historic hotel and venue

Singer-songwriter Andy Hackbarth wasn’t planning on renovating the circa-1910 abandoned hotel in Saguache when he came upon it for sale in 2019.

But the native Coloradan, then a Nashville-based musician, said he felt called to take on the project of rebuilding a community landmark with the help of his father.

He spent $235,000 to buy the property and expects to invest around $1.7 million by the time it’s finished in a year or so.

Through fundraising and state historic grant money, Hackbarth has received enough financial help to bring the building from its last large-scale remodel in the 1920s into the next century.

The space will become a 14-room mix of hotel lodging, longer-stay apartments and hostel-style quarters. Hackbarth’s plans include indoor and outdoor music venues, a gallery space and a commercial kitchen. He wants to host festivals on-site and attract visiting artists working in various disciplines.

“Music and art will be the main focus, and everything will be built around that,” Hackbarth said.

While not how this agricultural and mining region got its start, it does seem to be where it’s headed.

“It’s so different than all these other tourist spots,” he added of the region, which he describes as “this wide, sort of barren feeling valley. We’re focused on solitude and the fact that there aren’t a million people down here … But then you have these amazing little pockets.”

To keep up with progress on the Saguache Hotel’s reopening, visit

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