Since researching my book, Colorado's Year, over 20 years ago, I have not returned to the San Luis Valley, in south-central Colorado. Tomorrow's journey to that beautiful and fascinating landscape, the largest of the State's intermountain parks, will thus be a special treat.
Hemmed in by the Sangre de Cristo Range to the east and the San Juan and La Garita Mountains to the west, this high, sun-scorched basin is perhaps best known to birders as the spring staging area for Rocky Mountain sandhill cranes. Having wintered in New Mexico, especially at and near the Bosque del Apache NWR, the cranes stop to rest and feed in the San Luis Valley on their way to breeding grounds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. The Valley's unique hydrology and high water table offer ideal feeding areas for these majestic birds, which feast on tubers, waste grain and a variety of invertebrates. Cranes begin to arrive in late February, peaking in number (usually more than 20,000) in mid-late March.
My route from Denver will take me along U.S. 285, climbing through the Front Range foothills and then dropping into South Park beyond Kenosha Pass. After skirting the northern and western edges of that Park, the highway crosses Trout Creek Pass at the southern end of the Mosquito Range, entering the scenic, upper valley of the Arkansas River where the massive Collegiate Peaks of the Sawatch Range rise along its western edge. Angling south to Poncha Springs, U.S. 285 then crosses Poncha Pass, entering the San Luis Valley. More details tomorrow!
Addendum: The brochure at Monte Vista NWR reports that the peak population of sandhill cranes in the San Luis Valley (ranging from 23-27,000) now occurs in early March. Perhaps this shift is just another sign of global warming.