VALLEY OF THE CRANES
Colorado Outdoors Magazine Wildlife Viewing Guide
Celebrating Spring in the Valley of the Cranes
Colorado’s San Luis Valley in the winter and early spring can be a frightful place to be in terms of weather and temperature. Surrounded on three sides by the high snow covered peaks of the Sangre de Cristos, the Sawatch and the San Juan Mountains, this flat expanse of valley floor turns into a natural “deep freeze”, holding the cold alpine air that sinks from the spectacular surrounding peaks down into the lower 7,500 ft. elevation of the valley. Weather maps often show Alamosa as the state’s coldest town, with minimum temperatures well below zero. Along with the cold, comes wind, and the valley in springtime can be a windy place.
After the long cold winter, valley residents look forward to spring with understandable enthusiasm. But more user-friendly weather isn’t the only benefit that follows the change of the seasons. Late in February, sandhill cranes, the valley’s oldest visitors, begin their annual trek from south to north, stopping off near the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge to load up on fuel. For millions of years, the sandhills have been spending their “Spring Break” in Colorado’s Valley of the Cranes and more recently we “wildlife watchers” have been drawn to wonder at this phenomenal natural spectacle.
While we don’t really know what the early residents of southern Colorado thought about this majestic migration of cranes, we do know that they were paying attention to it. High on a rocky cliff face southwest of Monte Vista is a well-protected six-foot long petroglyph that is unmistakably a sandhill crane. So, even as much as 2,000 years ago, we humans were celebrating the return of these magnificent birds to the Valley of the Cranes.
Today, “crane watchers” come from far and wide to join this celebration at the Monte Vista Crane Festival. Since 1983, San Luis Valley crane aficionados have volunteered their time to organize Colorado’s oldest wildlife festival in this sleepy agricultural town. While the festival offers outstanding opportunities for celebrating and understanding cranes and other wildlife, the common denominator that brings visitors back year after year is the 20,000 or so greater sandhill cranes, a few thousand lesser sandhills, and a handful of whooping cranes, that really put on a show for each other and visitors, too.
The festival hosts wildlife experts, local naturalists and biologists who present educational workshops at the Monte Vista Middle School, while flocks of dancing sandhills assemble in the neighboring farm fields, just outside of town. Bus tours to the nearby National Wildlife Refuge and adjacent farmlands provide visitors with the opportunity to view this spectacle up close and personal, with a knowledgeable local guide. Special tours feature raptor identification, sunset trips to view cranes, a visit to a local potato warehouse (with free potatoes) and visits to closed areas of the refuge for Crane Fest participants.
A craft fair is held in the Ski-Hi building, which features a prominent crane mural on the outside walls. A dinner with live entertainment, a pancake breakfast, local restaurants and concessions at the craft fair provide sustenance for happy “crane watchers” from as far away as Japan. Motels and B & B’s fill up weeks in advance, and the population of Monte Vista nearly doubles during the weekend of Crane Fest.
Besides the cranes there are thousands of waterfowl, numerous wintering bald eagles and other raptors that highlight the wildlife viewing. So, if you plan to go to the Monte Vista Crane Fest, you’ll want to get your reservations in early. This year the festival will be held on Friday, March 10th, Saturday, March 11th and Sunday, March 12th, 1999.
For More Information and reservations - 719-852-3552
Or write The Monte Vista Crane Festival
PO Box 585
Monte Vista, CO 81144
A great quote to use:
“This much, though, can be said: our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history. His tribe, we now know, stems out of the remote Eocene. The other members of the fauna in which he originated are long since entombed within the hills. When we hear his call we hear no mere bird. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.” Aldo Leopold
Note: While still an outstanding event and one of our nation’s oldest celebrations of wildlife-since 1983, there is no longer a population of Whooping Cranes that migrate through the San Luis Valley with the Sandhill Cranes. If you are interested in viewing the majestic Whoopers, plan on attending the Whooping Crane Festival in Aransas, Texas, held in late February, on the scenic Texas Gulf Coast.
Original Article written by John Koshak in 1999