Perhaps no town in the western United States has taken a more unexpected turn than Crestone, Colorado – the onetime mining and ranching center has become an international hub for Buddhist, Hindu, New Age, and other spiritual practices. Located at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the eastern edge of the San Luis Valley, the Crestone area is part of a semiarid alpine valley ecosystem and is known for the dramatic beauty of its landscape.
The town of Crestone is very small, counting just over 100 residents at the time of the 2010 census. However, together with Baca Grande, a large residential area extending south and southwest of the town, the broader Crestone community has a population of over 1,000, making it one of the largest population and economic centers in Saguache County.
The town of Crestone was built just north of the Luis Maria Baca Grant no. 4, a 100,000-acre parcel of land granted by the US government to the descendants of the sixteenth-century Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. The grant was part of the federal government’s effort to honor land grants given by the Crown of Spain when it controlled territory in what is now the southwestern United States and Florida.
Crestone’s first incarnation was as a service and supply center for miners. Gold strikes brought significant numbers of miners to the area in 1879, and the town soon featured the kinds of service institutions that popped up wherever miners congregated in the West: food and hardware stores, banks, a newspaper, and a brothel. Crestone reached a peak population of 2,000 following the arrival of a railroad spur in 1901, but the mines began to tail off within the decade, starting a slow decline that would continue until the 1970s.
Far from the major urban centers of Colorado and New Mexico and lacking a ski resort, Crestone might easily have shrunk into oblivion. That possibility is evident by the nearby ghost towns of Duncan and Liberty. Crestone’s revival as an internationally known center for spiritual practice highlights the diverse ways Colorado’s former mining communities have reinvented themselves.
Development as a Spiritual Center
In 1971 the Arizona-Colorado Land and Cattle Company (AZLCC) initiated a plan to develop part of the Baca land grant as a large residential subdivision known as the Baca Grande. The company built roads and installed utilities across a large swath of land at the base of the mountains, attracting some new residents to the area. It was not until Maurice Strong, a Canadian financier who owned a controlling interest in AZLCC, and his wife, Hanne Marstrand Strong, began to give land grants to religious organizations that the town developed its current character.
Under the auspices of the Manitou Foundation, the Strongs gave nine land grants to religious organizations ranging from a Carmelite Catholic monastery to Shinji Shumeikai, a Japanese New Religion. Five of the initial nine grantees were Buddhist communities. As these centers attracted practitioners to the Crestone area, additional religious groups began to establish themselves there. Today, Crestone features more than two dozen religious centers, including one of the largest and most diverse groupings of Eastern and New Age spiritual communities in the world.
Crestone and the Baca community have also been the site of legal battles over water and fossil fuel development since the 1980s. Plans to pump water from the area’s enormous underground aquifer to Front Range cities were defeated in a Colorado Supreme Court case in 1991 and were denied by the state legislature in 1998. More recently, the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council and other environmental groups have challenged the plans for oil and gas exploration in the Baca National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge and nearby Great Sand Dunes National Park were authorized by Congress in 2000, but mineral rights were not protected in the arrangement.