As we sit together on her 600-acre property, 79-year-old Judy Messoline is patient with my questions. We discuss the most practical aspects of extraterrestrial life: If aliens ever land at the UFO watchtower she built 24 years ago, how will she greet them? “I’d ask why they’re being so secretive,” she says. “Then I’d want to know about the cattle mutilations.”

I ask if she thinks aliens speak English. She expects they communicate via telepathy. I wonder if she’d offer them food—green or red chile? She’s not sure. She shares a few thoughts about ETs (Sasquatch, for instance, is an alien, she says), and then she offers an admonition about the unexplained lights people seem to see around these parts: “Just don’t tell me they’re satellites.”

Photo by David Williams

Messoline moved to the San Luis Valley from Golden in 1995. Upon arriving, local ranchers told her about the area’s unusually frequent UFO encounters and, when her cattle ranching operation wasn’t working out, suggested she build a watchtower on her plot—which she did and opened to the public in 2000. Her geodesic dome features a 12-foot-high viewing platform around its roof and a small museum ($5 per person), with items such as news clippings and the skeleton of Snippy, an allegedly alien-mutilated horse, inside. The adjacent rock garden contains offerings—figurines, license plates, plastic saucers—left by visitors who followed the signs from CO 17. Messoline has been sought out by psychics, alien enthusiasts, and bureaucrats and has documented more than 300 UFO sightings. Most visitors, like me, are just curious. That’s why she allows people to camp here for $20 a night.

As I nestle into my sleeping bag in my truck bed later that evening, I gaze toward the stars. As if on cue, I see a line of red dots in the sky. They move back and forth, accelerating and decelerating. The process repeats. I have no idea what I’m witnessing, and I’m perplexed as I slip into a nervy sleep. I’ll probably never know exactly what I saw. But when I tell and retell this story in the months and years to come, I’ll echo Messoline’s words: Just don’t tell me those were satellites. —Jay Bouchard

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Read more: 10 Quirky Colorado Museums You Need To Check Out

Colorado Gators Reptile Park, Mosca

Photo by David Williams

If you’ve driven along CO 17 north of Alamosa over the past four decades, you may have been one of the countless passersby who, intrigued by the homemade signs, pulled off to discover that alligators are indeed living in the arid San Luis Valley. But that stream of visitors nearly ended in April 2023, when a fire destroyed one of the Colorado Gators Reptile Park’s larger barns. “We had animals we really loved in there,” says Jay Young, who manages the sanctuary with his wife, Erin. “We lost more than 100 snakes. We lost parrots. All but one of our lizards died. We lost about 30 tortoises.” The couple intended to close the doors while sifting through the ashes, but as it goes with roadside attractions, the cars just kept coming. And there was still plenty to see, as the stars of the sideshow—more than 300 alligators—survived.

Photo by David Williams

That there are alligators on-site at all is a curious story. After Jay’s parents, Erwin and Lynne, discovered geothermal pools on the property in the mid-1970s, they opened a tilapia farm, selling fish to regional restaurants. But as fish carcasses piled up, they invested in an eco-friendly, if bizarre, solution: 100 baby alligators to eat the byproducts. Before long, the alligators drew crowds, and in 1990, the Youngs decided to start charging admission. (Currently, it’s $25 for adults and $12.50 for kids six and older; five and younger are free.) Some of those original alligators are still around, and the Young family has rescued—mostly from private owners unable to care for them—an additional 200-some, including Morris, who starred in Dr. Doolittle and Happy Gilmore.

Want to do more than stare at the reptiles? Sign up for a Gator Aid day ($100), during which you can help wrangle and care for sick or injured alligators. This spring, visitors should also be able to see the newly rebuilt reptile building, though it will be a little while before the park fully restores its population of rescued snakes, tortoises, and lizards. But as long as road trippers continue to cut through the valley, the park will almost certainly stay busy. —JB

Bishop Castle, Rye

Bishops castle
Hand-built Bishop Castle near Rye. Photo by David Williams

South of Florence, Greenhorn Highway offers miles of twisting mountain road engulfed by tall pines, which makes turning the corner to see Bishop Castle, located in a clearing just off the thoroughfare, all the more breathtaking. In 1959, then 15-year-old Jim Bishop persuaded his parents to buy (using money he’d earned from doing chores) two and a half acres of land adjacent to the San Isabel National Forest. It wasn’t until Jim was 25 and newly married, however, that he started to build a vacation home on the site.

While the project was initially supposed to be a small, one-bedroom abode, he just kept adding rooms. When friends joked that it seemed like he was building a castle, Jim decided to do just that. Over the next four decades, he hand-dug holes for the castle’s foundation, hauled rock and steel to the land, and designed pulley systems to hoist the materials onto towers, one of which now reaches 160 feet high.

While Jim has retired, his son Daniel continues to expand the sprawling castle—and there’s no completion date in sight. “I’m planning to work on the rock on the main building this summer,” Daniel says. “There’s also a tower that needs to be built up another 30 feet.”

Visitors can explore the castle’s Grand Ballroom, complete with stained-glass windows, while those unafraid of heights can navigate tight corners and nail-biting spiral staircases lining the castle’s exterior that provide sweeping views of the surrounding forest. Part of the elder Bishop’s vision is to keep the site admission-free—it’s open to the public every day, year-round—a desire that stems from childhood memories of his family being unable to afford pricey zoo and theme park tickets. That means Bishop Castle is funded entirely by donations and sales of trinkets such as back scratchers and keychains in the gift shop—a small price to pay for the experience of exploring one man’s wildest dream. —Barbara O’Neil

Rita the Rock Planter, Victor

Troll profile
Photo by David Williams
  • Coordinates: 38.70925, -105.17254
  • Odometer: 118 miles
  • En Route To: Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Roadside attractions skew kitschy, so you might imagine that a larger-than-life troll would fit into the same zany category as, say, a giant statue of Paul Bunyan. But Danish sculptor Thomas Dambo’s trolls are closer to works of art. Each one of the more than 120 sculptures he’s handcrafted around the world uses recycled materials and showcases a new character Dambo has imagined, complete with elaborate folklore. “Rita the Rock Planter” is no exception.

Since August 2023, the wooden troll, which is positioned on its hands and knees pushing a pile of rocks, has been delighting hikers near the town of Victor, a 46-mile drive southwest from Colorado Springs. “I love the mountains, and I love the whole outdoors mentality in Colorado,” says Dambo, who has another wildly popular sculpture in Breckenridge. “I was invited to come to Victor by a couple who lives there…. It is such an old city, and it has a gold mining [history] that says a lot about us as humans and our obsession with shiny stuff.”

Troll face on
Photo by David Williams

Dambo hopes to parlay fans’ obsession with his trolls into spreading messages about conservation (Rita, for example, is repairing holes in the earth left by miners) and inspiration. “I really want people to go out, get out of their cars, and experience the world with all their senses,” he says. “That’s why I hide the trolls.”

Still, Rita isn’t particularly difficult to find or to get to: Dambo has recorded Rita’s approximate home on his website, and its exact location, less than a mile hike from the Little Grouse Mountain trailhead, is even marked on a website that rhymes with oogle. But Dambo encourages troll hunters to explore as they seek his sculpture. “You’ll see all kinds of other stuff while you go on a little walk,” he says. —Chris Walker

Masonville Mercantile, Loveland

Cyclists pedaling the bucket-list Rist Canyon Loop often roll into Masonville Mercantile’s lot at the intersection of Buckhorn Road and West County Road 38E. The sign on the 128-year-old, weathered wooden building advertising “cold beer and ice” promises refreshment, while a pair of vintage, nonfunctioning gas pumps makes passersby think they’re entering a convenience store. They most definitely are not.

What are they walking into? For one thing, the shop is attached to proprietors Holly and Bruce Cook’s home. Touristy tchotchkes share shelf space with a collection of locally made artwork and jewelry. A lofted area toward the back holds a tiny bridal boutique (with a haunted mannequin model). Beyond that, there’s a community space and tearoom set up to host yoga sessions and quilting classes. Also on-site is an original phone booth from Estes Park’s Stanley Hotel and two early 20th century Loveland jail cells. Most notably, however, the bulk of the store is filled with striking, high-quality, mostly replica clothing and accessories that span eras and genres, from Victorian to the Roaring ’20s to steampunk to the Old West. “It’s my fantasy,” says Holly of the eccentric spot, which was a 3.2 beer bar in the late 1970s and a wedding gown shop in the ’80s.

woman in red skirt
Photo courtesy of Masonville Mercantile

Although she’s happy to sell drinks from her handful of coolers and grub from a small snack section to road riders (some of whom give her donations to fund upkeep on the port-a-potty outside), the 61-year-old co-owner’s primary passion is dressing cosplay enthusiasts who visit to outfit themselves for events such as the annual 1940s Ball at the Boulder Airport or a Downton Abbey watch party. Groups can also call ahead and give Holly some direction on their fantasies; for a fee, she’ll curate a rack of, say, British-made corsets, leather lace-up dance boots, and lavish hats and fascinators. Once everyone is done playing dress-up, Holly will take photographs in a side room with a stone fireplace she’s decorated for this purpose. If they’re lucky, Bruce, 71, might emerge from his studio out back to play some tunes on his guitar.

The couple’s energy may seem as endless as the functions of this remote outpost. But another sign on the exterior—in red and white and reading “for sale”—hints that they don’t intend to run Masonville Mercantile forever. With a third business partner ready to move on, Holly and Bruce are looking for someone to take over the storied shop. “I’m excited to see the next generation leave their mark on this place,” Holly says. —JL

Tiny Town & Railroad, Morrison

Photo by David Williams

Anyone who grew up in Denver in the past 100 years likely has childhood memories of peering into the windows of Tiny Town’s diminutive buildings (now numbering 100-some) or riding a miniature steam train around its ⅝-mile track. The charming attraction along Turkey Creek, just off U.S. 285 between Indian Hills and Conifer, is extremely accessible, both geographically and financially: This past season, admission was $5 for adults and $4 for kids ages two to 12; train tickets were $4 apiece; and although there’s a snack bar, families are welcome to pack their own picnics to enjoy at plentiful tables by the playground.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that when COVID-19 closures threatened to permanently shutter the beloved spot in summer 2020, the community rallied to save it. A GoFundMe campaign raised nearly $34,000, and in 2021, tens of thousands of visitors were once again able to admire 16-scale replicas of local landmarks, such as the Molly Brown House and Idaho Springs’ Argo Mill, and old-timey saloons, jails, churches, shops, and the Tiny Town Tribune office.

climbing into church
Photo by David Williams

The pandemic is not the only big challenge Tiny Town has had to overcome. Since George Turner began building what was then called Turnerville in 1915 to entertain his terminally ill daughter, it has survived a fire, floods, the rerouting of U.S. 285, and multiple ownership changes. In 1989, however, the nonprofit Tiny Town Foundation was established to oversee operations and ensure that it remains “a place where time stands still and you can be a child forever,” as park manager Elvira Nedoma wrote in her book, If These Tracks Could Talk.

Today, paid employees and volunteers refresh paint on the kid-size structures (some Turner’s originals, others constructed or donated over the decades), work the register in the gift shop and food stand, and operate the steam trains, whose engines can use up to 140 pounds of coal per day to boil the 100 to 150 gallons of water it takes to transport kids, and kids at heart, around this longtime Colorado treasure. —JL

Crestone Ziggurat, Crestone

woman on top of tower
Photo by David Williams
  • Coordinates: 37.91852, -105.66908
  • Odometer: 201 miles
  • En Route To: Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Nestled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, about 20 miles off CO 17, the Crestone Ziggurat definitely isn’t the weirdest thing to call the San Luis Valley home—see: aliens and 300-some gators—but it may be the most eerily beautiful. Twisting skyward several stories into the air, the ochre yellow, concrete cylindrical tower stands atop a sand dune, with a ramp wrapped around the outside that leads visitors to its summit.

The structure was commissioned and erected in the 1980s by a transplant to the area named Najeeb Halaby, a former CEO of Pan Am Air and head of the Federal Aviation Agency under President John F. Kennedy who was attracted to Crestone’s spiritual community. (Today, the town of fewer than 200 and the surrounding area host multiple Buddhist retreat centers, a Hindu temple, and one of three Shumai sacred sites in the world, among other religious venues.) Drawing its roots from ancient Mesopotamia, where ziggurats were constructed as gateways from Earth to heaven, the Crestone iteration was built as a place for spiritual practice and meditation, although Halaby and his wife were also known to enjoy cocktails at the top.

Open from dawn to dusk and free to the public, the ziggurat is accessible from a parking area at the end of Cordial Way outside of town. A short and sandy half-mile hike meanders through piñons, and ascending the sunny yellow tower takes mere minutes, but the surrounding landscape demands a pause at the apex. The jagged wall of peaks that rises out of the ground to the east and runs the length of the valley juxtaposes beautifully with the beige Great Sand Dunes farther south.

“There’s a feeling of uplifted-ness when you reach the top,” says Njal Schold, director of the Karma Thegsum Tashi Gomang executive committee, the organization tasked with the Crestone Ziggurat’s upkeep. “You see the expansiveness of our world.” —Sarah Banks

World’s Wonder View Tower, Genoa

World’s Wonder View Tower in Genoa, Colorado
Photo courtesy of Friends of the Genoa Tower
  • Coordinates: 39.27324, -103.50191
  • Odometer: 101 miles
  • En Route To: Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site

In 2014, Westword editor and co-founder Patricia Calhoun was driving along I-70 near the Eastern Plains town of Genoa when she spotted an auction sign on the grounds of the World’s Wonder View Tower, a bygone roadside attraction featuring a 65-foot-tall tower with a boxy observation room protruding from its upper half. Calhoun’s journalistic instincts took hold. She soon found out that following the death of its latest owner, Jerry Chubbuck, in 2013, his family was putting much of the quirky on-site museum collection—including a two-headed calf mount—up for sale. Two years later, Calhoun and a group of friends found themselves holding the deed to the tower itself, with plans to reopen it to the public for the first time in more than a decade. —CW

5280: How did the World’s Wonder View Tower come to be?
Patricia Calhoun: Construction on it started in 1925 when Charles Gregory, who was known as the P.T. Barnum of Colorado, decided he wanted to create this great stop for people who were then starting to drive across Colorado. He first set up a roadhouse with a stage for concerts and a cafe and a gas station. Then he created this incredible tower.

He claimed you could see six states from the top. Is that true?
I am so sorry to say, no. It is not true. But it’s always been a great way station, and that you couldn’t see six states didn’t matter, because you could see license plates from all over.

What inspired you and others to buy the tower?
I got some friends who wanted to save historical buildings involved—including Paul Tamburello, Kevin Kearney, Reed Weimer, and Chandler Romeo—and we felt we couldn’t let this go away. So we bought the tower and gave it to a nonprofit [Friends of Genoa Tower] we created to save it for future generations.

To that end, you’ve since raised some $2 million for renovations. How’s that going?
Well, this roadside attraction is almost 100 years old, and the fact that it’s falling apart is one thing. We also discovered the well was dry, and there was no sewage service. But we recently got annexed by the city of Genoa, so we could get water and sewage. Our goal is to have part of the tower open by the 100th anniversary of the complex in 2025. We’ll have events, people can go into a gift shop and museum, and we will have this as a gathering place again.

3 Roadside Restaurants

Coney Island Boardwalk in Bailey, Colorado
Photo courtesy of Franck Fotos/Alamy Stock Photo

Coney Island Boardwalk, Bailey

After living in Colorado for almost 23 years, I finally pulled over at this riverside wiener stand. Its 42-foot-long, 18-ton frank is surrounded by a wooden deck with umbrellaed patio tables, but inside, the dinerlike interior offers red-topped barstools, a circular booth, and a trip back to the 1960s. According to my post-meal Googlings, the Coney Island hot dog stand was built in 1966 on West Colfax Avenue, which seems about right. Four years later, though, someone put the hot dog on wheels and stationed it in Aspen Park, where it stayed until 2006, when it rolled into Bailey. There was a for-sale sign in the front window when I was there, so I hope the place doesn’t close. It’s a little pricey—$9.75 for a quarter-pound frank and $15 for an elk brat—but you’re paying for the irresistible novelty (and the selfie, of course). —Lindsey B. King

Casa Bonita, Lakewood

Following all the buzz Casa Bonita got when it reopened in mid-2023, I wanted to hate it. I don’t have kids, so I’d never had a reason to go, but I couldn’t resist the hype and signed up for the reservation lottery. I won several weeks later and pulled into the parking lot on a Saturday night in July. The constructed-in-the-1970s, Pepto Bismol–hued palace has an 85-foot-tall tower—visible for miles—topped with a gold dome and a statue of Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor. The kitsch continues indoors with 56,000 square feet of silliness, including a puppet show, a haunted cave, an arcade, and a 30-foot waterfall from which cliff divers (read: teenagers who must be on the local high school dive team) leap and plunge into the pool below. If I were just reviewing the entertainment (or if I were, you know, eight years old), I’d consider handing out a five. But my margarita was too sweet, the enchiladas were bland, and the $40 adult dinner entrée price (that’s without booze, y’all) is steep. —LBK

The Fort, Morrison

Being of, ahem, a certain age, I played the Oregon Trail in elementary school. Having lost a lot of oxen in my day, I was predisposed to liking the Fort restaurant (an homage to Bent’s Old Fort, an 1880s-era trading post in southeastern Colorado). It was originally built to be a family home, but realizing they’d busted their budget, Sam’l and Elizabeth Arnold opened a restaurant in 1963 on the lower floor to help pay the Santa Fe–based architect and the Taos artisans who hand-carved the gates, doors, and furniture. Partial as I might have been to the rustic yet elegant vibe, the owners must still be in arrears, because the prices—$72 for an eight-ounce buffalo filet?—are outlandish. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather die of dysentery than pay that kind of a bill again. —LBK

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