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Highway 17: Roadside Attractions & Distractions

Article by Mike Rosso

Roadside attractions – October 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine –

Colorado Highway 17 is not a Scenic Byway. Though it parallels the massive Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range, it’s primary visual asset is the nearly straight line it follows from the junction of Highway 285 south of Villa Grove to the outskirts of Alamosa. You won’t find a fast food restaurant on Hwy 17. For that matter, you would be hard-pressed to find anything resembling food on this byway.

UFO Watchtower sign
UFO Watchtower sign

It’s a straight shot for travelers heading to Alamosa or maybe the newly redesignated Great Sand Dunes Refuge, but for the adventurous traveler who’s not pressed for time there are a few intriguing stops along the way.

Roadside attractions have been synonymous with the American highway since the introduction of the automobile, but they are rapidly diminishing in our predictable, cookie-cutter, strip-mall culture. Fortunately, however, there are still brave individuals willing to fight the odds and lure in road-weary — or just plain curious — tourists to share their dreams. The following three attractions are just a few of many that can be found along Colorado Highway 17.


What are your options when you are up to your ears in tilapia guts and bones? The obvious, you truck in some alligators to eat the refuse. What do you do with the gators when they begin weighing-in around half a ton?

Charge admission.

In a nutshell, that sums up the humble beginnings of Colorado Gators on Highway 17 near Mosca, Colorado. This business was founded 50 years ago as a fish farm in the middle of the San Luis Valley. It raised the second most cultivated fish on the planet, tilapia, a warm-water fish found naturally in Africa and the Middle East, and served in restaurants from Baton Rouge to San Antonio.

Small gator
Small gator

But there were problems with the fish-remnant disposal aspect of the operation, so owners Erwin and Lynne Young decided to enlist gators to do a little food-chain recycling on their 80-acre spread. Then they added a few well-placed signs north of Alamosa along Highway 17 — and 15,000 square feet of hydroponic and aquaculture greenhouses — and tourists started dropping in to see their gators.

The unusual facilities and other odd species at the farm are a bonus.

Once they were in the gator business, the Youngs decided to build on the concept, and their farm became a refuge for a number of critters, both cold-blooded and warm. Counted among the menagerie are pythons, Nurse Sharks, Emus, Savanna Monitors, Caiman, African Grey Parrots, Ostriches, Crocodiles, Red Tail Boa Constrictors and a few house cats thrown in for good measure.

Oh, and gator wrestlers.

At noon and four o’clock each day during the summer, visitors are entertained by the likes of gator wrestlers: Jay Young, Noah Mather, Derrick Patro and John Olmstead. Jay, the son of Erwin and Lynn and heir to the farm, grew up with the gators, and he knows them pretty well. He wears their teeth around his neck.

Jay figured out how to keep gators in line while maintaining his own limbs some time back, then he trained his buddies to do the same and gave them summer jobs. The largest gator caught during last year’s Gator Fest was a 438 pound, nearly 11-footer named Homer. It’s not a demonstration likely to be observed in most parts of the American West.

Entry road to gator farm
Entry road to gator farm

One unexpected result of the farm was the formation of the Caiman Foundation, creating a sanctuary for unwanted, exotic pets. You know, those cute little baby lizards with a Godzilla streak. (“Honey, have you seen Kitty?”).

According to their website,, “One of the Foundation’s primary goals is to educate the public on the hazards of some would-be pets. This is done through school programs across the state of Colorado. The focus of the programs is identifying which reptiles make the worst and the best pets, but reptile biology, behavior, and their place in the world are also covered. Live alligators, snakes, turtles, tortoises, and lizards are presented as learning tools.”

Money raised through these school programs helps reduce the high cost of providing shelter, food and care for these ‘pets’ as an alternative to euthanasia, or worse, municipal water systems.

According to the Youngs, the ultimate goal of Colorado Gators is to have an integrated ecosystem using the waste from one product to produce another.

Gator alley
Gator alley

According to their mission statement, the “farm makes full use of natural resources with an integrated ecosystem that is practical and environment friendly. Our goal is constant improvement while striving to preserve a genetic variety of species.”

Colorado Gators is located 17 miles north of Alamosa on Highway 17.

Memorial Weekend through Labor Day summer hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day. Winter hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. Admission is $6 for adults; $4 for children 6 to 12 years old, and seniors (65 to 80); 5 and under and 80 and over are free. 719-378-2612

Here is a sampling of events at the Gator Farm in Hooper:

In the summer, there’s Eggfest, an annual celebration of the gators egg-laying season. The event teaches all about the nesting of the Colorado Gators and provides some fun in the form of egg races and egg hunts in the alligator pen.

In August, the farm celebrated Gaterfest VII, the Gator Olympics. Competitors ran, jumped, wrestled, and canoed for prizes, and visitors viewed a strongman competition in the alligator pen.

And on September 28, there will be a free admission day with games and prizes for Sir Chomps-a-Lot’s birthday.


A U-shaped metal platform rises 10 feet from the floor of the San Luis Valley. The platform is approximately 50 feet long and 15 feet wide with additional 10 foot extensions at each end. To the east of the platform lie the craggy peaks of the Sangre De Cristo range, The Blood of Christ Mountains. To the west is the Continental Divide and the San Juan mountains. The immediate landscape is arid, dry and dusty. Ironweed and rabbit brush grow in abundance on the surrounding plains. Apart from the highway traffic to the east and several scattered homes, there is little sign of human habitation nearby. In this remote and desolate environment stands the one and only commercial UFO viewing platform on the entire planet.

UFO watchtower
UFO watchtower

Built exclusively for the observation of unexplained celestial phenomena and unidentified flying objects, the UFO Watchtower has sparked curiosity and suspicion since it’s construction began last century, in October of 1999.

Judy Messoline moved to the San Luis Valley from Texas in 1995 with the intention of raising cattle. Finding themselves at the end of an irrigation ditch on a particularly dry 160-acre parcel, the family sold their cattle, bought horses and decided to try something else. Acting more on a whim and not particularly attached to the notion of ufo’s, extraterrestrials or the like, Judy concocted the novel idea of a campground with the viewing platform as it’s centerpiece after some prompting by a friend in Golden. And the idea crystalized as Judy heard more and more of the local lore regarding the strange and unexplained occurrences in the night sky around that area.

In the year 2000, the beginning of the 21st century, the enterprise was launched with some unexpected fanfare. A radio station in New Zealand heard rumors from America about this unusual enterprise and proved so eager to interview Judy that they insisted on an immediate cell phone interview while she was on a road trip to the Front Range. Judy was somewhat taken aback when they introduced her in the interview as the “next American millionaire.”

The following two years saw a steady increase in visitors as well as interviews. In the dome-shaped gift store, along with plenty of whimsical as well as serious Alien paraphernalia, are clippings from major newspapers detailing the platform and accounts from campers of actual sightings from the watchtower.

Judy does anonymous tape recordings of visitors’ encounter stories at her site as well as stories brought to her by worldwide visitors, young and old. She began transcribing these accounts and has printed her second volume of accounts, Familiar Voices, which can be purchased in the alien gift shop. Somewhat skeptical herself in the early days of the watchtower’s construction, Judy now has her own accounts of unexplained aerial sightings that she has witnessed since starting the platform. In one account she, along with some other witnesses, saw an unusual luminescent and tubular shape speeding south above the San Luis valley floor but below the level of the Sangre de Cristo Range to the East.

Alien souvenirs
Alien souvenirs

When other unexplained sightings occur at the platform, one of the first persons to hear about them might be another San Luis Valley resident, Christopher O’Brien. A writer living in Crestone, O’Brien has published two books concerning unexplained phenomena in the San Luis Valley: The Mysterious Valley and Enter the Valley (St. Martin’s Press). O’Brien has been investigating area events since 1989 and is a frequent visitor to the platform.

Other visitors have included five separate psychics who have individually recognized a vortex at the site of the watchtower.

The website,, has attracted visits by curious U.S. Governmental agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and US Navy as well as the US Trademark and Copyright office according to the tower’s webmaster who has been tracking visits to the site.

Last October, Judy was flown to Southern California to compete on an episode of the FOX program To Tell the Truth and received only one juror vote as to the actuality of her proprietorship of the watchtower. She split the winnings with other contestants.

The campground is somewhat primitive. No big blue spruces to shade you from the valley heat, and very little water, but an astounding 360 degree view of the valley. Located 2 ½ miles north of Hooper on Highway 17, the UFO Watchtower is Open Memorial Day through Labor Day from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and, starting October 1 of 2002, Friday and Saturday from 1 p.m. to nightfall. To contact the platform by phone call 719-378-2271.

Judy, by the way, has not quite achieved millionaire status, but with enough unexpected visitors….


Light reflections sign
Light reflections sign

For the past nine years a curious roadside business has quietly operated near the town of Moffat, at the corner of Colo. Hwy 17 and County Road T at the cutoff to Crestone. The store, Light Reflections, is easily mistaken for an odd-looking crystal shop except for the human gyroscope out front and a few overworked pop machines for thirsty tourists.

But what initially meets the eye only alludes to the nature of this unique business that resides in the morning shadows of the Sangre de Cristo range.

Donna Koon and two of her seven children, Rebekah, the youngest, and Alta, the eldest, offer the business, Light Reflections, as a place of healing for the body and spirit, seeking to discover deep sorrows within repressed and hurting souls with the hope of drawing them to the surface where they can be confronted and, often, forgiven.

The Koons work to heal old wounds using light, prayer, silence, meditation, spirituality, crystals and a complete massage given by the daughters with some assistance from the 70-year-old matron.

Donna Koon’s many aspirants willingly travel frequently and far for treatment, counseling, body work, or simply to sit around the circular glass table in the center of the octagonal structure just conversing. The topics are as varied as the folks who find their way through her doorway and into a world they have probably not viewed before — at least not in this lifetime. Others wander in for healing and fortitude, or simply out of curiosity. Says daughter Alta, “The crystals are kind of a front, it’s about meeting the people.”

Light reflections gyro wheel
Light reflections gyro wheel

What first attracted Donna and her late husband, Alton, to the San Luis Valley from their home in Northern California were the tales of Unidentified Flying Objects being reported in great numbers in that region. Both shared an interest in UFO’s as well as the spiritual community that was starting to be realized in nearby Crestone. Having retired from their occupations, car pilot and machine operator, respectively, they consulted several maps with a pendulum, a U.S. atlas, and a Gordon Michael Scallion Map, supposedly designed to represent the United States of the future based on prediction. The pendulum choose Moffat.

Along with their eldest daughter, the Koons moved to the valley in 1992 and began working and living at Light Reflections. Donna began practicing variations of the faith-healing techniques she had learned years back as a member of a Pentecostal Church on an Indian Reservation in Madras, Oregon.

With some trepidation, she began combining her faith healing with some of Alta’s more alternative and contemporary approaches to healing, incorporating not only a variety of techniques but acceptance of all religious dogma — as is evident in the healing room where religious icons include a large Star of David and a photograph of Si Baba.

The clientele for Light Reflections are not necessarily just the residents of the alternative-minded community up the road, as one might assume. They come from Boulder, Denver, California, Europe and beyond. Some in groups, some singularly. Members of CSETI, the Center for Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, make a habit of dropping in on a regular basis. One and one-half hour sessions at Light Reflections run $60 and include a healing session and the follow-up tandem massage.

Here is an exchange that may occur at any given moment at Light Reflections:

Light reflections therapy
Light reflections therapy

A 50-ish man with shoulder-length hair and a graying beard steps in with his two teenaged daughters. They are on a road trip out West to explore some of Dad’s old haunts. Before long a spirited exchange begins between the man and Donna. He says he’s the director of the Enertropic Research Institute in Warm Mineral Springs, Florida, which specializes in electrically based, pain management treatments. At the table Donna takes his hand, engages his eyes and listens, comments and laughs while a flurry of curious and purposeful visitors wind their way around the rocks, gemstones, candles and other new-age knick-knacks. They continually gravitate back to Donna, to her table, for both old and new-fashioned conversation. The man leaves behind his brochure and with a hug, departs with his daughters.

Alta hopes to someday take over the business when her mom retires, and she envisions a larger healing center and health cooperative built on land they recently purchased. Light Reflections maintains fairly consistent hours but it’s probably a good idea to call ahead to reserve the full treatment. If you are just looking for some heartfelt conversation around the glass table, drop in anytime.

Light Reflections can be found at 17034 Highway 17, Moffat, Colorado. Their phone number is 719-256-4827

Websites that may be of interest:

The UFO Watchtower:

Christopher O’Brien:

The Gator Farm: