Why you should care

This place may make you think twice about getting that pet python.

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Ensconced in a minivan, our family zoomed down Highway 17 in southern Colorado en route to Santa Fe, eyes on the stunning, ever-changing scenery out the window. The snowcapped Sangre de Cristo range in the distance, the windswept Great Sand Dunes National Park beneath it. The scorched scrubland of a high mountain valley under a brilliant blue sky. The animals we’d spot: grazing cattle, a darting fox, birds of prey … alligators?

That’s right, in order to survive a six-hour car journey with two kids under 5, we had swerved into the Colorado Gators Reptile Park, in Mosca. A working tilapia farm turned alligator park and exotic pet refuge, it’s home to more than 250 alligators and all manner of other rather dangerous reptiles rescued from people’s lofty ideas about what makes a good pet. What we found was an oddball American pit stop our 4-year-old will recall lovingly for years to come, but that visitors of any age would find fascinating. Who’s not intrigued by large deadly reptiles in the middle of nowhere?

Everyone gets to snap a photo (“for an accurate head/finger count”) while holding a 3-year-old alligator.

“I think our biggest draw is how hands-on you can be,” says manager Erin Young. Indeed, upon entering the park (admission fee is $15 for adults), you’re surrounded by tanks and cages of fire salamanders and diamondback rattlesnakes, huge iguanas, tarantulas and ball pythons, many of them with names and backstories. If they’re marked as making a “good pet,” you can ask to hold or pet them, and everyone gets to snap a photo (“for an accurate head/finger count,” according to a cheeky sign) while holding a 3-year-old alligator. Then you’re free to wander the premises, stepping over low tortoise fences — African sulcata tortoises amble around in some rooms — and exploring the outdoor swimming holes, filled with yet more gators.

The funny thing about those swimming holes? They draw from the same geothermal well that inspired the park’s founders, Erwin and Lynne Young, to start a fish farm here to raise tilapia, which require warm water, back in 1977. The first 100 baby gators came along 10 years later — the Youngs bought them as a way to dispose of dead fish — and the gators thrived in the 87-degree waters, growing quickly and becoming a spectacle in their own right. Now nearly all of the park’s alligators are rescues. There are even some albino gators, and a retired movie-star alligator named Morris who achieved fame in films like Happy Gilmore during his (estimated) 55 years.

Somewhere along the way people started dropping off their other unwanted exotic pets — not only overgrown gators but also Burmese pythons, snapping turtles, monitor lizards and even iguanas. “Iguanas are super cute when they’re little but can grow to more than 5 feet long. [They’re] fast, flexible and have long sharp claws,” says manager Young, daughter-in-law to the park’s founders. “We highly encourage people to do their research before buying a reptile.”

Of course, the warnings fall on deaf ears for a little kid; mine began pestering me for a large pet lizard the minute we left the place. All he got was the small rubber alligator we bought in the gift shop — and bragging rights for holding a reptile nearly as long as him.

GO THERE: Colorado Gators Reptile Park

  • Directions: The park is just east of Highway 17 in southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley, 9162 CR 9 N, Mosca, Colorado (map here). It’s about three hours by car from Vail, Colorado Springs and Santa Fe alike.
  • Admission: Adults are $15; kids 6 and up (as well as seniors) are $7.50; kids under 5 are free.
  • Also Don’t Miss: Great Sand Dunes National Park is just a half-hour drive further east, and it’s stunning. You can easily do both in the same day.
  • Pro Tip: There’s almost always a coupon for 20 percent off admission on the park’s website. Use it!

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