Driving into the San Luis Valley near Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve is like entering a scene from a travel blog’s highlight reel. A gently winding two lane highway careens down the split mountain-scape into a flat expanse of shrub land. An orange haze greeted me as I descended down Highway 17. Light sand mixed with the haze from nearby fires to cast the air in a shimmer.
My destination was the UFO Watchtower. Through the haze the intergalactic beacon started to slowly materialize. The discreet domed structure with a viewing platform was so modest, an unwary traveler might have pass it off as somebody’s home.
You would not expect this place to be featured in the New York Times or the LA Times.
Taking a right at the upcoming sign lead me down a dusty road, where another quick right took me to the Watchtower. Owner Judy Messoline lives in the ranch house nearby, where a broken femur has been holding her hostage over the last few weeks.
In lieu of Messoline, her assistant Candace Knowlan greeted me as I arrived. After showing me inside, she let me know exactly just how popular the UFO Watchtower actually is.
“Look in the binder over there, hun. People come through here all the time,” Knowlan said.
She was not exaggerating. The binder contains hundreds of names with their respective dates of arrival. Knowlan informs me she thought they had around 5,000 tourists last summer, with close to 2,000 so far for this summer.
While the tower itself is no home, it certainly has that atmosphere. It’s small and cozy, and the inside is teeming with a wide assortment of Messoline’s cosmic collection. Alien information greets me everywhere I look. Newspaper articles line the walls. Some are on sightings, others on Judy and even a few mention claimed alien encounters.
“We are not responsible for abduction,” Knowlan said to an enthusiastic family outside.
Green alien glasses adorned Knowlan’s face, delighting a little girl. She went on to say this place has powerful energy, and that good things have happened to those who leave something personal in the Watchtower’s Rock Garden.
While Candace continued to enthrall her audience, I decided to poke around the garden. Messoline’s Rock Garden or ‘Vortex Garden’ is a collection of curiosities. Its flowers are knickknacks, and the unconventional sculptures are reminiscent of trees.
At first, the yard seems like nothing more than littered piles strange piles of junk. Indeed, some less than creative types have left empty beer bottles and plastic trash. Yet looking closer revealed a more charming scene. Children’s toys, cooking ingredients and utensils, old jewelry and dusty books form piles of peoples’ memories. This garden marks the spot of suspended reason and suspect reality, instead welcoming a faithful appreciation of the unknown and unorthodox.
Despite her condition, Messoline graciously agreed to talk with me in her home.
“I don’t think people would lie about this kind of thing. Why would they? So I tend to believe people when they tell me about their experiences,” Messoline said, “I want people to feel comfortable here.”
Messoline is a warm woman, who doesn’t quite fit the mental image of a UFO enthusiast.
It all started back in 1995 when Messoline moved away from Golden and down to Alamosa with her new husband, formerly her old roofer. At first, they tried to raise cattle. After four and half years of this, Messoline realized it wasn’t working. They were losing money.
“I couldn’t feed them anymore,” Messoline said.
Messoline had to pick up a gas station job in the small town of Hooper. It was here the Watchtower would become a reality. Locals in the area had been seeing UFOs for quite some time. Messoline explained that she would joke “we need a UFO watchtower” as many locals had their own stories. Fortunately for Messoline, one local remembered her jokes, and brought up that she should really do it this time.
Not wanting to sell her land, Messoline did exactly that. In 2000, the Watchtower was built. Two dollars for general admission, five dollars for one car and ten dollars for camping. Before the place was even completed, Messoline was already agreeing to interview requests.
“Paul Harvey called me at work. He wrote for the AP,” Messoline said.
Some were skeptical of her, others were intrigued by her and some were down right rude and lewd to her. But despite being constantly questioned and confronted, Messoline never stopped talking about her experiences or her Watchtower.
“That stuff doesn’t bother me. When you’re my age, that kind of thing doesn’t have much impact on you,” Messoline said.
Which is why she didn’t hesitate in telling me the current number of sightings from the Watchtower.
“Think we’re at 163 sightings now. I’ve personally seen 27,” Messoline said.
How to Visit the UFO Watchtower
The UFO Watchtower is located off of Highway 17 about 3.5 miles north of Hooper, Colo. It is about 30 miles away from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Directions to and hours of operation of the Watchtower can be found at Judy Messoline’s website, ufowatchtower.com. The UFO Watchtower has a primitive campground available for ten dollars.