The Great Pagosa

Springtime in Pagosa Springs, Colorado is as pretty as every other season. The southern San Juan Mountains rise boldly to the north, with 12,640-foot snow-capped Pagosa Peak shimmering high above the rest. The San Juan River, flush with snowmelt, flows fast and hard, and the sweet smell of sulfur greets you as you drive into town. The odor comes from deep within the earth, captured by boiling water as it rises through rock, and released into the air as the mineral-laden liquid bursts from the land as a hot spring.

I could easily recognize the scent; indeed, after weeks of soaking around the state, researching Colorado’s hot springs for a book I was writing, my laundry room smelled strongly of it. I had grown accustom to the odor, and was becoming less inclined to wash my clothes right away after a trip, opting instead to let the sulfur scent linger through the house awhile. Some of Colorado’s hot springs are sulfur-free and have no smell at all, and that’s often touted as a benefit—and rightfully so, as some find the odor quite offensive. But many a hot springs soaker—and I count myself among them—find the sulfur scent as welcoming as the salty, sandy coastal air that greets you on a trip to the beach, knowing that it’s all part of the grand experience.

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If you’ve never visited The Springs Resort & Spa, be prepared for an “ooh-ahh” moment. In addition to the striking natural surroundings it’s a very pretty place, with cotton-candy colors, a travertine fountainhead, a Mediterranean-style bathhouse, dozens of hot spring pools of varying sizes and temperatures, and lots of places to roam about and get away from the crowds.

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One of my favorite places at The Springs Resort & Spa is the hot springs source, the Great Pagosa Hot Springs. It’s the deepest known hot spring in the world, and the management protects it with a low wall, while leaving the surrounding grasses high and wild, in their natural state. Bronze placards describe The Legend of the Pagosa Hot Springs, where Ute lore tells the tale of the great Pag-Osah, or “boiling waters,” and how it came to save the native people of the land.

Although this hot spring was “discovered” about a century and a half ago, it’s most likely been here for thousands of years, and I suppose that’s part of the draw. In a carefully constructed world of walls and windows, ceilings and sidewalks, places like the hot springs have existed for ages, oblivious to the temporary, human-inspired goings-on around them. As the mountains of Colorado reach thousands of feet into the air, the hot springs reach thousands of feet into the earth. We might develop trails and resorts around them, to allow access or protection, and rein in their waters with pipes, pools and flumes for our own personal pleasure, but ultimately they are beyond our control, and that, too adds to the allure.

There’s something calming about those things so much bigger than we are, those things so ancient and powerful they defy human command, and we are left to admire and relax in their presence. That’s why we go to the rivers and the oceans, and into the mountains and the canyons, and that’s one of the pleasures of the hot springs. Go to the Great Pagosa and breathe it in, knowing that you’re in the presence of something very old, very great, and very, very deep.

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The Springs Resort & Spa Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Photos by Susan Joy Paul.

Touring Colorado Hot Springs

(April 2012, FalconGuides) introduces you to 32 Colorado hot springs, with directions, maps, and the details you need to plan your hot springs vacation.

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