Hot Springs and Alligators

Colorado’s hot springs offer a variety of soaking and swimming experiences, and sometimes a few surprises. On my early May visit to the Colorado Gators Reptile Park, a hot spring located in the sunny San Luis Valley, I left my bathing suit at home. I knew the hot springs there were not for soaking, but were home to hundreds of alligators. The site had started out as a tilapia farm with the alligators added later, to help dispose of the aqua-cultural waste. They thrived in the warm waters—similar in temperature to their native swamplands of the south—and attracted visitors, who sometimes saw the aqua-farm as a convenient place to drop off their own exotic pets. Over time, the hot springs had grown into a tourist attraction, and an animal rescue.

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The springtime air was cold and crisp, and snow showers greeted me at the park. In the gift shop, the managers sat with me and answered all my questions for a book I was writing about Colorado’s hot springs. They invited me to tour the grounds, beginning with the indoor wild animal rescue. It was toasty-warm inside, and I trod carefully as my eyes adjusted to the dim, reptile-friendly light, moving purposefully so as not to step on any of the large, stray box turtles that wandered the premises. Long rows of aquariums held a variety of rare creatures, and a young woman was having her picture taken with an enormous albino snake. I took notes and snapped a few pictures for my book.

I stepped back out into the thin sunlight, and followed a path to the “biodome.” This 300-foot by 600-foot inflatable greenhouse uses geothermal heat from the hot springs to grow plants for human consumption, and for some of the omnivorous reptiles, too. The plant life here is dense and leafy, and the pond that bisects the dirt base of the structure fuels the air with a warm humidity that mixes well with the plant-fueled, oxygen-rich air. It felt good to be in there.

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I ventured back outdoors and walked the grounds, surveying the various birdlife that dotted the marshland. There was a big pool full of baby alligators—raised apart from their older brethren to avoid accidental injury and intentional cannibalism—but, to my dismay, none of those bigger beasts would come out to have their pictures taken.

I went back to the gift shop and found a sole employee at the counter: Joshua Stokely had stayed late to accommodate my visit. He asked if I had gotten any good photos of the big ‘gators. I had not, I said. The cold temps, he told me, tended to keep them hidden in the hot waters of the geothermal pools.

“C’mon,” he said, “come and meet Morris.”

I followed Josh back outside and watched as he jumped the chain link fence, knelt by the hot spring pool’s edge, and slapped the water with his flattened palms. There was movement. He walked back to the fence and said “give me your camera.” As quickly as I obliged, Morris, an eleven-foot-long, six-hundred-pound beast, suddenly emerged from the pond, tail thrashing and jaws snapping. I watched in horror as Josh leapt about, barely three feet from the gaping mouth of the wild ‘gator, holding my camera high in the air as the animal lunged. I hollered at him to get out of there, and he jumped back over the fence, and I breathed a sigh of relief as Morris crawled back into the warm, wet pool. Josh handed me my camera and I walked back to my car. The snow was coming down harder now, but I felt hot, my heart still racing. A stiff breeze brushed my face, and I shivered – a reaction to the cold, or maybe a delayed response to what I had just witnessed.

Later I learned that Morris is a well-trained reptile who has appeared in numerous television shows, commercials, and movies including Alligator, Alligator II, and Interview with a Vampire. I had witnessed a star performance by Morris the Celebrity Alligator, a magnificent actor, and his sidekick Josh, who probably deserves a best supporting actor award as well.

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Colorado Gators Reptile Park Mosca, 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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