Rainbow Hot Springs

My hike to Rainbow Hot Springs began with a visit to the Pagosa Springs Ranger District of the San Juan National Forest, in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. I was curious about access through the private property near the West Fork Trailhead, and wanted more information about the trail, too. A ranger spoke with me and expressed concern about the gaining popularity of the hot springs, and its impact on the land, waters, and plant and animal life in the treasured ecosystems of the forest and the Weminuche Wilderness. She shared the rules and regulations of the area with me, and I assured her that I and my hiking partner that day, Stewart, would tread lightly.

There was a wildfire burning in Los Alamos, New Mexico, one-hundred-and-fifty miles south, and as we drove to the trail, smoke blanketed the sky and obliterated our views of the area. Once at the trailhead, though, we were happy to find the air clean and smoke-free, filtered by the dense trees, I supposed. I stopped to sign in at the information kiosk, and noticed a quote on the board, by conservationist Aldo Leopold. We started along the trail and just half an hour into the hike, I smelled smoke. Thinking that maybe the wind had changed direction and driven the smoke from the New Mexico wildfire into the woods around us, I continued on the trail. Stewart hollered at me to wait up, and I turned to see him disappear into the woods. An abandoned campfire was smoldering just thirty feet from the trail. Stewart lifted the large, burning timbers from the fire ring, carried them down to the river and doused them. Neither one of us had a shovel or hand trowel to dig up dirt to cover the smoking ashes, but we did find enough rocks to cover them and eventually quell the burn.

imageWe hiked on, thoroughly enjoying the long, wonderful route that wound through shady wood, up and over the roaring West Fork of the San Juan River, swollen with waters from a melting, heavy snowpack, and in and out of sun-dappled stretches of easy trail. I had hiked with Stewart before, knew his habit of picking up litter—mostly crushed beer cans and cast-off candy wrappers—and sticking it in my pack, or handing it to me to stash in his. A faster hiker than me, Stewart moved ahead, and I watched as he removed a loose rock from the trail as naturally as picking up a child’s stray sock in a hallway. It finally occurred to me, what this reminded me of: The staff at many of the developed hot springs I had visited over the past weeks displayed this same behavior, continually straightening pictures, tucking in bedspreads, and fluffing pillows, treating their establishments like their homes. Stewart was a Colorado native, had lived in the state for decades, and he treated the wilderness like his home.

He continued on, straightening crooked signs and cleaning up the trail as he went, moving rocks and dragging fallen branches across social trails. I told him what I was thinking and he reminded me that this was his home, this was everyone’s home, and we needed to take care of it if we wanted our children and our children’s children to enjoy it. We walked for miles, deeper into the wilderness, pausing here and there to drink and snack. Stewart told me about Aldo Leopold, the author of the quote on the trailhead kiosk, said he was perhaps the most influential individual in modern ethical wildlife conservation. He asked if I had read Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac; I had not, I said, but I would.


We walked on, finally reaching the hot springs. Stewart and I descended to the pools and soaked for a while, and I have to say this was one of the loveliest settings I enjoyed on my tour of the Colorado hot springs. The cold waters of the San Juan River gurgled past the pools and flowed south, while hot spring waters spouted from the hillside and poured down the riverbank, steadily replenishing the hot pools that leaked into the river, their combined waters carried downstream. There were mountain views to the south, and all around the land was bursting with dense greenery and towering pine trees. Eventually, we took our leave, and within minutes of hitting the trail we met up with a couple from Oregon, two pairs of young men, and a solo hiker. Our timing had been perfect, I commented, or we would have been sharing the small pool with seven other hikers! Lovely people, all, I was sure of it, but undeveloped hot springs pools are best served to smaller groups. I was glad to have visited Rainbow Hot Springs, though, and was pleased that others would be enjoying them after me.

As I made my way back toward the trailhead, I thought about the woman back at the ranger station and her concerns about human impact; I thought about the abandoned campfire beside the trail, and the fire burning in Los Alamos. I wondered about the future of Rainbow Hot Springs. It had been a gift, for me, that day, and I was thankful for it. We don’t get enough days like that in our lives. A few hours, and five miles later, I passed the kiosk at the trailhead, and paused again to read the quote: “I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in,” it said, “Aldo Leopold, 1887-1948.”


Rainbow Hot Springs 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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