Folks who backpack around Colorado are treated to a special kind of world: Mountains rise from wilderness, canyons cut through deserts, fields of wild grasses bend to the breezes, and sprawling meadows of wildflowers nod their heads in the wind. There are lots of wild animals to be found here, too: mule deer and rabbits, birds and squirrels, and every now and then, a moose, antelope, porcupine, black bear, lynx, bobcat, rattlesnake, lizard, or a herd of elk or bighorn sheep. If you spend enough time in the Colorado backcountry, chances are you’ll see all of these creatures, and be thankful that you did. In their natural habitats, they are disarming and innocent, and beautiful. The public lands that are protected from human overuse protect these animals, and their homes, the forests and grasslands, peaks, prairies, rivers and streams.
If you are one of those people who spend a lot of time in the wilderness, and know the toil of a long day on the trail, you probably have a strong appreciation for your reward – the majesty of the wild – and understand its innate worth. If you are one of those people, you may be surprised at the easy access to Strawberry Park Hot Springs, near Steamboat Springs.
Strawberry Park Hot Springs sees a lot of different people, as I noted during my June visit. Adam, the weekend supervisor, was receiving visitors in a steady stream, but quickly explained the layout of the place to me and I was off. I climbed the hillside to get an overall view, and the initial impact was indescribable.
As I would later write in my book about Colorado hot springs, “Hot Spring Creek enters the canyon through a steep and narrow ravine, rushing over boulders and cutting a wide swath through the site before pausing to spread its waters in a broad and tranquil berth. On either side of the creek, hot mineral springs bubble up from the earth, and waterfalls patter over rocky ledges along the hillside.”
This was the kind of vision you might come upon after a day or two of hiking, and you would be all alone and happy to have the place to yourself. There might be some deer, a squirrel, or a chipmunk, or the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker to greet you. But here, there were no animals. There were people, soaking in pools, walking along the banks, and lying in chairs beside the creek. The beauty of the area was not lost on me; I’d just never seen this many people in a place like this, a place so typically remote. I made the short walk to the pools, down paving stone and concrete steps, past fire-pits and wooden chairs, crossed a bridge and stopped to enjoy the Hot Springs Creek that pounded down the rocks in a tumultuous grand entrance. The spring melt was on and the waters were high, but the hot springs pools that lined the creek bed were calm, and soakers and swimmers alike sat about, swam about, and lounged about, sleeping and sunning, reading books or just gazing at their surroundings.
Back at the gate, I stopped to ask Adam my questions for the book, and he answered between customers. Most of the folks coming through understood that this was a very special place, and because of all the human visitors, there were a few rules that needed to be followed to keep it that way. There are no fences around Strawberry Park Hot Springs, and so anything you take down there with you and don’t pack out, will end up in the water or the forest, and eventually, in the habitat of the animals in the surrounding wilderness. However, I was surprised at the number of people who just didn’t get it, and listened as Adam patiently explained, over and over again, why you couldn’t bring that six-pack of beer down to the pools, or why you couldn’t just drive your car through the place because you “had your whole family with you and they didn’t really like to walk." This isn’t Disneyland, folks, I thought to myself—or even Las Vegas—and I had a good laugh, standing there, being reminded of why I prefer the backcountry to the mall, the mountains to the amusement parks.
Most hot springs soakers I have met—at other hot springs and at Strawberry Park too— do get it, and I think that’s why this was so unexpected and comical, but maybe I had just caught Adam on a particularly trying day. In any case, he was doing a good job of keeping the place clean and tidy, with no broken glass in the pool bottoms or candy wrappers flying about and getting stuck in the trees, and I’m glad there are people out there like him willing to so graciously tend to the sometimes-boorishness of the rest of us. All that aside, this was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. It’s a hot springs unlike any other, well worth the drive—and the walk.
Strawberry Park Hot Springs Steamboat 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.