My early June visit to Healing Waters found the place extremely busy with the weekend crowd. I had been in town a couple of hours and had grown accustomed to the strong sulfur smell that permeates the air around Pagosa Springs. Some people might find the odor off-putting, but once you get used to it, it not only seems natural but pleasant.
It reminded me of when I was a kid, driving out to the beach with my family, with all the car windows rolled down. The station wagon had one of those rear-facing bench seats, and I would be in the middle, squished between my sisters, and our bare feet would be hanging out that back window. As with the sulfur-smell in Pagosa Springs, the smell of beach salt and minerals grew strong as we neared the ocean, and I knew that cool waters, hot sand, soft-serve ice cream and clam fritters were just ahead! Similarly, the sulfur smell of Pagosa Springs had heightened my hot springs anticipation.
Alexandra Sandor, the manager at Healing Waters, answered all my questions at the front counter between tending to pool patrons, overnight guests, and phone calls, and I was soon off on my own for the tour. Like other hot springs facilities I had visited, Healing Waters didn’t try to compete with nearby hot springs businesses, but rather offered up its own individual personality and charm, leaving it to its patrons to choose between the various options.
I could see where local competition would be an advantage in bringing more patrons to a particular area; for example, visitors to Pagosa Springs would have two developed and two undeveloped hot springs from which to choose, or they could visit nearby Durango for even more options. Ouray and the area between Buena Vista and Salida held the same advantage of being destinations with lots of hot springs swimming, soaking, and lodging choices, across a broad spectrum of developments and price ranges.
In any case, on the afternoon I visited there were a lot of people who had selected Healing Waters as their hot springs of choice that day. The place was alive with swimmers and soakers, children playing, young people gathered in small groups in the pool, and other folks just lounging about, enjoying some summer reading or a poolside snooze. The hot tub was full, and the ladies’ bathhouse was busy too, but quiet. Women soaked in the large pool, and napped on soft benches. I ended up back in the reception area, where a middle-aged couple, wrapped in fluffy white robes, was cooling off after a hot soak and some kid of spa treatment that had left them both smiling and a bit giddy.
“Every year,” the woman said, “every year we come here. I look forward to it all year.”
I left them to their cool-down, and Alex to her customers, and drove out, heading east, away from the San Juan Mountains and Pagosa Springs, towards the Front Range and home. Too late I realized that I was out of town and without lunch. The nearest town, South Fork, was on the other side of Wolf Creek Pass and I didn’t think I could hold out that long, so I turned back to see if perhaps there was a fast-food joint or diner somewhere along the highway.
A little yellow storefront appeared on the north side of the road, and the sign had a picture of an ice cream cone on it. The Malt Shoppe looked like a place where the locals might hang out, and I half-expected to find Archie and Veronica sitting at the counter, sharing a “chocklit” shake. Instead, I found a very crowded, very busy place where the lady at the counter talked to everyone who came through the door, hollered out orders, and served up burgers, fries and drinks just the way I remembered them before they all started to look the same.
On my way out I stopped to chat with a young family piling into their mini-van. Assuming they were locals, I asked them if this was a popular weekend eating spot. Stephanie told me that she and her young family ate there very regularly: Every Memorial Day weekend they drove more than 200 miles from Colorado Springs, across the state, to vacation in the southwest. They always stopped here for lunch on the way out, and on the way home, she said. Twice a year may not be often, but it is regular, and as I headed east on US 160 with a belly full of onion rings, an icy shake in the cup holder, the sweet smell of sulfur in my nose, and a smile on my face, I understood how an annual pilgrimage to Pagosa Springs could easily become a family tradition.
Healing Waters 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.