COLORADO MOUNTAINS

What They Are and How They Got Here

 

My latest book, Climbing Colorado’s Mountains, was edited from the original manuscript and more than 21,000 words had to be cut to fit the book format. Following is the original chapter I wrote about the geology of the mountains.

image

Rocky red towers of sandstone–remnants of an ancient seabed–frame Pikes Peak (14,110′) above Colorado Springs. [Photo: Stewart M. Green]

Three major provinces comprise Colorado’s topography: the plains or prairies of the east, plateaus of the west, and the mountains—specifically, the Rocky Mountains—that split the state from north to south, between the prairies and plateaus. The Rocky Mountain system is composed of many smaller mountain ranges and subranges, most running north-south, with a few running east-west. The mountains, or peaks, of Colorado are as varied as the forces that created and defined them. Our mountains began their slow development about 1.8 billion years ago, when the shifting of tectonic plates—sections of the earth’s outer crust or lithosphere—movement of molten rock or magma within the Earth’s crust, and volcanic eruptions all served to thrust the landscape of our state upward. At the same time, wind, rain, ice, lava, and rock fall pummeled the terrain, eroding the uplifted earth away to a lower, smoother playing ground. It is these two forces, uplift and erosion, that formed the mountains of Colorado we see and climb today.

image

Fishers Peak (9,627′) rises up more than 3,500 feet above Trinidad at the edge of the Great Plains near Raton Pass. [Photo: Susan Joy Paul]

Generally speaking, the major ranges of Colorado can trace their origins back to uplift in the form of batholiths and faulted anticlines. Batholiths formed when an igneous intrusion—molten rock that intruded the lithosphere but did not break through to the surface—solidified as a large mass beneath the earth, and was later exposed due to volcanic activity that pushed it up, and by erosion that cleared sediment from the surface. Underground pressure forced softer rock upward into tent-like folds or anticlines, and faults were created as the rock—under tremendous stress—split, and the sections shifted apart. Erupted volcanoes and layers of eroded and erupted rock, or sediments, topped some of the mountain ranges as well, forming newer ranges. Mountain building, or orogeny, is not isolated to Colorado, and in fact the Rocky Mountains extend north into Canada and south into New Mexico, and are part of a larger system known as the North American Cordillera, a subrange of the American Cordillera that stretches from Alaska to South America.

The many types of rocks created by uplift andberosion add to the variety in our peaks. Colorado’s mountains are composed mainly of igneous rocks like basalt, breccia, gabbro, granite, pegmatite, porphyry, and tuff; sedimentary rocks like conglomerate, dolomite, limestone, sandstone, and shale; and metamorphic rocks like gneiss,hornfels, migmatite, schist, and quartzite.

· Igneous rocks are formed by molten rock as it cools and hardens. Magma can rise and push through the surrounding rock, exploding above the surface as fine-grained volcanic rock, or it can solidify below the surface, as coarse-grained plutonic rock. Intrusions of plutonic rock may be exposed over time, as batholithsdikes and plugs.

· Sedimentary rocks are made up of beds of material that have accumulated through erosion of older rocks, precipitated from water sources above or below the ground, or are the remains of plants and animals. The beds consolidate in layers, and the angle of the layers from the Earth’s surface present various slope and ledge systems, and challenges, for the mountain climber.

· Metamorphic rocks are created when rocks and minerals are subjected to intense heat and pressure, changing the mineral structure and forming a new type of rock. The type of new rock created varies, based on the original matter, the temperature and duration of the heating, and the amount of pressure. Contact metamorphism occurs in rock that’s heated due to proximity with superheated magma or a lava flow. Regional metamorphism is caused by the shifting of tectonic plates, when rock is forced deep into the Earth, and high temperatures and extreme pressure cause the rock to metamorphose.

image

The Crestone Mountains of the Sangre de Cristo Range form a striking backdrop above Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in southern Colorado. [Photo: Stewart M. Green]

It may seem strange that the mountains of landlocked Colorado consist of such a wide variety of rocks and minerals, until you examine the geologic evolution of our state. The geologic record tells us the Earth’s crust stabilized four and a half billion years ago, and the uplift and erosion that formed Colorado’s landscape occurred within roughly the last 2 billion years. The mountains may not have been here since the beginning of time, but—compared to mere mortals, who appeared on Earth just 2 million years ago, and in Colorado a mere 15,000 years ago—they have been in development for a very, very, very long time. Here’s a brief summary of the development of our peaks:

· 1.8 billion years ago: The area on Earth we know as Colorado was a series of island chains off the coast of the ancient supercontinent of Laurentia. Tectonic plates, sections of the earth’s lithosphere, moved north and drove the islands under Laurentia.

· 1.7 billion years ago: During the Colorado Orogeny, magma beneath the lithosphere interacted with the island rock, forming igneous and metamorphic rock, the basement rock that emerged as the Colorado Province, and which forms the bases of our oldest mountain ranges.

· 1.4 billion years ago: The Berthoud Orogeny defined a period of tectonic plate shifts and batholith surges in Colorado, evidenced by—among others—the St. Vrain (Longs Peak) Batholith, Silver Plume Batholith, and the Mount Evans Batholith in the Front Range, the San Isabel Batholith in the Wet Mountains, and the St. Kevin Batholith in the Sawatch Range.

· 1.1 billion years ago: During the Grenville Orogeny the Pikes Peak Batholith intruded the outer crust of the earth as an irregular, elliptical mound of superheated magma, and cooled a mile or two beneath the surface.

· 1.1 billion to 500 million years ago: Erosion exposed and softened basement rock, forming low, rounded hills throughout the state.  Erosion also exposed the surfaces of the intruded batholiths, such as the 1,200-square-mile mass of the Pikes Peak Batholith that now makes up the Tarryall Mountains, Rampart Range, and the Pikes Peak Massif in south-central Colorado.

image

The Diamond Peaks at Cameron Pass form the southern terminus of the Rawah Range, offering views south to the Nokhu Crags of the Never Summer Range. [Photo: Susan Joy Paul]

·         320 million to 250 million years ago: A slow (very slow) collision between all the land masses formed the supercontinent of Pangaea. The collision created uplift, forcing large masses of metamorphic rock up through layers of limestone and dolomite—sediments of ancient seas—forming faulted anticlines in the basement rock of Colorado. As the rock was being uplifted, it was also being worn away by erosion. The Front Range Uplift in central Colorado and the Uncompahgre Uplift in western Colorado created two northwest-to-southeast trending ranges of about 10,000 feet, Frontrangia and Uncompahgria. These ranges comprised the major mountains of the Ancestral Rocky Mountains. The uplifts caused the complete erosion of surrounding sedimentary rock in some places, and today those areas are marked by an absence of old layers of rock, and an uncomformity exists where newer sedimentary rock lies directly on top of the ancient basement rock. The Great Unconformity refers to a great lapse of time in the physical, geologic history of the land, and is found in areas across Colorado.

·         250 million to 100 million years ago: The Ancestral Rockies eroded away, and their overlying sediment was swept down their slopes and deposited to the east and west in tumbled-down sediment.

·         75 million to 45 million years ago: Plate movement from the west increased, affecting a compression of the earth below, and buckling of the surface. A mountain-building episode of uplift known as the Laramide Orogeny occurred, where the area between what are now the cities of Grand Junction and Denver was shortened by as much as fifty miles, and the Laramide Mountains rose up, defining the areas of the major mountain ranges in today’s Colorado. At the same time, magma rose up in a diagonal line from the southwestern San Juan Mountains northeast to the Front Range. Much of the magma solidified below, forming Colorado’s Mineral Belt: great masses of igneous rock laced with deposits of gold, silver, lead, and zinc. Magma also made its way to the surface, feeding volcanoes. The Colorado River began to form at this time, west of the Laramide Mountains, eventually flowing southwest to carve out the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

· 45 million to 35 million years ago: Uplift slowed but erosion continued along the area of the Laramide Orogeny, and the peaks were gently reduced to low mountains and rolling hills rising from plains just a few thousand feet above sea level. At the same time, magma intrusion increased, exploding above the surface as volcanoes.

· 35 million to 26 million years ago: Volcanoes rose up in northern Colorado, spewing lava that hardened and was later eroded during periods of uplift, and by wind, water, and gravity. Volcanic activity in the southwest part of the state forced ash into the air which eventually settled, forming a thick layer of tuff throughout the area of the San Juan Mountains. That same activity formed volcanic rock still evident throughout the San Juans, West Elk Mountains, and the Never Summer Range. Igneous intrusion continued, forming more blocks of granite throughout the San Miguel, Sawatch, West Elk, and Elk Mountains, and the Front Range. This period also marks the beginnings of the Rio Grande Rift, when that same volcanic activity that pushed the land upward caused the lithosphere located between the uplifts to rise, thin out, spread apart, and fill with sediment eroded from nearby peaks, and blown in by wind from surrounding mountain passes. In south central Colorado, the Sangre de Cristo Fault and the Alvarado Fault began an active period of thrust, eventually defining the east and west borders of the Sangre de Cristo Range.

image

The sheer west face of Mount Zirkel (12,180’) is best viewed from Big Agnes Mountain (12,060’) in the Sawtooth Range. [Photo: Susan Joy Paul]

· 26 million years ago: Another tectonic plate shift pulled the land westward, toward the Pacific. Faulting occurred along the Colorado landscape, and the Rio Grande Rift grew, stretching from around Leadville in Colorado, to Chihuahua, Mexico. Great valleys were formed along the rift, such as the northern Arkansas Valley that split the Sawatch and Mosquito mountain ranges, and the San Luis Valley between the San Juan Mountains and Sangre de Cristo Range. Heat generated by plate movement deep within the earth caused a final, great uplift across the land, and much of Colorado was raised by about 6,000 feet.

· 26 million to 2.5 million years ago: Basalt flows capped the Grand Mesa, west.

· 2.5 million years ago: Temperatures dropped, glaciers moved in from the north, and the Ice Age began. Wind-driven ice and snow and grinding glaciers left their mark on 1.4 billion-year-old basement rock, witnessed by chiseled rock face and polished, alpine cirques, such as those on display in the Mummy Range. Subsequent freeze-thaw cycles severed rock from the mountains and cliffs into football-to-crate-sized chunks now seen as talus fields. Ice Age glaciers carved out valleys along the flanks of the Sierra Blanca Range, leaving behind alpine basins and loose moraines. Further pulverizing of the rock created scree fields, and the formation of talus and scree fields continues today.

· 170,000 to 120,000 years ago: A period of glacier activity occurred, witnessed by present-day moraines, polished rock, glacial cirques and enormous, stranded boulders, glacial erratics that were formed or carried by moving slabs of ice.

· 30,000 to 12,000 years ago: Another period of glacial activity continued to mark the land, and high basins were formed, the eventual settings for today’s alpine lakes. Humans first appeared in Colorado during this time.

· 12,000 to 5,000 years ago: Temperatures rose and the glaciers retreated.

· 5,000 years ago to the Present: Colorado’s current “glaciers” and perennial snowfields are not remnants of the Ice Age, but were formed in later years during short periods of cold, including the Little Ice Age that occurred just a few hundred years ago and ended in the late 1800s. Rock glaciers were also created, rocky remnants of ice glaciers seen along mountain slopes, their movement eased by bits of ice formed of precipitation caught and frozen beneath the surface. Rock glaciers are still found in Colorado, such as on Mount Mestas at La Veta Pass in south-central Colorado, and Engineer Mountain at Coal Bank Pass, in the southwest part of the state.

Mountain building did not come to an abrupt halt in the 21st century, and Colorado’s mountains continue to evolve, shaped by forces of nature like uplift, erosion, precipitation, rockslides, mudslides, flashfloods, and changing temperatures; and by human intrusion with mining, road-building, and of course, mountaineering. This creates an ever-changing and unpredictable environment for the Colorado mountaineer, and a demand for vigilance on every outing.

image

Vermilion Peak (13,894′) tops San Juan county at Ice Lake Basin near Silverton. [Photo: Susan Joy Paul]

Climbing Colorado’s Mountains (October 2015, FalconGuides) features driving directions, route descriptions, maps, photos and GPS waypoints to 100 Colorado mountain adventures.

Advertisements

The South Fork of Lake Creek twists and twirls in a whirling plunge and fan fall at “La Plata Falls,” near Independence Pass, San Isabel National Forest, Colorado. Photo by Stewart M. Green.

Hiking Waterfalls in Colorado: A Guide to the State’s Best Waterfall Hikes (June 2013, FalconGuides) features driving directions, route descriptions, maps, photos and GPS waypoints to 150 Colorado waterfalls.

La Plata Falls

Waunita Hot Springs Ranch

My visit to Waunita Hot Springs came during the month of May, when proprietors Ryan and Tammy Pringle close the ranch to visitors and go about preparing for the summer season. They were both very busy with cleaning and renovation projects, but made time for me in the great room, answering my questions about the ranch and its activities.

image

 Even though I’d never been there before, the place brought back a lot of memories. When I was young, I had relatives that lived in big country farmhouses like this, and the sights and smells conjured up childhood visions of Christmas mornings, Thanksgiving dinners and springtime Easter egg hunts. The remembrances were decades-old, and vague, no more than shadowy pages from a faded scrapbook buried deep in the corners of my past, but the emotions they provoked were very real, and very pleasant.

image

The first level of the Main Lodge was airy and open, with lots of places to settle in for reading, watching TV, doing a jigsaw puzzle or just relaxing to some pretty music. If it were my grandmother’s house, I imagined the selection would be the Grand Canyon Suite on the old cabinet Victrola. Upstairs, each room had quilts on the beds, and handmade white eyelet curtains over the old-fashioned, wavy glass window panes. There were antique dressers with water pitchers, woven blankets and wainscoting, and lots of homey touches that let you know that someone had taken a lot of time to make the place just right for whomever was lucky enough to spend the night.

image

The grounds and stables at Waunita were just as cared-for, with picnic areas and fire-pits, and even the barn looked freshly-swept, with saddles arranged on racks in rows and harnesses neatly mounted to the walls. Ryan told me stories about the place, like the time a black bear raided the pantry for Oreos and peanut butter, and surprised the guests by barreling through the dining room and jumping out an open window. Then there was the time that groups of people suddenly began showing up in the southwest pastures. As it turned out, the Gunnison Sage-grouse was nesting in that area, and bird watchers were sneaking in for a peek. In 2000, this had been the first new species of bird identified since the 19th century, so it was quite a find! The Pringles responded by donating a portion of the land to the state of Colorado as a wildlife viewing area, and you can see the birds here every year now from April 1st to May 15th.

I ended my visit with a couple of handshakes, and a cold bottle of green tea for the road. It was hard to say good-bye to the Pringles; they are good people and can’t help but let their kindness shine through. A fuzzy pair of knobby-kneed baby goats followed my progress to the car, merrily bleating their good-byes. I could imagine how this would be a memorable place for anyone, adults and children alike, who—years later—would recollect that special time they spent with friends and family at Waunita Hot Springs Ranch. They say you can never go home again, but this may just be the closest you’ll ever get.

image

Waunita Hot Springs Ranch Gunnison, 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.

Healing Waters Resort & Spa

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.

image

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.

image

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.”

 image

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.

image

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.

Waterfall Creek flows from the Continental Divide to the East Fork of the San Juan River, south of Wolf Creek Pass. The creek springs over a shelf and spreads its waters in a shimmering bridal veil of translucent wonder at Silver Falls, San Juan National Forest, Colorado. Photo by Susan Joy Paul.

Hiking Waterfalls in Colorado: A Guide to the State’s Best Waterfall Hikes (June 2013, FalconGuides) features driving directions, route descriptions, maps, photos and GPS waypoints to 150 Colorado waterfalls.

Conundrum Hot Springs

I wanted to hit up Conundrum Hot Springs in late June, but heavy winter snows had led to voluminous spring run-off, and the creek was running fast and waist-deep at the crossing. Some people had managed their way across just the same—unbuckling their packs so they could quickly release them and not be pulled under by the weight if the strong current swept them away—but I try not to engage in life-threatening backcountry travel, and would not recommend it to anyone.

By mid-August Conundrum Creek was reported to be much tamer and so I made a plan, and enlisted the companionship of my long-time hiking partner, Doug. He was interested in climbing some of the high peaks at nearby Triangle Pass, and so we decided to make a weekend of it.

Doug had been my hiking partner for about five years, and we had settled into such a routine that we knew ahead of time which one of us would be responsible for bringing certain articles of shared gear such as a ground cover, tent, cooking kit, etc. We could quickly set up camp and have a meal ready without even speaking to each other, a skill that had come in handy more than once, winter camping in white-outs and roaring winds in the Colorado high country. I had finished my Colorado 14ers with Doug on Mount Wilson, and started the California 14ers with him on Mount Whitney, too. We had enjoyed the summit of 18,405-foot Pico de Orizaba together—the highest point in Mexico—and suffered through a fifty-mile mosquito-infested backpacking trip through Wyoming’s Wind River Range to tag Gannett Peak, the highpoint of that state. Despite all our combined experience, I was apprehensive about our trip to Conundrum Hot Springs. Doug had just spent the past few months training for and ultimately summiting Alaska’s Denali, or Mount McKinley—at 20,320 feet, the highest point in North America. In other words, he was in the best shape of his life. I, on the other hand, had abandoned the trail to devote every spare moment to my computer—writing a book about hot springs—and was at my worst! Regardless, Conundrum Hot Springs was to be the final stop on my Colorado hot springs tour, and it needed to be done.

We drove to Aspen on Friday evening, parked at the very crowded trailhead, and hiked in two miles to camp on an open meadow. It was the night before the full moon, so we had plenty of light—in addition to our headlamps—and the tent was up and we were asleep in it in no time. Saturday morning we were off, marveling at the fine trail and awesome views. Doug and I hadn’t hiked in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in two years. Our last visit to this area of the state was a mountaineering trip to reach the summits of 14,265-foot Castle Peak and adjoining 14,060-foot Conundrum Peak. There had been a lot of mountain climbing between the two of us since then, and that day and those peaks sure seemed like a long time ago. 

image

On this day, we met a few day-hikers with small, light packs and many backpackers with big, heavy packs along the trail, all making their way to or from the hot springs. The trail was deceivingly easy, even while carrying a heavy pack, for the first few miles. But beyond the third stream crossing it rose steeply and by the time we reached the hot springs at about nine miles in, I was beat! There was a young couple soaking in the big pool at Conundrum Hot Springs, and Doug and I dropped our packs and stopped to chat with them for a bit. Meghan and Cliff were hot springs aficionados, I learned, and happy to discuss the hot springs of Colorado with me. I imagined that–like many young couples that frequent the wilderness–their idea of a romantic weekend was a long, strenuous hike to a distant location, topped off with a simple meal cooked on a camp stove beneath the stars. Evening entertainment might involve reading stories by headlamp or candlelight, or tonight—in mid-August—lying out in a meadow in the moonlight, watching the Perseids meteor shower rain down from above. Meghan had a big beautiful smile that spoke to the joy of the place, and Cliff had an equally broad smile that showed just how lucky he knew he was, to have a partner in Meghan! I loved meeting people like this in the backcountry; in a world caught up in technology-driven isolation from nature and humanity, they never failed to renew my faith in the future of the human race.

Doug and I hiked past the hot springs, and wandered about till we found the last open campsite. We set up the tent, emptied our packs of all camping gear, and set off for Triangle Pass and the high peaks beyond. About a half-mile up to the pass I realized just how tired I was, and begged off the rest of the day. Doug continued on while I headed back down the trail, stopping to filter water for dinner that night, and breakfast the next day. There are several seasonal streams that fall from the mountains to the west and cross the trail to Triangle Pass; these are good locations for filtering clean water if you choose to camp in that area. 

From there, I made my way down to the hot springs for a dip. The place had filled up in my absence, with more than a dozen soakers lolling about. This was a friendly group, some clothed and others bare, all happy to have made the long journey and eager to relax in the warm waters of Conundrum Hot Springs. After a soak, I grew hungry and sleepy and made my way up to camp where I cooked up some noodles, laid my clothes out to dry, and crawled into my sleeping bag. Doug arrived soon after; he had made it to Triangle Pass and the summits of two 13ers! They were his 199th and 200th 13,000-foot peaks, so I congratulated him on his milestone, and he congratulated me on my final hot springs. We would have celebrated, but neither of us had packed in the champagne, and we were probably both too exhausted to manage a corkscrew anyway. Instead, we slept.

image

I was up with the sun the next day, eager to get back on the trail before the impending storms moved in. The chance of rain was predicted at 50% that day, so there would be no mountain climbing, just the long hike out. The Elk Mountains of this area are some of the most dangerous peaks in the state, composed of rotten rock that melts to a slick grease in the rain, letting loose rocks and boulders that can tumble away beneath your feet. My own most terrifying moment on a mountain had come several years earlier on the nearby Maroon Bells traverse, a high ridge connecting 14ers Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak. Caught up in a storm mid-traverse, I and four friends had reached the summit of the second peak in a downpour, the crash-boom of lightning and thunder splitting the sky all around us. The metal rivets of our helmets crackled in our ears while our ice axes hummed with electricity on our backs, and I was pretty sure that—if I survived—this would be one of those teachable moments Mother Nature thrusts upon mountaineers, to be heeded and never, ever forgotten or repeated.

And so it was that on Sunday we enjoyed our oatmeal and hot coffee, and headed northward, away from the hot springs, away from Triangle Pass, away from the peaks and back to the trailhead. We passed the hot springs, and there were soakers enjoying the early morning peace and quiet, another young couple I had met earlier who—much like Meghan and Cliff—very much enjoyed the wilderness and the hot springs of Colorado. They wished us a good hike out, and we were off. Soon enough Doug and I were at the big creek crossing, and we donned our water shoes and scampered across. In the early morning, under overcast skies, the knee-deep waters here were icy cold and we both made quite a racket as we yelped and plunged our way across one chill creek crossing after another, weaving our way back and forth to the east banks of Conundrum Creek. Back on the trail, we hiked along a ways to allow our shoes and feet to dry.

“Are you awake yet?” I hollered up to Doug; he stopped and turned, and a wide grin spread over his face.

“That was better than coffee!” he replied.

It was better than coffee, but on a cool summer morning in the Colorado wilderness it was just another typical, delightful experience, like hiking for miles through pine forests and over meadows thick with wildflowers to a high mountain valley amid towering peaks, to join with other backcountry-lovers and bathe in the natural splendor of a hot mineral pool at Conundrum Hot Springs.

image

Conundrum Hot Springs Aspen, 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.

Pole Creek flows east from the slopes of 10,731-foot Blue Ridge to the tiny town of Tabernash. Along the way it slips over a dark slab at “Pole Creek Falls,” filters through moss and greenery, spills back into the creek bed, and settles into beaver ponds at Snow Mountain Ranch, Colorado. Photo by Susan Joy Paul.

Hiking Waterfalls in Colorado: A Guide to the State’s Best Waterfall Hikes (July 2013, FalconGuides) is available for pre-order, with driving directions, route descriptions, maps, photos and GPS waypoints to 150 Colorado waterfalls.

Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and RV Park

On my early May visit to the Sand Dunes Pool, Hooper, Colorado, snow showers interrupted the usual sunshine of this area, but plenty of folks—young and old—frolicked in the big outdoor swimming pool. A wispy blanket of steam rose from the Olympic-size pool’s surface as 100 degree hot springs water met 31 degree air, providing them with a comfy respite from a lingering winter, and the icy flakes that fell only seemed to increase the swimmers’ delight. Take that, snowflakes!

image

I wandered down to the creek and took a seat at one of the picnic tables, looking out toward Great Sand Dunes National Park, barely twenty miles to the east. The local high school had made this their post-prom party spot the night prior to my visit, and though the fire pit was cold and black now, I could easily imagine groups of teens gathered here in the wee hours, huddled in blankets around a smoldering fire, enjoying the sunrise after a magical evening of dance and budding romance.

image

This was a clean, friendly, and affordable family establishment and general managers Carly Triz and Donnie Bautista worked hard to keep it that way. I was glad to have them as my hosts that day, and lucky enough to have Carly hop behind the counter of the Mile Deep Grille, to cook up a salty pretzel with spicy dipping cheese for me. These days, I discovered, folks came here as much for the food—and the hospitality—as they did for the three hot pools. Summer, winter, and all the seasons in between, hot springs and hot food have a way of sating the appetite and soothing the soul that made for a day not soon forgotten in southern Colorado, at the Sand Dunes Pool.

image

Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and RV Park Hooper, 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.

Cascade Creek filters through boulders in tiered horsetails above the trail, then freefalls in a dramatic plunge at Upper Cascade Falls, Ouray, Colorado. Photo by Susan Joy Paul.

Hiking Waterfalls in Colorado: A Guide to the State’s Best Waterfall Hikes (July 2013, FalconGuides) is available for pre-order, with driving directions, route descriptions, maps, photos and GPS waypoints to 150 Colorado waterfalls.