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.

Piedra River Hot Springs

My friend Stewart joined me on my late-June hike to Piedra River Hot Springs, the day after we had completed the eleven-mile-roundtrip trek to nearby Rainbow Hot Springs. We were both a little stiff, and eager to enjoy a shorter, more leisurely hike followed by a nice soak. It was a weekday and we had the trail to ourselves – perfect for gathering beta for a book I was writing about Colorado hot springs.

The place smelled lovely, and I was glad to have Stewart with me, as he is a student of the out-of-doors and as we made our way down the gentle first sections of the trail, he took the time to explain our surroundings. We were traveling in a Montane Forest life zone, he said, filled with scrub oak and ponderosa pine, and many of the pine trees were quite old, with branches starting as high as fifty feet above the ground. This, he told me, would keep them safer from wildfires that might burn through the understory; a forest filled with only new growth, low to the ground, may as well be littered with torches to feed a fire that would spread quickly.

image

As the trail began to drop off more steeply, Stewart – a faster hiker that me – moved well ahead and went about his usual wilderness housekeeping, moving stray rocks from the trail to prevent other hikers from tripping and possibly kicking the rocks down the slope. He laid fallen tree branches across developing social trails, to deter other visitors from cutting the switchbacks with shortcuts that would eventually lead to erosion. Stewart believed in leaving a place just as you found it, or better, and his handiwork not only made me smile, it allowed me time to catch up. Soon enough we were at the bottom of the trail, at the Piedra River, where we headed upstream, to the north. After an easy jaunt on level ground, we came to a large, deserted campsite. The hot springs pools were just below us now, linked like jewels along the river, and we were down the riverbank and in them in minutes.

image

Stewart built a nice seat and backrest of flat rocks in one of the pools, and I soaked. Then he did a bit more work, shoring up the broken edges of the pools with rocks to keep out the cold waters of the Piedra River, and allow the pools to fill higher with hot springs water. A spring of water slid down the bank and into the pools, while others seeped up through the earth beneath the pools, providing a hot and steady source of nature’s bounty.

Stewart pointed out the tiny bodies of bugs that floated along the surface of the hottest pool, decided they had come to drink and been boiled alive. We stayed for a while, enjoyed the hot springs pools in solitude. I settled into the deepest pool, lied back on the smooth rocks, trailed my fingers in the river and felt the fissures in the earth beneath my legs and feet spilling their hot contents against my skin. Sometimes it was a tickle, and then a burn, and I would have to resituate myself to avoid a scalding. There was a breeze.

After a while it was time to go, and we were no sooner back into our hiking clothes and packs when I spied a young couple making their way down the bank and toward the pools. They were from Washington state, I learned, and had been on the road for two months now. The various hot springs had become some of their favorite stops along the way. We left them to their privacy, and as I crested the riverbank and turned to look back, they were already bare and soaking, and I smiled again, knowing just how good it was.

Stewart said, “When you write that book, you may want to suggest that someone could bring a pool skimmer down here, and clear off some of those bugs from the hot pool. That would make it nicer.”

“I will,” I said, “I will.”

image

Piedra River Hot Springs San Juan National Forest, 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.

Billed as “the most photographed waterfall in Colorado,” North Clear Creek Falls is a rough-and-tumble marvel and one of four stunning waterfalls along the Silver Thread Scenic Byway, Rio Grande National Forest, 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.

John Wayne Stayed Here: Twin Peaks Lodge & Hot Springs

I visited the Twin Peaks Lodge and Hot Springs, Ouray, in late May, and managed to show up right around check-in time. Duane Ennis, the front desk manager, was as busy as you can imagine, checking in guests for the Memorial Day weekend. I hung out in the lobby, wondered how much the place had changed over the years, how many guests had come through those doors and stood in that lobby, since John Wayne had stayed here while shooting True Grit.

image

For anyone who’s never worked in the customer service business—at a motel, a hot springs, or anywhere else—please know that a lot of work goes on behind the scenes, to make the places we all enjoy so much, so cozy. This was evident at just about every hot springs I visited on my tour, doing research for a book I was writing about Colorado’s hot springs, and it was no different at the Twin Peaks Lodge. Duane did it all with a smile, though, and I was grateful when the steady influx of motel guests slowed, allowing him time to give me a tour of the grounds.

The soaking and swimming pools at Twin Peaks were clean and neat, bordered by manicured lawns and rock gardens, but standing at the west end of the swimming pool, or just about anywhere else on the property, it was hard to focus on anything but the views. The lower flanks of Hayden Mountain bordered the south, with the snow-capped summit of Abrams Mountain sparkling beyond, in the sunlight. In the eastern skies—rising high above the tiki bar—stood the Amphitheater, a striking natural formation carved into the rock and resembling a giant glacial cirque, but believed to have been formed by a volcanic explosion. All around, steep, ledgy rock faces rose straight up and scraped the sky. Ouray is known as the “Switzerland of America,” and standing at the end of the pool, it was easy to see why. Duane had a look on his face I’d seen before, on the faces of many Colorado hot springs staff, that “I can’t believe I work here” look.

image

“In the summertime,” he said, “they set off fireworks up there in the Amphitheater. We have the best views.” 

Duane talked low, he talked slow, and he didn’t talk too much. The Duke would have approved. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine it: sitting there at the tiki bar under a night sky, surrounded by those towering peaks, fireworks echoing from the Amphitheater south, through Uncompahgre Canyon, while twinkling white and gold stars mingled with the bursting colors of the July 4th celebration. A cool drink was in my right hand, and an even cooler John Wayne sat to my left. I decided it would be nice, darn nice, but the views that day were pretty nice, too. Really, Pilgrim, they were the best.

image

Twin Peaks Lodge & Hot Springs Ouray, 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.

Dead Horse Creek topples south into Glenwood Canyon, leaping off moss-covered rock in two bridal veil plunges at Hanging Lake. The hike is steep, but the reward is mesmerizing: an emerald pool, a tropical scene, a cliff-side gem at Bridal Veil Falls, Glenwood Springs, 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.

Strawberry Park Hot Springs

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. 

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center

On a cold, sunless day in April when the streets were abandoned and the surrounding mountain views obliterated with falling snow, the Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center was alive with the patter of bare feet on concrete, splashing of water-play among young teenagers, and voices of parents cajoling their children to join them in the pool – or get out and dry off, because they had reached their finger and toe wrinkle threshold and it was time to go home.

image

One of the lifeguards on duty, Jennifer, confided in me that she “grew up in these pools,” and I had to wonder how many other local adults could trace some fond childhood memories back to the Salida Hot Springs, the largest indoor hot springs pool in the country.

imageIf the sound of children’s laughter, giggles, and squeals of delight annoys you, then this may not be your hot spring. But if there’s any kid at all left in your heart, then you’ll fit right in at the Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center, the heartbeat of a little mountain town called Salida.

image

Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center Salida, 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.

Two lakes—Alverjones and Hourglass—combine forces, tumbling in a powerful plunge at Rough Creek Falls in the South San Juan Wilderness, 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.

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.

image

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.”

image

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.