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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.”

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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.

Guilty Pleasure at the Vapor Caves

The drive to Glenwood Springs on I-70 takes you through Glenwood Canyon, a gorgeous spectacle of rock face to the north and deep canyon to the south, carved out more than ten thousand years ago by the Colorado River. The canyon provided the first automobile route through the Colorado Rockies, and today the California Zephyr train from Denver to Grand Junction runs through here. The twelve-and-a-half mile long canyon follows the Colorado from Dotsera, south and west to the river’s confluence with Roaring Fork, and makes for a spectacular entrance to Glenwood Springs.

The town is famous for its enormous hot springs pool—the biggest one on the planet, in fact—but another hot springs facility lies nearby, with its own claim to fame as the only natural hot springs vapor cave in North America. Yampah Spa & Salon – The Hot Springs Vapor Caves is visible from the highway, wedged against the hillside. I stopped by on a cool spring day, to do some research for a hot springs book, and the manager, Ann Hoban, graciously invited me to explore the caves and spa. 

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Storm clouds threatened from the west that day, and I was dressed for the weather, but not the vapor caves. Underground in the steamy chambers, it was hot—very hot—and I quickly regretted my waterproof attire.  After pealing off some layers my body and my eyes adjusted, and I found there were people tucked away in here, reclining on stone benches and languidly oblivious to my presence. Upstairs, more of the same, folks lounging in the solarium, cocooned in thick robes and Turkish towels, asleep or deeply involved in a novel or magazine. Outside on the deck a few folks had found a warm spot to catch some rays—and some zees—in the afternoon sun. I walked through hallways lined with private rooms, heard the muffled, relaxed tones of people enjoying every sort of spa treatment.

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One floor up there was a salon with big windows that looked out onto the hillside, and a few bighorn sheep were loitering there, no doubt wondering what was going on at the moaning house today. Here, a woman was relaxing in a chair, head back, eyes closed, while her feet were rubbed and pumiced in preparation for a pedicure. Pots of ayurvedic clay, chocolate mud and seaweed lined the walls, tools of the body treatment trade, while more massage tables lay silent as mummies, patiently waiting their turn with the next client, the next massage, the next thirty minutes of therapeutic splendor.

Hushed voices emanated from the walls, were these ghosts of the vapor caves, or just more clients, murmuring in approval at having every last kink worked out? It didn’t matter, this wasn’t a place for visitors, lurkers or peeping Susans, and so I soon took my leave. The Yampah Spa is a guilty pleasure, a gift you give yourself, on those all-too-rare occasions that you allow yourself to totally check out from the world. It’s something to look forward to, in lives too often filled with things we don’t.

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Yampah Spa & Salon – The Hot Springs Vapor Caves Glenwood 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.