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.

Just As It Is

The Memorial Day weekend is lovely in Ouray, and as busy as the hot springs were, I was glad to have chosen it for my visit to the town. This was the warm-up for the summer tourist season, and all the businesses—including The Historic Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa & Lodgingshad put their best faces forward. The site smelled of freshly-cut grass, the big pool sparkled, and the great room off the lobby glowed with springtime sunshine.

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I roamed the hallways, peaking into rooms and lingering in the vapor cave, a rare treat on my tour of the Colorado hot springs. Proprietor Linda Wright-Minter soon joined me and gave me a formal tour of the facility, pausing to straighten a picture, tighten a bed linen, and skim an apple blossom from the soaking pool. Guests greeted her warmly as we walked the grounds, treated her like an old friend. Linda stopped to chat with each one, and inquire into their satisfaction. They were all pleased today, happy to be vacationing at the Wiesbaden again.

“I wish,” she confided, “I could remember all the names. Over the years there are just so many.”

The words slid smoothly off her tongue in an accent I couldn’t quite place, distinctly southern, maybe Texas with a slight Virginia twang. It made talking to her a pleasure, no matter what the conversation, and she’d owned and operated the facility for many years and had some interesting tales to tell. We settled into the great room, where Linda took a seat on the big couch, tucked her legs under her long denim skirt, and smoothed the flowing white mane of hair away from her face, exposing stately, Sarah Jessica Parker-esque cheekbones. Hot springs take on the personalities of their owners, and sometimes it works the other way, but somehow they always seem to reflect each other. In any case, the casual elegance of the Wiesbaden was echoed in Linda, and she in it.

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I asked her about the televisions and telephones, which, although discreet, seemed slightly out of place in such an historic rooming lodge. She explained that she had put off adding them for a long time, but that, before cell phones became so popular, some of the high-brow and high-profile patrons—particularly the senators and other government officials—continuously received phone calls to the front desk, at all hours. And while the guests always told her to keep the place “just the way it is,” Linda believed they appreciated the amenities, so they could call home on the phones, and keep up on the news on the TV sets. I asked Linda about the senators and other well-known guests, and she told me the story of a young actor from New York City who spent some time at the Wiesbaden.

“I asked him what he was doing on Broadway, but he said he was just a TV actor, and working on a show called Law & Order. Well, I hadn’t heard of it, of course, I don’t have much time for TV. He seemed surprised, maybe even a little disappointed, but he came back later and asked me if I’d heard of another show called Sex in the City. I hadn’t heard of that one either. I told my friends about him; they said he’s a big celebrity.”

I told Linda he was a big celebrity, and that perhaps the only person who might enjoy telling that story more than her was Mr. Big himself, actor Chris Noth. She clapped her hands together, smiled brightly, and said, “That was his name!”

The Wiesbaden is a step back in time, but a welcome step, a lovely step, a casual, elegant step. I left in agreement with the guests who say, “Keep it just as it is, Linda, just as it is.”

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The Historic Wiesbaden Hot Springs Spa & Lodgings 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.

Hot Springs and Alligators

Colorado’s hot springs offer a variety of soaking and swimming experiences, and sometimes a few surprises. On my early May visit to the Colorado Gators Reptile Park, a hot spring located in the sunny San Luis Valley, I left my bathing suit at home. I knew the hot springs there were not for soaking, but were home to hundreds of alligators. The site had started out as a tilapia farm with the alligators added later, to help dispose of the aqua-cultural waste. They thrived in the warm waters—similar in temperature to their native swamplands of the south—and attracted visitors, who sometimes saw the aqua-farm as a convenient place to drop off their own exotic pets. Over time, the hot springs had grown into a tourist attraction, and an animal rescue.

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The springtime air was cold and crisp, and snow showers greeted me at the park. In the gift shop, the managers sat with me and answered all my questions for a book I was writing about Colorado’s hot springs. They invited me to tour the grounds, beginning with the indoor wild animal rescue. It was toasty-warm inside, and I trod carefully as my eyes adjusted to the dim, reptile-friendly light, moving purposefully so as not to step on any of the large, stray box turtles that wandered the premises. Long rows of aquariums held a variety of rare creatures, and a young woman was having her picture taken with an enormous albino snake. I took notes and snapped a few pictures for my book.

I stepped back out into the thin sunlight, and followed a path to the “biodome.” This 300-foot by 600-foot inflatable greenhouse uses geothermal heat from the hot springs to grow plants for human consumption, and for some of the omnivorous reptiles, too. The plant life here is dense and leafy, and the pond that bisects the dirt base of the structure fuels the air with a warm humidity that mixes well with the plant-fueled, oxygen-rich air. It felt good to be in there.

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I ventured back outdoors and walked the grounds, surveying the various birdlife that dotted the marshland. There was a big pool full of baby alligators—raised apart from their older brethren to avoid accidental injury and intentional cannibalism—but, to my dismay, none of those bigger beasts would come out to have their pictures taken.

I went back to the gift shop and found a sole employee at the counter: Joshua Stokely had stayed late to accommodate my visit. He asked if I had gotten any good photos of the big ‘gators. I had not, I said. The cold temps, he told me, tended to keep them hidden in the hot waters of the geothermal pools.

“C’mon,” he said, “come and meet Morris.”

I followed Josh back outside and watched as he jumped the chain link fence, knelt by the hot spring pool’s edge, and slapped the water with his flattened palms. There was movement. He walked back to the fence and said “give me your camera.” As quickly as I obliged, Morris, an eleven-foot-long, six-hundred-pound beast, suddenly emerged from the pond, tail thrashing and jaws snapping. I watched in horror as Josh leapt about, barely three feet from the gaping mouth of the wild ‘gator, holding my camera high in the air as the animal lunged. I hollered at him to get out of there, and he jumped back over the fence, and I breathed a sigh of relief as Morris crawled back into the warm, wet pool. Josh handed me my camera and I walked back to my car. The snow was coming down harder now, but I felt hot, my heart still racing. A stiff breeze brushed my face, and I shivered – a reaction to the cold, or maybe a delayed response to what I had just witnessed.

Later I learned that Morris is a well-trained reptile who has appeared in numerous television shows, commercials, and movies including Alligator, Alligator II, and Interview with a Vampire. I had witnessed a star performance by Morris the Celebrity Alligator, a magnificent actor, and his sidekick Josh, who probably deserves a best supporting actor award as well.

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Colorado Gators Reptile Park Mosca, 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.

The Great Pagosa

Springtime in Pagosa Springs, Colorado is as pretty as every other season. The southern San Juan Mountains rise boldly to the north, with 12,640-foot snow-capped Pagosa Peak shimmering high above the rest. The San Juan River, flush with snowmelt, flows fast and hard, and the sweet smell of sulfur greets you as you drive into town. The odor comes from deep within the earth, captured by boiling water as it rises through rock, and released into the air as the mineral-laden liquid bursts from the land as a hot spring.

I could easily recognize the scent; indeed, after weeks of soaking around the state, researching Colorado’s hot springs for a book I was writing, my laundry room smelled strongly of it. I had grown accustom to the odor, and was becoming less inclined to wash my clothes right away after a trip, opting instead to let the sulfur scent linger through the house awhile. Some of Colorado’s hot springs are sulfur-free and have no smell at all, and that’s often touted as a benefit—and rightfully so, as some find the odor quite offensive. But many a hot springs soaker—and I count myself among them—find the sulfur scent as welcoming as the salty, sandy coastal air that greets you on a trip to the beach, knowing that it’s all part of the grand experience.

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If you’ve never visited The Springs Resort & Spa, be prepared for an “ooh-ahh” moment. In addition to the striking natural surroundings it’s a very pretty place, with cotton-candy colors, a travertine fountainhead, a Mediterranean-style bathhouse, dozens of hot spring pools of varying sizes and temperatures, and lots of places to roam about and get away from the crowds.

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One of my favorite places at The Springs Resort & Spa is the hot springs source, the Great Pagosa Hot Springs. It’s the deepest known hot spring in the world, and the management protects it with a low wall, while leaving the surrounding grasses high and wild, in their natural state. Bronze placards describe The Legend of the Pagosa Hot Springs, where Ute lore tells the tale of the great Pag-Osah, or “boiling waters,” and how it came to save the native people of the land.

Although this hot spring was “discovered” about a century and a half ago, it’s most likely been here for thousands of years, and I suppose that’s part of the draw. In a carefully constructed world of walls and windows, ceilings and sidewalks, places like the hot springs have existed for ages, oblivious to the temporary, human-inspired goings-on around them. As the mountains of Colorado reach thousands of feet into the air, the hot springs reach thousands of feet into the earth. We might develop trails and resorts around them, to allow access or protection, and rein in their waters with pipes, pools and flumes for our own personal pleasure, but ultimately they are beyond our control, and that, too adds to the allure.

There’s something calming about those things so much bigger than we are, those things so ancient and powerful they defy human command, and we are left to admire and relax in their presence. That’s why we go to the rivers and the oceans, and into the mountains and the canyons, and that’s one of the pleasures of the hot springs. Go to the Great Pagosa and breathe it in, knowing that you’re in the presence of something very old, very great, and very, very deep.

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The Springs 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.

Slice of Heaven

The approach to Dunton Hot Springs takes you on a winding dirt road, a narrow, single-lane shelf road in places, and I had to back up to let folks pass a few times. Only when I saw the sign for Kilpacker Basin did I realize why this looked so familiar: It was the same road I had taken to access 14,159’ El Diente Peak on a mountaineering trip a few years prior. I began to have serious misgivings about my directions. How could anything—other than trailheads to 14,000-foot peaks—be all the way out here?

There was an old mining town on the side of the road, abandoned, it seemed, save for a call box and security gate. This couldn’t be it, I thought, but I pulled up and gave it a shot. Yes, the voice replied through the box, Christina was there, and she was expecting me. The gate swung wide and I drove through.

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Christy was a tall, willowy brunette with blue-green eyes and a pretty smile, and as we walked the lantern-bordered paths, she shared some of the history of the place. It was indeed an old mining town, built in the 1800s along the West Dolores River, and home to workers of the nearby Emma, Smuggler, and American mines during that time. After the mining bust, the town had been abandoned and fallen into disrepair, but it was eventually purchased and restored by a European couple.

Christy and her husband Edoardo—the caretakers here—were experts in the hotel industry, and had relocated to the U.S. from the British Isles expressly to take care of the guests and the grounds at Dunton Hot Springs.

Most of the cabins were occupied on the day I visited, but a couple of them were open so we went inside. Each one reminded me of an old western movie set, but they were the real thing. The roofs had been replaced, timbers recaulked, and there was indoor plumbing, but additions to the interiors were sparse and carefully selected to blend with the original, simple décor.

Miners lived here, I thought, worked here, slept here, ate and drank here, probably fought here, too, so long ago. Had hard lives, I figured, isolated lives—with the nearest railroad a nine-mile hike or horseback ride away, at Coke Ovens—but at least they had the hot springs, and all this beauty, and maybe that made their lives a little nicer.

We followed a path to the outdoor chapel, where a towering waterfall cascaded in the distance. In the wintertime, Christy told me, guests at Dunton Hot Springs enjoyed ice-climbing the falls. There was a shallow pool, too, at the base, and in the summertime the kids liked to splash in it. I stopped to enjoy the sunshine, the high mountain air, and views of the surrounding peaks.

“We were invited to come here and see if it might be a good place for us both to work,” said Christy. “We really didn’t know what to expect, had no idea what we were getting into. But then we came out here, and…” Her voice trailed off.

But she didn’t need to explain. Dunton Hot Springs is a little piece of history tucked into a big slice of heaven. It speaks for itself better than any words that Christy could muster that day, or I now, for that matter.

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Dunton Hot Springs Dunton, 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.