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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.