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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Grace Falls

Ptarmigan Glacier melts and flows at Grace Falls in Odessa Gorge, Rocky Mountain National Park, 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.

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.

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

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

Conundrum Hot Springs

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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

Sand Dunes Swimming Pool and RV Park

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

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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.

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.

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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.

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.