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.