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.
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.
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.