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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.

Bridal Veil Creek flows northeast from Jackass Basin and plunges more than three hundred feet at Bridal Veil Falls, Telluride, 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.

Dead Horse Creek topples south into Glenwood Canyon, leaping off moss-covered rock in two bridal veil plunges at Hanging Lake. The hike is steep, but the reward is mesmerizing: an emerald pool, a tropical scene, a cliff-side gem at Bridal Veil Falls, Glenwood Springs, 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.

Two lakes—Alverjones and Hourglass—combine forces, tumbling in a powerful plunge at Rough Creek Falls in the South San Juan Wilderness, 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.

The West Dolores River spills over cliffs in a frothy bridal veil at “Navajo Basin Falls,” Lizard Head Wilderness, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Limestone cliffs rise seventy feet high and provide a lofty ledge for the triplet plunge at Rifle Falls, Rifle Falls State Park, 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.

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.

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.

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.

 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

Billed as “the most photographed waterfall in Colorado,” North Clear Creek Falls is a rough-and-tumble marvel and one of four stunning waterfalls along the Silver Thread Scenic Byway, Rio Grande National Forest, 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.

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.

We 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.

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.”

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.

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 & Lodgings—had 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.

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.

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.”

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.

A Good Day at the Eldorado Swimming Pool

It was mid-July when I visited the Eldorado Swimming Pool, and I got there barely in time to beat the morning crowd. My friend Stewart—a Colorado native—had come along to revisit the pool that day, and take photographs. Jeremy Martin, one of the founders of the Eldorado Natural Spring Water bottling company and a current co-owner of the pool, had come out to show us around. Jeremy told me about the history of the bottling company and the swimming pool. We went on a short tour of the grounds, ending with a peek at the source itself: the artesian warm spring. Housed inside an old structure that was hand-built, stone by jagged stone, the Eldorado warm spring exudes 120 gallons of clear, warm water every minute. There’s a cold well, too, with pure fresh water, and the two combine to create 100% natural electrolyte water that the company tankers out to nearby Louisville, where it’s bottled and distributed around the United States. About 2,500 5-gallon jugs leave the plant every day. The remainder of the fresh, potable water goes into the swimming pool.

 

After the tour, Jeremy invited us to hang around for a soak and a swim. We each took a quick shower first to cleanse ourselves of the normal “contaminants” of civilized life—shampoos, soaps, and deodorants—and then Stewart headed to the deep end, while I elected to enter the pool via a ladder at the shallow end. I’m not a swimmer, never have been and probably never will be. I’m a soaker, and quite satisfied with that. Stewart, on the other hand, is a swimmer, and a good one. He’s not a small man, though—broad in the chest and six-feet-tall—but in the water that day, he was a swan. I carefully strode to the middle of the pool, shuffling with my feet, prepared for any sudden drop-off. Stewart popped up in front of me, a wide grin on his face. “It’s just like I remembered,” he said, “when I used to come here in the 70s. Me and Jimmie Dunn and Billy Westbay would climb all day in the canyon, then we’d come here to cool off.” 

Stewart dove back into the water and emerged a minute later a short distance away. “You should take lessons. You could learn the breast stroke, and the side stroke, and the butterfly.” He demonstrated each for me, zigzagging across the pool, gliding effortlessly through the sparkling water while I just stared. He popped up again. “Jimmie couldn’t swim,” he whispered, “so he couldn’t go in the deep end, either.”

I had always liked Jimmie Dunn. He was a world-class rock climber, a legend, and he couldn’t swim, and that made me like him even more. And now Stewart was sixteen-years-old again, and I felt about twelve. It was pretty cool watching him, a man in his mid-50s showing off like that. Time slowed and stood still, muffled by the sunshine and the warm spring water, and I was lost in the moment until the sounds of the growing morning crowd brought me back to the pool. 

A bunch of little kids took to the big steel slide and splashed in the shallow end, and a group of young girls gathered at the pool’s edge, warily eyeing the lifeguards and whispering and giggling amongst themselves. I wanted to tell them all how good this was, being young at the pool, and that they should stay here as long as they could. But I didn’t. Eventually we got out, and I didn’t shower, because I wanted to take some of that water home with me—or maybe just a little bit of the past. It was a good day at the Eldorado Swimming Pool.

Eldorado Swimming Pool Eldorado Springs, Colorado. Photos by Stewart M. Green.

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 South Fork of Lake Creek twists and twirls in a whirling plunge and fan fall at “La Plata Falls,” near Independence Pass, San Isabel National Forest, Colorado. Photo by Stewart M. Green.

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.

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.

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.”

 

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.