January 31, 2002 News » Cover Story

Hot Spring Fever 

The Indy's midwinter guide to Colorados most soothing soaks

This past year was stressful enough to merit a Valentine's preview that not only advocates hugs, kisses and abundant love, but plenty of relaxation too. So below you'll find our reviews of just a few of the many muscle-mushing and worry-shirking hot springs around Colorado.

Prices and hours of operation are subject to change at a moment's notice, so we have provided phone numbers and any pertinent Web sites to call ahead for details before you hit the road. If you want more information about the places we reviewed or other hot springs in Colorado and the southwest, check out Colorado's Hot Springs by Deborah Frazier George (second edition), or Hot Springs and Hot Pools of the Southwest by Marjorie Gersh-Young.

Dreamy steaming!

The Well

I can't remember a time since I started going to The Well in the early 1980s, when it wasn't (or didn't seem to be) under construction or closed. The same holds true today with various spots of cleared earth, plywood and two-by-fours littering the barren desert surrounding. The entrance shed is always a haze of cigarette smoke, and all of the facilities seem to be in various stages of dilapidation. I love The Well! It's the working folks' hot springs (actually an artesian well drilled by Conoco Oil in 1924), and you'll always find plenty of moderately disgruntled people nakedly sloughing their cares in the womb-like pool with the central fountain spraying water in at 108 degrees. Stay warm near the pool's edges, or get hot in the plastic tub near the source in the center.

If you go in the daytime it's a perfect place to lazily prune yourself. They've got a barbecue pit and a shack with a couch and a wood burning stove, but don't bring anything glass. If it's nice out, they've got a new deck with tables and chairs and plenty of loungers for sunbathing. If you go in the evening, you can watch the sunset, then wallow in the steam beneath the stars.

Though clothing is optional, The Well emphasizes that they're a family establishment, and they don't tolerate any cruising, gawking, photographs, petting (heavy or otherwise) or any of that hubba-hubba.

Directions: from Colorado Springs take Highway 115 south to Highway 50, the exit for Cañon City. Take a right and you will soon see a large "Hot Springs" sign on your left. Approximate travel time: 45 minutes. For more information, call 719/372-9250.

Noel Black

Desert Reef Beach Club

A true oasis in the high desert, Desert Reef Hot Springs evolved from another lucky oil drilling accident across the Arkansas River from The Well. At first, owner L.J. Conrad built a modest, wood-rimmed pond, but his tidy vision grew, and in 1993 he built a larger concrete pool with a fountain and a greenhouse lounge adjacent. The gorgeous and buoyantly relaxing pool and fountain have since covered themselves in calcium deposits, and other minerals make it shimmer a cool blue during the day (the original pool is now a fish pond). L.J. adjusts the temperature depending on the weather -- the water comes out of the ground at a scorching 133 degrees! -- and there is a large patio area surrounding the pool with a mammoth sand sculpture. It's all enclosed by a privacy fence that doesn't in any way obscure the gorgeous mountain panorama that surrounds it all.

It's important to note that Desert Reef is, for the most part, a members-only club. L.J. is happy to allow prospective members enjoy his facilities on a trial basis as long as you abide by the rules, and as long as you call ahead. Also: Single men are not allowed, so make sure to go down with a mate, guys. Like The Well, clothing is always optional, but Desert Reef is also a family establishment and no p.d.a., and no publicly creepy behavior, photographs, etc. are tolerated. Feel free to bring a picnic and drinks, but no glass.

Directions: from Colorado Springs take Highway 115 south past the exit for Highway 50. Just after you get across the Arkansas, take a left toward Portland on Highway 120. Approximate travel time: 1 hour. For more information, call 719/784-6134.

Noel Black

Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs

Ahhhhhh, melting away like butter in a baked potato. That's the feeling you get as you slip into the Strawberry Park Natural Hot Spring after humping a good two miles or so in on snowshoes.

One of the more remote hot springs in Colorado, Strawberry Park is accessible by vehicle year-round, but only if your vehicle has big knobby snow tires, four-wheel drive or chains in winter. Ours didn't and we parked at the snowline and enjoyed a wonderful snowy march to perhaps the best natural setting of any hot springs in the state.

About seven miles north of Steamboat Springs in the rolling foothills west of the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, Strawberry Park is a funky, old-school hot springs experience that's perfect for soaking weary bones anytime of year.

Set among aspen groves and towering blue spruce along the aptly named Hot Springs Creek, a series of cascading pools captures the warm mineral waters as they bubble out of the side of the mountain. Besides a few rustic cabins and changing rooms, this is one of Colorado's more unaltered hot springs.

You can drive during the summer, but there's a great single-track mountain bike trail leading from downtown Steamboat Springs right to the hot springs. That way you can earn your soak.

Directions: from Colorado Springs head north to 470 east to I-70 east. From I-70 take I-40 north to Steamboat Springs where you can get a shuttle. Approximate travel time: 6 hours. For more information, call 970/879-0342 or go to http://www.strawberryhotsprings.com.

Andrew Hood

Valley View Hot Springs

The San Luis Valley boasts some of the widest, most dramatic views in Colorado, flanked to the immediate east by the high ridges of the Sangre de Cristo range and to the distant west by the peaks of the San Juan range. And at the far northern end of the valley lie some of the finest hot springs in the state as well.

I'd heard of Valley View years before moving to Colorado. My friend Lawrence, an old Tennessee hippie with a big red convertible and a taste for the good life, boasted a membership there and visited at least twice a year. Valley View, Lawrence told me, was heaven on earth, not least because you could enjoy God's country in the buff if you wanted.

So I sought out Valley View shortly after relocating to God's country and discovered that, for once, Lawrence wasn't exaggerating.

Nestled in the trees high above the San Luis Valley (at about 9,000 feet), Valley View is remote but reasonably accessible. Although it's well worth a day trip to soak in the non-chemically treated, pristine, stone-lined pools at Valley View, or to swim in the big pool (20-by-80 feet), the distance from Colorado Springs warrants an overnight stay -- comfortable and affordable in either a small rustic cabin, a larger cabin if you're part of a larger group, or in one of the Sunset Rooms, slightly more modernized. The cabins have electricity and comfy beds, but no bathrooms. A clean, central coed bathroom with showers is relatively close to all the cabins; just leave your need for privacy at home.

It's members-only on weekends at Valley View, but from Monday through Friday, nonmembers can enjoy the pools and the accommodations (call ahead to reserve a cabin or room, just in case). Shed your clothes (or don't, it's all optional), wrap in a towel or a robe (or not), and follow the well-kept trails to the pools, each hidden in the tranquil landscape. The water is consistently good and hot. It's not unusual to have a deer come up and lap some water from the pool while you're soaking, and in summer, Valley View is the only place in Colorado I've found with fireflies -- thousands of them, hovering high above the water as you float below, looking up at the stars.

Directions: from Colorado Springs, either go due west on Highway 24 to Buena Vista, or take Highway 115 south to Highway 50 west, past Cañon City and Salida, then head south on 285, past Poncha Springs to Villa Grove. Four miles south of Villa Grove, turn left (east) on Saguache County Road.GG (if you pass the intersection of Highway 17 and Highway 285, you've gone too far) and drive seven miles to the gate of Valley View. Approximate drive time: 2.5 hours. For more information, call 719/ 256-4315 or visit www.vvhs.com.

Kathryn Eastburn

Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa

Just down the road on Hwy. 17 is Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa. Formerly Mineral Hot Springs Spa, it's a little swankier with tiled pools and indoor spa facilities, but it's not as natural and woodsy as Valley View. Overnight accommodation is available in six yurts (heavy tents of the sort used by Mongolian nomads) with circular skylights and windows.

Outdoors, Joyful Journey has several pools surrounded by plexiglass walled decking to block out the wind but not the magnificent mountain view. There's a new bathhouse with geothermal radiant floor heating and a sauna with a mountain view as well. Before or after a soak, the spa offers therapeutic massage, hot stone massage, shiatsu, reflexology, exfoliation treatment, a warm herbal wrap and raindrop therapy.

Directions: Follow directions for Valley View, only continue on to the junction of Highway 17 and Highway 285. Joyful Journey is on Highway 17 one mile south of the junction. For more, call 719/256-4328 or visit www.joyfuljourneyhotsprings.com.

Kathryn Eastburn

Cottonwood Hot Springs

If you prefer the au naturel style of hot springing, consider driving down the road to Buena Vista and checking out the Cottonwood Hot Springs Inn & Spa. Though you can only bathe naked at night, Cottonwood offers a relaxing, unpretentious, beautiful place to soak and pamper yourself.

Surrounded by the San Isabel National Forest and bordered by Cottonwood Creek, Cottonwood provides for a scenic soak in a very soothing atmosphere. There are five rock-lined pools of various sizes laid into the ground, all varying in temperature (very hot to comfortably hot), as well as several private spas and a sauna.

Overnight accommodations range from camping spots and tepees (bring your own sleeping bag), to creekside cabins with kitchenettes and natural stone soaking pools, to dorm-style housing, to private rooms at the Inn. There are no phones (except one pay phone) on the premises, and no televisions. Nor do they allow dogs. Use of the soaking pools comes with lodging, and the pools are open all night. Stargazing is a must.

For the most part, Cottonwood is a spa that focuses on the healing aspects of their water. They offer numerous therapies and forms of bodywork, including massage, LaStone therapy (using hot rocks), Watsu (water shiatsu/therapy), Aqua-chi, ear candling and herbal body wraps.

If you are seeking a soothing soak and some inner salvation in an adult-oriented environment (i.e. no giant swimming pools, waterslides, volleyball nets, etc.), the atmosphere and attitude at Cottonwood remains friendly, affordable and down to earth.

Directions: from Colorado Springs head west on Highway 24 to Buena Vista. When you get to Buena Vista head north and take a left on County Road 306. Head west for about 5 miles and it's on your right. Approximate drive time: 2 hours. For more information, call 719/395-6434 or 719/395-2102.

Suzanne Becker

Pagosa Springs

You smell Pagosa Springs before you see it -- occasional eggish whiffs of sulfur blowing across the San Juan River.

Two spas host Pagosa Springs' hot, opaque waters --The Springs at the Spring Inn, and the Spa Motel, both located on Hot Springs Boulevard. The first is something of a hot springs megaplex, offering a motel, juice bar, massage center and 15 pools of different temperatures. A lot of money has been spent on the modernized Springs, especially the landscaping. The resort-style Springs is a classy joint, consequently attracting the majority of the tourists, but it's often hard to focus on the medicinal benefits of the water when your shared spring buddies are discussing RVs and stock options. For a more calming experience, walk across the street to The Spa Motel.

The Spa is all about the mineral water -- the men's and women's facilities are separated, the floors are gritty, and the changing rooms are nothing if not utilitarian. But the waters are pure and good, reputed to be the hottest in the world. After inching your way into the 108-degree indoor pool, allow your body to cleanse itself in the tiny steam room. The bare, narrow compartment is completely unlit, and the rich, mineral steam comes from the spring gurgling under the simple wooden bench. In the nearly unbearable heat, all the nastiness leaves your body, and the lack of distractions lets you reach a Zen-like state of relaxation. After you make it through the pool-steam room gauntlet once, you'll spend the rest of your stay doing it -- and craving it when you're gone.

Directions: from Colorado Springs head south on 1-25 to Walsenburg. From Walsenburg take Highway 160 west to Pagosa Springs. Both the Hot Springs and the Spa are located on Hot Springs Boulevard in Pagosa Springs. Approximate drive time: 2 hours. For more information about the Springs at the Spring Inn, call 970/264-4168 or go to http://websites.pagosa.net/springinn. For more information on the Spa Motel, call 800/832-5523 or visit www.discovercolorado.com/linkframe/spa-frameset.html

Suzanne Becker

Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort

Nestled between six of Colorado's famous fourteeners (Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Antero and Shavano), and just down the road from the old mining town turned ghost town of St. Elmo (which affords some unbelievable cross-country skiing trails), Mt. Princeton Hot Springs offers soaking salvation to hikers, bikers, skiers, river rats and the average lay person alike.

With steady renovations over the past several years, Mt. Princeton has added a third pool, a conference center, activities like horseback riding and mountain biking, and some swanky lodging for a peaceful night's rest. The upside to this is that the place has reached resort status (if you like that sort of thing) with planned activities, a golf course and cable TV. The downside is that if you're looking to relax during peak season, you may encounter loads of tourists and raucous volleyball games.

Resort or not, at the heart of the whole operation are the geothermal springs that funnel directly into creekside pools -- and into the creek itself. The soaking pool is the warmest (100105) and most relaxing. There is also an Olympic-sized lap pool in which many locals religiously swim their daily laps, swearing it adds another 20 years to life. The upper pool, built into the hillside, is a cooler, regular swimming pool temperature that also has a 300-foot waterslide. This pool is only open Memorial Day through Labor Day.

Despite its new resort-like atmosphere, Mt. Princeton is still a great place for a nice, only slightly overpriced, weekend getaway -- especially in the winter. It's easy to get to, its springs are warm, it's centrally located amidst a bevy of winter recreation spots, and it still has natural charm. Keep in mind that bathing suits are required.

Directions: from Colorado Springs head west on Highway 24 to Buena Vista. Take a left on Highway 285 and head south about 6 miles to County Road 162 at Nathrop. Take a right and head west 5 miles and it's on your left. Approximate drive time: 2 hours. For more information, call 888/395-7799 or go to www.mtprinceton.com

Suzanne Becker

Hot Sulphur Springs Spa and Resort

I have never found primitive hot springs conditions unpleasant -- but that was before I foolishly went out of my way to visit Hot Sulphur Springs in the middle of winter, where I found myself either cold, recovering from the cold, or anticipating being cold.

First off, when you're actually in Hot Sulphur Springs, it's safe to say you are in the middle of nowhere. Other than the fillin' station, the "resort" was the only open establishment in town -- and it has absolutely no food service. When my companion and I asked the very young girl who checked us in where we might be able to get dinner on a Sunday night, she shrugged, mumbling something about maybe finding something open in Granby 11 miles away.

OK, so who cares? we thought. At least there were 21 outdoor pools to soak out bad customer service juju of the place. Gamely, we changed and started testing them out. The first one was lukewarm; the second was downright chilly. Pretty soon, in a freezing wind, we were futilely darting across icy walkways looking for warmth. We finally found the one pool hot enough to protect us from the elements. It was a couple feet deep, the size of a bathtub and crammed full of other people.

The next morning, we were up at 6:30, and out of there by 7.

Directions: from Colorado Springs take I-25 north to 470 west to I-70 west. Take I-70 west to Highway 40 over Berthoud Pass, through Winter Park and 22 more miles to Hot Sulphur Springs. Approximate travel time: 2.5 hours. For more information, call 970/725-3306, or go to www.hotsulphursprings.com

Cara DeGette

Indian Springs Resort

This is a terrific funky day trip or overnight getaway when the old stress-level barometer cracks and you need a quick reminder that Nirvana actually can be reached right off the Interstate.

Located in a greenhouse-styled building, the hot springs pool is surrounded by delightful tropical foliage and palm trees. The swimming pool itself is not huge, and its temperature is tepid -- not very hot but not too cold. Next to the pool is Club Mud, where you can have a blast playing and slathering yourself head to toe in the wet mineral rich clay that leaves your skin feeling smooth as a baby. If you and your pal want it hot, you can rent a private indoor pool, but they are a kind of rustic and a little creepy. A better bet is to rent (by the hour) a private outdoor hot mineral Jacuzzi. If you're solo, you will especially want to check out the segregated men's and women's geothermal caves downstairs, originally built beginning in 1903. Humid and filled with deep bathtub-like pools of mineral water ranging from 104 to 112 degrees, you will emerge as tender as a naked noodle.

Directions: from Colorado Springs take I-25 north to 470 to I-70 west. Head 18 miles west on I-70 to Idaho Springs. Approximate travel time: about 1.5 hours. For more information, call 303/989-6666 or go to www.indianspringsresort.com

Cara DeGette

Glenwood Springs

The granddaddy of all hot springs, the largest hot springs in the world, this is where you can do it all.

In the dead of winter, make a long romantic weekend of it. Pack a basket with nuts, fruits, cheeses, crackers, a couple of decadent sandwiches and a jug of good beer. Throw your swimsuit and goggles in the bag, along with a robe, sandals, gloves, a fleece jacket and a pair of jeans, maybe some underwear and definitely socks. Take the ski gear. Drive to Denver's Union Station, hop on the Amtrak and spend the next six hours gawking at Colorado mountain winterland as you punch through the Moffat Tunnel, chug across North Park and meander along the frozen Colorado River through stunning Glenwood Canyon.

There are tons of restaurants that run the gamut from cheap to chic in Glenwood Springs, and the same goes for lodging. But if you're without car, the best bet is the Hot Springs Lodge, overlooking the pools, or next door at the Hotel Colorado -- the romantic, historic beauty that once served as the White House of the West (Teddy Roosevelt camped out here between bear hunts).

The huge hot pool at Glenwood stretches on, literally, for blocks. The smaller, hotter pool next to it has some fun bubble chairs that cost a quarter for five minutes of spume. Swim and soak well into the night, catching an occasional twinkle of star or moon, while surrounded by clouds of sulphuric steam that swirl off the springs in mini-cyclones. Immersed in heat, your wet hair literally freezes into icicles, and ... you never get cold. It's sort of like Heaven.

Another beauty of these pools is their high-tech filtering system, which not only keeps the water clean but also removes the sometimes-grody mineral particles that can frighten off the squeamish in most other hot springs.

Directions: from Colorado Springs take I-25 north to 470 west to I-70 west. Take I-70 west all the way to Glenwood Springs. Or take the Amtrak from Denver. Approximate travel time: 4.5 hours. For more information call 800/537-SWIM, or go to www.hotspringspool.com

Cara DeGette


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