If there's a single reason to stay, versus simply soak, at Hot Sulphur Springs Resort & Spa, it's to get early-morning dibs on the Hillside Pool.
Pleasantly detached from the central bathing structures by a short boardwalk, but without the upcharge of a private bath, it's a true refuge for two. Beyond a partition-wall entryway and its decorative, Pagoda-like accent of curved wood, you submerge in 103- to 105-degree water.
Look to the right, and you see a steep rock hillside largely covered in snow at this time of year. A look to the left reveals a shallow, steaming "duck pond" (we saw no quackers) strewn with dark green algae clumps for a primordial stew effect. A forward gaze takes you across train tracks (more on those later) and through bare elm branches into the somewhat dilapidated, 500-ish-inhabitant-town of Hot Sulphur Springs.
Removed from the chatter of the main soaking hub (despite signage that maintains this is a "quiet relaxing facility"), the Hillside pool was constantly occupied on the Saturday we arrived. Couples took lengthy turns that rendered futile our stakeout from the nearest basin. So we vowed to return upon Sunday's 8 a.m. opening, to enjoy that extra benefit of soaking back-to-back days when lodging.
With regular entry at $17.50, you'd pay $70 per couple to soak over two consecutive days were you to stay 30 minutes down the road in Grand Lake or Winter Park. So $118 after-tax (which includes soak fees) to stay in the attached 1940s-era motel doesn't feel like so bad a deal.
But contrary to its website claim of "one of the best natural hot mineral springs resorts and spas in the country," Hot Sulphur is no Ojo Caliente (see "Land of Enchantment," Aug. 4, 2011), or plush marvel.
Don't get me wrong: Judged on water quality alone, Hot Sulphur Springs bubbles with the best of 'em. Seven springs surface between 104 and 126 degrees, feeding all 22 pools (16 of which were open during our visit). The pools themselves range from a lukewarm 95 to a "lobster pot" 112.
When examined during submersion, the beautiful, pale blue (and potable) water, with somewhat of a milky cyan hue, presents tiny white flecks of sulphur and sodium (supposedly good for your skin, and also a detoxifier) as well as even smaller bits of dark magnesium (good for bones and nerves). Other minerals here that promise to help everything from body pH and muscle and enzyme function to mental well-being are potassium, calcium, silica and everyone's friend, lithium.
A little of that eggy sulphur smell does linger post-soak, but it's less pungent than I've experienced elsewhere, and altogether a fair trade for the relaxation. The variety of pool options, from those that seat between two and four to the largest that hold a dozen or more, is also a bonus. The Ute Cave Pool, with more natural rock accents versus some of the plastic tubs, highlights with a mini waterfall that's pleasant for a free gravity massage if you float under it.
Also, some indoor pools make for less terrifying transitions in and out of the water when it's below freezing with occasional wind gusts outside. Oh — and kids under 12 are restricted to four of their own pools for peeing (let's be honest) and horseplay.
Lost in time
Since there's not much to tell you about what it's like to sit around warm and wet for a few hours — um, relaxing — let's cover some history and the peripheral experiences of lodging, dining (see "Suds after soak") and getting there and back.
Like pretty much all hot springs in the area, this one, now in continual operation for more than 140 years, was revered and frequented by Ute Indians before Whitey showed and started effin' everything up. Rocky Mountain News founder William Newton Byers, according to the historic account offered on the springs' website and others, discovered the area in the 1840s and realized its potential. Before laying out the town and naming the streets and so forth, he "acquired the land, somewhat deviously" from the Ute, "with the aid of the U.S. Cavalry and the courts."
Then came the first winter carnival west of the Mississippi in 1911, and in the last hundred years, the passing of the waters between three owners, says Samantha Watson, the springs' assistant manager. The current owners, the Lee family, took over in 2007, but the last major update and renovation took place in 1997 (with a blessing graciously given at an opening ceremony by a Ute tribal spiritual leader).
That 15 years have passed since that renovation shows in certain areas. Some walls are cracking and peeling and generally being consumed by the minerals, which have also eaten into some of the woodwork. The grainy finish on the plastic tubs has worn away, and you just get a sense that a cosmetic overhaul would do wonders for the overall vibe, to keep it from slipping into the overly rustic (read: dumpy) realm of some other Colorado hot spots. Particularly if it aims to be a truly nationally renowned spot. (In fairness, I didn't tour the Champagne-inclusive cabin.)
The aforementioned motel rooms are simple, with no phones but satellite programming on computer-monitor-sized televisions. "Relic furnishings" like lodge-pole framed beds are "basic" as advertised and comfortable enough, but an accordion door on the bathroom contributes to the cheap, roadside-anywhere circa a-time-long-long-ago feel. Rather than vintage or antique, it simply feels outdated.
And then there's that train. I mean trains. Like every two hours, into the night. Coal cars rumbling by and rattling items in the room, laying on their horns — which surely rank somewhere on the decibel chart between a crazed mob of tuba players and some creation-destroying beast of the apocalypse — as it approaches and passes.
The hot springs does include complimentary earplugs on bedside tables, but if you are at all a light sleeper, you should sleep elsewhere.
As other options go when headed this direction, stops could be made everywhere along the way from Denver to Idaho Springs and the tiny town of Granby midway between Hot Sulphur Springs and Grand Lake, which is the southern entryway into Rocky Mountain National Park.
For extra credit on unique lodging, you could backtrack an hour from Hot Sulphur Springs to the tinier town of Empire, home of the supposedly haunted Peck House (thepeckhouse.com). It claims to be the state's oldest hotel, established in 1862, where such people as P.T. Barnum and Ulysses S. Grant once stayed.
According to Weird Colorado, the ghost of founder James Peck, who died in a carriage accident on nearby Union Pass, appears with his daughter Gracie, who died of pneumonia at age 13. Listen for the cough.
Perhaps the Pecks should have sought out Hot Sulphur Springs' healing waters for Gracie. But it was a different era then, with slower transportation, when the roar and whistle of a train stood for progress more than insomnia.
Suds and snacks
Dining options around Hot Sulphur Springs are limited without a drive. The Depot Restaurant and the Barking Dog Pub (one operation) are within sight of the pools, but we opted for old faithful: Colorado breweries, which almost never disappoint.
On the three-hour drive in from Colorado Springs, we stopped about half an hour short of Hot Sulphur Springs in Winter Park, for lunch at The Library Sports Grille & Brewery, the offshoot of the original spot in Laramie, Wyo.
Only open since last July, the Library got its brewery running in November. Unfortunately, Super Bowl weekend left the brewery cleaned out upon my arrival. All I could sample was a decent ESB (extra special bitter) and an unfiltered pomegranate blueberry wheat that was neither too fruity nor too memorable. Methinks they need some more time to get up and running.
The highlight for us were excellent, house-cut crinkle sweet potato fries with a delicious, sweet apple cider vinegar reduction coating, which came with the Big Kahuna burger ($8.99): pepperjack, jalapeños and pineapple with a Caribbean jerk-seasoned patty. The burger was good enough, but under-delivering on the heat. I welcomed the truly hot ghost chili sauce our waiter offered.
For a post-soak dinner, we ventured another half-hour north to Grand Lake Brewing's highway location. (There's also a smaller taproom on the main boardwalk in town, with more limited food options.) Here, I was able to get a largely excellent nine-beer sample flight ($1.50 per 4-ounce pour) and a decent homemade beer-sausage platter ($12) from a wide menu. The somewhat dry and dense sausages (improved greatly by a house mustard) featured the light White Cap Wheat brew and strong, roasty Plaid Bastard Scotch ale, respectively.
On the sample tray I enjoyed the hoppier Stumpjumper IPA and Hoppy's One Ton Pale Ale, and the Rebel Pale Ale on nitrogen. But I was most taken aback by the Pumphouse Lager, a German-style helles that's the best of its style I've tried, with surprising honey accents in the nose and taste, though none of the sweet stuff is used in the beermaking.
If you don't desire the drive, you can buy many of these beers in six-packs locally.
— Matthew Schniper