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Some Like It Hot

A survival guide to aprs-sports soaking

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The natural spring in Dunton's meadows - OWEN PERKINS

Now that we are finally fully in the throes of winter, you can stop waxing those snow tires and put the studs in your snowshoes. It's time to head west, real west, off of the flat range and into the high country for a season of trekking and shredding, big air and deep powder.

And somewhere in the day, whether on the drive home, as a midday pit stop along the trail or as an early-morning start-me-up when you roll out of your snow cave, a soak in the hot springs is an essential accessory to your winter-sports itinerary.

The world of agua caliente flows over with preferences and prejudices ranging from environmental aesthetics to puritanical ethics. I like it outdoors, out of sight, out of the way, and I don't like to pay for water.


The San Juans

It all begins in Dunton, a tumbledown town high in the mountains above Dolores and back behind eye-blink burgs like Rico and Stoner. It used to take 23 miles on a bumpy dirt road to get to Dunton, exactly one "Scarlet Begonia"/"Fire on the Mountain" jam from the turnoff to the jump-in point, but much of the road has since been paved, changing the degree-of-difficulty rating entirely and giving a new perspective on the river valley blurring by.

Back in the day, the town was a cluster of wood shacks and log cabins surrounding a pool of steaming spring water and an A-frame with an extra-hot, semi-indoor pool. There, empty knotholes in the walls were pierced by beams of light from one celestial orb or another, making light sabers out of the rising steam. The cabins were populated by various mountain folk: a chain-saw sculptor, the bartender from the local pub, any number of hippie holdovers raising their offspring in the clothing-optional confines of the lost little town. Several of the cabins were available for rent. Over the years, I've stayed in three of the cabins and only set fire to one.

Sitting in the outdoor pool, you stare across the open Dunton meadows past a ribbon of aspens to the toothy ridges of El Diente, one of the San Juan's most spectacular fourteeners. In the winter, there's no shortage of snow to roll around in when the springs get too hot, and there's nothing but utter serenity beneath the stars.

Unfortunately, the $5 price tag on using the springs has been upped to somewhere in the seven-figure range, thanks to an Austrian millionaire who bought the whole town a few years back to use, infrequently, as a mountain getaway. But the valley is filled with excellent cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and extreme downhill skiing, so it's well worth walking into town if you're up in the area. Depending on the caretaker du jour, you might end up with anything from a shotgun escort off the premises to an invitation to ride out the winter in one of the cabins with all the soaking you can absorb.

The old wooden home in Dunton leaks light into the steaming indoor pool - OWEN PERKINS
  • Owen Perkins
  • The old wooden home in Dunton leaks light into the steaming indoor pool

A more dependable treasure is Orvis Hot Springs, a mile outside of Ridgeway. I'd gone there for years before ever realizing they had indoor pools and tubs, mostly because we always entered the outdoor pool from the back, where the admission fee is optional, especially after dark. There's plenty of room to find your own nook with a view of the Sneffles Range peeking up above the ridgeline. The pool is a home away from home for everyone within an hour's snowy drive, but first-timers who don't think there's anything optional about clothing tend to make a quick 180 after getting an eyeful of blissful soakers. Family-oriented recreants can find satisfaction all over nearby Ouray, where there are more pools than hotels or restaurants.

I'm sworn to secrecy about another great spring along the Dolores River, perhaps the best unknown pool in Colorado. All I'll tell you is it's close enough to the river to jump in and out at your leisure, and even though the hot water is funneled into an old tub -- capacity 12 friendly bathers -- there's rarely anyone there, and nobody who's found it is letting the word out.

Durango's got Trimble Hot Springs, which used to burn down every time someone tried to run it as a business. The springs have proved fireproof for some 10 years now, taking all the fun away from sneaking in during the undeveloped days, when a caretaker might surprise you with the admonition "Not only are you trespassing, but you're naked!"

Pagosa Springs has hot water up the wazoo, including backcountry pools on the Piedra River and just below Wolf Creek Pass, where you can hike a couple miles into Rainbow Hot Springs. But if you like resort-type pools, you'll love the Springs Inn, where there are some 15 pools in various sizes, shapes and temperatures (89 F-112 F), huddled up against cliffs, tucked away by the San Juan River or splattered across the decks, enabling users to find that special someone with a perfectly compatible temperament. The "Burg" has water bubbling in direct from the source, seeping up through a layer of rocks certain to burn your butt if you sit still too long.


The Roaring Fork Valley

Another little-known favorite is Penny Hot Springs, near Redstone up the Crystal River from Carbondale. Overshadowed by the nearby mammoth Glenwood Hot Springs Pool, these public springs are right on the river, close enough to dangle your hand into the cold water from the other side of the adjustable rock wall. An ornery neighbor got tired of seeing naked bathers outside his window and bulldozed a pile of boulders into the springs years ago, but water always seeks its own level, and with the help of noble Carbondalers, one of the state's best small-scale springs is thriving again.

Conundrum should be high on any back-country enthusiast's list, given the fact that it's a seven-mile ski in to the remote pools on the backside of Castle Peak, one valley south of the Maroon Bells. Odds are against finding the place to yourself when the sun's out, but if you're staying overnight, you can weed out the day-trippers.


The Arkansas and San Luis Valleys

Valley View Hot Springs against the Sangre de Cristo mountains at the top of the San Luis Valley is open to non-members during weekdays only. The ultra-private nature of these springs, with so many members flaunting their "entitlement" to the turf, can be off-putting for the innocent traveler, heading far off the beaten path to one of the quietest corners of the state, where the only sound is the slow trickle of water moving through the natural pools collecting on the hillside.

Some of the closest hot spots to Colorado Springs include the Mount Princeton Hot Springs at the base of the mountain. I've hardly enjoyed myself less than at this high-traffic, low-aesthetic locale. Better things can be said about the more laid-back Cottonwood Hot Springs outside of Buena Vista. A noteworthy feature of the latter is that they stay open until midnight, allowing for extensive partaking for aprs-snow enthusiasts in no hurry to get back to the city.

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