- Matthew Schniper
- Strawberry Park Hot Springs from cabin side of the valley: a frigid stream meanders past steam-blanketed pools, a teepee changing room and a sunbathing area.
The Web site only said, "Linens are not provided ... please bring your own."
So we packed sheets with our towels and stuffed the "linens" into frame packs, along with some food and footwear: flip-flops for the pools, warm slippers for the cabin lounging and boots for the two-mile hike in.
When your shoes outnumber your itinerary days, you'd think you were prepared for a trip.
Samantha and I had booked an overnight at one of the "large rustic" cabins ($65, including pool admission) at Strawberry Park Hot Springs, outside Steamboat Springs. With four-wheel drive or chains, we could have driven a gravel road right to the springs; with a sedan, we opted for a hilly, hour-long hike to the pools.
With muddy boots, light shoulders and the day off work, we showed up in famous shape, cheered by a reviving walk through an aspen grove after the steep hill climb and gradual descent into the springs' valley.
A friendly attendant greeted us out of a campy, broken-down antique truck converted into a makeshift office, rooted in rust under a timber entranceway. We politely half-listened to his orientation spiel while daydreaming about the warm waters 50 yards away, then headed up trail to drop our gear in our cabin.
This is when we discovered that our interpretation of the word "linens" differed significantly from that of the Strawberry Park proprietors. Whereas I assumed (yes, I know what happens to you and me when that happens) from other hot-springs experiences that there'd be pillows and a warm blanket, there was only a futon mattress. Much to our surprise, "linens" apparently means what I'd call "full frickin' bedding, including a damn pillow."
Recommendation to Strawberry: Don't tell me what you don't have. Tell me what you do have. Better yet, in the abundance of cyberspace, just list what I should bring, item by item, in all caps, with exclamation points in a big font next to flashing red strawberries or something.
(In order to sleep warm this night, we'll end up cranking to 80 degrees the gas fireplace, inconveniently not equipped with a water pan or anything to create moisture. We'll awaken with near-bloody-nose-dry sinuses.)
Feeling deflated and off on the wrong foot, we headed for the water.
Many hot-spring enthusiasts I've talked to have called Strawberry Park their favorite, which was the main draw for the trip. Now, in the end, hot water is hot water. What makes a spring special is the natural ambience people create through the landscaping, stone work, pool sculpting and peripheral frills, like saunas, teepees, greenhouses and cutesy accommodations.
Though Strawberry thus far had failed us in the last category, it was about to amaze us in the others.
As we descended the path once again, this time past a beautiful cedar and stone, solar-powered bathroom still under construction, but functional and two massage cabins built into the hillside, we peered at three large soaking pools set on the far bank of a cold mountain stream.
After crossing a small footbridge, we dropped our fleecewear and towels and slipped into one of the gravel-bottomed, chest-deep pools, active with several families and kids splashing.
Where the sculpted pool kissed the stream's edge, brave and attention-seeking soakers were accepting friends' dares to flop "all the way under!" in the frigid stream before shivering back to the hot water for the imminent pins-and-needles game.
Though Strawberry had a posted policy about soaking quietly and respectfully, nobody did so, and no management enforced it. The stereotypical grumpy old man we'd been warned about upon checking in (for real) was absent.
After a couple hours soaking amid the noise, we decided to rest and later take advantage of the one benefit of staying overnight: waking at sunrise to have the entire hot springs to ourselves.
Where 30 or so people had lounged the afternoon before, just the two of us swam about in the morning mist and steam for more than an hour before any of the other guests meandered down. It was epic.
Finally, we enjoyed our sought-after and elusive serenity, allowing the water to bestow its full gift of restoration in the morning light. This hour alone proved worth the drive, the hike, the lodging follies and all.
Strawberry indeed does possess good, hot water inside aesthetically pleasing, well-sculpted pools, and it is ultimately worth the drive and the stay.
Just be ready to improvise, be tolerant, wake up early and don't forget to mind the "linens."
Strawberry Park Hot Springs
44200 County Road #36, Steamboat Springs, 970/879-0342, strawberryhotsprings.com
Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., and Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to midnight. No entry after 9:30 p.m. during the week and 10:30 p.m. during weekends. Open year-round.
Pool entry: $10 for adults, $5 for teens and $3 for children. Gravel road accessible to any vehicles May 1 to Nov. 1.
Distance: 225 miles, 4 hours one way.