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Pagosa Springs, Colorado – The Springs Resort in Winter
“It’s all about the experience”
Story and Photography by Kathryn R. Burke
All content © San Juan Publishing Group, Inc, All rights reserved.
[Pagosa Springs, Colorado] STEAM SWIRLS ABOVE the aptly named “Clouds in My Coffee.” Ribbons of hardened minerals trail down the walls of the “cup,” a natural hot springs pool. It’s 6 a.m. on a cold clear morning in December in Pagosa Springs, Colorado and still dark, although to the east a pearly grey dawn is gently overtaking the last of the stars. We’re at “The Springs Resort” about to embark on a dreamy, steamy experience, soothing to the soul and rejuvenating to the body.
Making our way down the heated flagstone path, past two hot pools, and “Golden Pond” with its sunken bridge and colorful mineral-eating fish, we come to the “Venetian,” our favorite soaking pool. We drape our resort-provided fluffy white robes over the heated hand rail and quickly slip into the water. At 102 degrees, it’s a warm welcome from the frigid 10 degree Fahrenheit air that surrounds our heads. (The only thing missing is a flurry of snow, but we hope to experience that later.) Scooting our way to the far side of the chest-deep pool, we drape our arms on a notch, let our bodies float in the hot, salty water and gaze out over the chattering, cascading San Juan River below. Clots of snow, icy waterfalls, and trails of hardened tufa (a travertine look-alike) decorate the riverbanks. Spurts of steam rise from intermittent vents that stretch in both directions. Chunks of ice noisily butt heads with mid-stream rockfalls.
Across the river, the city of PAGOSA SPRINGS is waking. Lights wink in scattered windows; headlights beam on the graceful bridge that arches across the river. A lone jogger hustles along the River Walk, trailing frosty puffs of breath in his wake. We watch it all, a world away, floating in a cocoon of warm water, breathing steam, our bodies languid.
Behind us, shifting clouds of steam reveal the elegant Tuscany-style bath house and cluster of flagstone-lined pools which vary in warmth from the ultra hot Lobster Pot to a cooler pool at a mere eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit. We also catch a glimpse of colorful umbrellas and deck chairs and an occasional tied-grass palapa. At the edge of our pool, a couple magically materializes in the mist. They look like terry cloth marshmallows in their robes. A moment later we hear a murmur then a gentle splash as the couple steps under its waterfall.
The Pagosa Aquifer
To the south, along our side of the River Walk, just past the bridge and in a meadow adjacent to the The Springs Resort’s two-story hotel, is the “Mother Spring.” Peering through its steamy canopy, it is easy to imagine how the area must have looked when it was, for centuries, a communal sacred ground for Native Americans. I can imagine teepees filling the meadow, dogs barking, children laughing, as women stir boiling cookpots over open fires. Men hunker down in mud pits they’ve dug around the edges of the pool. With a surface temperature of about 135 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s too hot to soak in. They pull blankets over their heads, each man creating his own instant and personal sweat lodge.
The magma-heated Great Pagosa Hot Springs draws its name from the Utes who, after frequent skirmishes with other tribes and (legend has it) a decisive knife fight, eventually claimed the springs as their own. They called it “Pah gosah,” The term is open to loose interpretation. According to local lore, the name has been variously translated in recent years as meaning “boiling water” or “healing water.” However, a Ute elder once suggested that a more accurate translation would be “water that has a strong smell.” The sulphur-like odor comes from the water’s high concentration of hydrogen sulfide. For centuries, long before the white man came, the Utes and other Native Americans availed themselves of the mineral-rich water’s curative powers for multiple ailments. Some uses were rather imaginative. For instance, young warriors suffering from adolescent skin eruptions treated them by coating the offensive spots with the mineral rich mud.
The practice was later repeated by cowboys sparking a lady when the white man first came to the area and cattle ranching, and along with lumbering, was the economic backbone of Pagosa Springs. The cowboys often brought their horses to heal sore hooves in the warm, soothing mud after a long cattle drive. (The Indians did that too, supposedly bathing first the men, then the horses and last, the women!) But mostly, it was people who sought healing from the springs. Following the Civil War, and in conjunction with a world view that considered mineral baths a curative for all sorts of ailments, the Pagosa Springs became a popular spot for those suffering from arthritis, rheumatism, intestinal problems and more. It still is.
The Mother Spring dates back to as much as ten million years ago, when it was formed by volcanic activity that helped form what is now the San Juan Mountains. Nobody knows how deep it is, although several have tried to find out over the last century or two—none with much success. According to The Springs Resort, The Springs’ retained hydrologist coated an aluminum boat in foam, paddled out to the center of the pool and tested its depths with a sounding device. At 1500 feet, the device floated back up, buoyed by the hot water and hotter gasses streaming up from the Pagosa Aquifer below. So, it may very well be the deepest hot springs in the world. The water contains heavy concentrations of sulfate, sodium (no wonder we floated), chloride, potassium, silica and magnesium. [More on healing properties of the water.]
The Springs Resort today
The Springs Resort itself is barely fifteen years old. When present owners Matt Mees and Bill Dawson purchased the property, it consisted of a run-down, boarded-up motel and four plastic hot tubs filled from the Mother Spring with garden hoses. Today, The Springs Resort is a sprawling, thirty-acre complex with flagstone terraces and over 20 naturally heated hot springs pools, the Koi-filled Golden Pond (accessible by a “floating bridge”), two-story bathhouse (with heated floors and instant hot showers in the locker rooms), gift shop, conference facility and fifty rooms housed in a new two-story hotel in addition to the now beautifully renovated original motel. In the suites, some with full or partial kitchen facilities, and rooms, guests enjoy fine art, hand-crafted furnishings, top-quality mattresses, high-thread count linens, Egyptian cotton toweling and plush spa robes convenient for pool and spa excursions. Hotel guests also have 24-hour access to the soaking pools, which are also open to the public 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 7 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Water for the pools, which vary in size and temperature, comes directly from the Mother Spring. Springs’ water is also pumped through various public and town structures, providing geothermal heat. At the Springs Resort, heat exchangers heat domestic water and circulate it through the buildings, heating them, along with various walkways and the pools’ handrails. Geothermal water comes out of the Aquifer’s thermal layer at approximately 144 degrees Fahrenheit, gradually cooling as it travels through the system and eventually emptying into the San Juan River. Temperature in the individual pools, some of which directly access the river, is controlled by the speed of flow. Faster flow equals a hotter pool. Slow flow, cooler pool; the coolest is about eighty degrees Fahrenheit. The springs are entirely natural; no chemicals are added, and the water circulates through each pool about every two hours. Pools are also drained and cleaned, on a rotating basis, about three times a week. Approximately 375-400 gallons of water are cycled through The Springs every day. Pools are maintained at different temperatures, which are measured and posted hourly. Individual pools accommodate from two to twenty-five adults. The entire facility can accommodate 175-200 bathers. Most of the bathers we saw were couples or small groups, and in some cases, just one individual soaked alone.
Spa amenities at the Healing Waters Salon and Spa include soothing or energizing body treatments by professional, licensed therapists and professional hair, skin and nail care. Also on the property—a small cafe offering healthy eating opportunities, sport shop which sells and rents sports gear and equipment, and Astara Boutique with an outstanding selection of Santa Fe-style clothing and accessories at very attractive prices.
The Springs Resort is still a work in progress. “Cool pools” and a fresh water lap pool and jacuzzi have recently been added. Mexico beach style palapas have replaced many (but not all) of the colorful, adjustable umbrellas. A large palapa covered refreshment bar has been added. As our guide told us at the start of our visit, “It’s all about the experience,” and from what we saw, the experience just keeps getting better and better. The Springs Resort. 165 Hot Springs Boulevard, Pagosa Springs, CO 81147. http://www.pagosahotsprings.com/ Reservations: reservations@PagosaHotSprings.com ; 1-800 225-0934.
Photography by Kathryn R. Burke
The Springs resort, by night, early morning, mid-day.
References & Additional Links
History of the Great Springs
The Springs Resort, Mineral Pools
The Great Pagosa Hot Springs
Pagosa Springs Chamber
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