Some Like it Hot

Colorado’s thermal springs are a can’t-miss Rocky Mountain experience

Conundrum Hot Springs idyllic summertime setting near Aspen. Photography: Will McGough

Conundrum Hot Springs idyllic summertime setting near Aspen. Photography: Will McGough

If there’s a recipe for smug satisfaction, it’s hard to top the surreal sensation of natural hot springs. Being geologically active, Colorado has dozens of mineral pools that once lured many Easterners in search of natural therapeutic remedies. Some have become ultra-chic spas and private resorts; others have developed into community-friendly public pools; and a few simply exist naturally and off the beaten track. Like people in search of different experiences, there’s a Colorado hot spring for every type. Take a look at this round-up and see where you fit it.

Eco-conscious retreat: Valley View Hot Springs
Best for: Nature lovers

On the shoulders of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just north of Great Sand Dunes National Park, the setting of Valley View is dramatic. So it’s not surprising that the designated National Sanctuary operated by the Orient Land Trust appeals to soaking guests with an affinity for nature. Four of the six pools are located along a hiking trail where bubbling waters cascade to lower pools, each with their own character. Whether you dip in the toasty 98- to 107-degree Natural Rock Ponds, the massaging 97-degree Waterfall Pond or the scenic 94-degree Meadow Pond overlooking the San Luis Valley, the experience favors seclusion and serenity. Guests can overnight in cabins or tent camping, and Valley View welcomes families and well-behaved pets. Where: 64781 County Road GG, Villa Grove

Contact: Orient Land Trust manages the springs; olt.org

Enchanted forest setting: Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs
Best for: Skiers, hikers and bikers

In a region known for thermal springs (about 150 dot the Steamboat Spring area), the shady, mountain, hot pools of Strawberry Park have seen many a sore, tired skier and cyclist over the decades. The Eden-like complex feels enchanting, boasting a series of natural-looking, rock-walled pools ranging in temperatures from 101 to 112 degrees, all laced together by artful stone walkways coursing through the pine forest. Facilities include restrooms, heated changing enclosures and a private massage hut using a private pool. While some arrive by the 2.5-mile hike or snowshoe trek from the Mad Creek Trailhead, most simply drive the narrow mountain road or take a winter shuttle from town.

Where: Fifteen minutes north of Steamboat Springs at 44200 County Rd. 36

Contact: Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs; strawberryparkhotsprings.com

Multiple pools, a massage hut and nearby cabins offer a quintessential Colorado experience at Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Photography: Strawberry Park

Multiple pools, a massage hut and nearby cabins offer a quintessential Colorado experience at Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Photography: Strawberry Park

Roadside therapy: Penny Hot Springs
Best for: Road-trippers and townies

They are primitive, they are free. And if you abide by the official clothing-required decree, Penny’s naturally-fed hot springs welcome anybody, anytime. Located along the Crystal River, the springs are named after Dan Penny, who built a small bathhouse that was eventually bulldozed in the 1960’s by locals angry with people taking dips au natural. Thirty years later, Pitkin County acquired the property, restored the springs and opened them to the public. The 20-foot-wide, boulder-lined pool is sectioned off from the river and hovers in the 90-degree-plus range, though runoff and snowmelt can temper the temperature. As rustic as it might seem, soaking beneath rugged snow-capped peaks in a steep, rocky canyon rates as a priceless Colorado experience.

Where: 13.3 miles south of Carbondale on the east side of Hwy. 133

Contact: Carbondale is the closest town; carbondale.com/activities-recreation

Wild waters: Conundrum Hot Springs
Best for: Hikers and backpackers

Conundrum is as rarified as its lofty 11,200-foot perch, what Time Magazine proclaimed in 2008 as one of “50 Authentic American Experiences.” And to soak in its 100-degree waters takes commitment. Located in a steep valley within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, hopefuls mount an 8.5-mile, 4- to 7-hour hike entailing 3,000 feet of climbing. The main pool is spacious by alpine standards, roughly 20 feet wide and up to three feet deep. But don’t plan on swimming laps here. Conundrum sees its share of crowds, including tent-camping backpackers who visit during summertime full moons. For day-trippers exhausted after a long, relaxing soak, remember it’s another 8.5 miles back to the car.

Where: Conundrum Creek Trailhead is six miles south of Aspen on Castle Creek/Conundrum roads.

Contact: The land management agency is White River National Forest; fs.usda.gov/whiteriver

Retro cool pool: Sand Dunes Swimming Pool
Best for: Families and hipsters

Amid the arid, mountain-hemmed San Luis Valley, this hot springs outpost seems like a mirage. In the distance, Great Sand Dunes National Park sprawls like a misplaced 35-square-mile sandbox in need of an oceanfront. Yet the bizarre landscape is precisely why the large, spring-fed, 98-degree Sand Dunes Swimming Pool is a Colorado original. The avowed “family-friendly” facility is squeaky clean, its pool crystal clear, and it provides enough space for communal splashing, swimming and soaking. Amenities? Try concrete patio, green lawn, lounge chairs and private pool-side cabanas, plus an RV park, tent camping and cabin rentals. And like beach cafés you knew as a kid, the Mile Deep Grill dishes out burgers, dogs, Mexican dishes, mac ‘n cheese and other grill grub that seems so right in this remote hot springs oasis.

Where: 1991 County Rd. 63, Hooper

Contact: Sand Dunes Swimming Pool; sanddunespool.com

Rustic riverside soaking: Radium Hot Springs
Best for: Campers and river runners

If you want an authentic experience inseparable from the paddlesports crowd, take a dip in Radium Hot Springs, a single 90- to 98-degree, naturally-fed thermal pool on the banks of the Colorado River. This obscure, primitive hot spring lies within the Colorado River Headwaters National Scenic Byway and is as rustic as they come. Some years ago, a band of river runners piled boulders to form a virtual riverside hot tub. The word spread, and most users are still paddlers taking quick dips while floating to downriver destinations. If you’re here for a springs-specific experience, the best bet is overnight camping at the unimproved Mugrage Campground, a 20-minute hike away. Or bump up your creature comforts at the Radium Recreation Site campground one-half mile further, which offers tent pads, picnic tables, fire rings and toilets. Where: Near Mugrage Campground, about 18 miles southwest of Kremmling on County Rd. 1 (Trough Rd)

Contact: The land management agency is the Bureau of Land Management; blm.gov/co

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