This trail itself is unremarkable, a gently rolling path through a colossal burn scar and beetle-killed spruce, except for its destination: Rainbow Hot Springs, a backcountry gem of three hot pools along the San Juan River deep in the Weminuche Wilderness. The trail starts beyond the West Fork Campground on the west side of Wolf Creek Pass. The trail is officially known as the West Fork Trail, starting as a closed road for a mile before following the West Fork of the San Juan River to its source high below the Continental Divide. It’s six miles and about 1,500 feet of climbing to reach the hot springs. There is no sign but look for a rock cairn marking the steep downhill path to the most popular hot springs pool, with a colorful seeping waterfall that gives the springs their name. Two more pools are a quarter-mile farther up the trail in a meadow on the left. You need to cross the San Juan River for the third pool, immediately across from the meadow.
We weren’t aware of how popular Rainbow Hot Springs had become until our third trip, on a July weekend in 2015. A Boy Scout troop occupied the largest campsite and others were full. We finally found one, with a freshly gathered pile of firewood, until three young ladies came to tell us it was their site, and they were in fact just gathering sticks. We sighed, not wanting to taint the weekend with an argument, and found a site farther down the trail. Since then we avoid summer weekends here, preferring to visit in fall.
- The trail –more of a goat path – down to the main hot springs pool is very steep and loose. Use caution and keep your hiking boots on.
- The hottest pool is the one across the San Juan River, but it washes out frequently, so bring a shovel.
- First-timers have had trouble finding the hot springs. You’ll know you are close when the trail crosses a small creek with a waterfall above and to the right. After the waterfall, look for the rock cairn marking the pool.
- Because of burned and fallen trees, the trail becomes more difficult to follow about a mile beyond the hot springs. Travel is not recommended.
Recommended season(s): Summer to late fall.
–R. Scott Rappold