Last winter, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to grip the world, a video hit the internet that started with the soft, slow trickle of water. Words appeared across the screen:
“Our ancestors’ wisdom that Mother Nature is the primary source of well-being has never been more evident than it is today.”
People introduced themselves from hot springs all around. Australia. China. New Zealand. “Colorado, USA,” said the man from Springs Resort and Spa in Pagosa Springs.
This was a promotional video by Global Wellness Institute’s Hot Springs Initiative, combining industry people to celebrate the benefits of soaking. A song played as people delighted in steaming pools and baths, blissfully unaware, it seemed, of the moment’s crisis.
There was a lyric that Kim Marshall particularly appreciated. She lives in Los Angeles, where she hosts a popular wellness podcast and markets spas around the country, including Springs Resort.
“Separated by oceans, connected by water,” Marshall recites from the song. “It’s so true. And in Colorado, you just happen to be blessed.”
Blessed with bubbling springs that emerge from cracks and fissures beneath the Rocky Mountains, deep from Earth’s molten core. The waters arrive heated indeed and packed with minerals — sodium, potassium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and lithium, among others.
Their properties are mysterious to most who encounter them. People “don’t know why they feel so good,” Marshall says. “They just know they feel so, so good.”
Welcome to Colorado’s warm embrace.
The hot springs are no better felt than in this time of sickness and social and political stress. And they’re no better felt than in winter.
“Being here in the winter is my personal favorite time,” says Aaron McCallister, general manager at Iron Mountain Hot Springs in Glenwood Springs. “While it might seem crazy at first, getting into a hot pool when it’s 20 degrees outside is amazing.”
That helps explain the theme for this guide to the season. Here we spotlight two dozen commercial hot springs across the state, options to go with countless other dips known by locals but kept secret in the state’s wilds. The hot springs are as abundant as other rejuvenating outlets come winter in Colorado.
We wait all offseason and wait a little longer in lift lines for the chance to glide down fluffy slopes, to feel the crisp air on our smiling faces. More of us have taken our skis to the backcountry, to feel the added thrill of untamed mountains. We might check OpenSnow.com for the daily snow forecast courtesy Joel Gratz, the site’s founding meteorologist.
He’s chasing the powder too. While he crafts forecasts seven to 10 days out, he’s planning ski trips based on what he learns.
“This is not just a business. It’s personal,” Gratz says from his Boulder home.
“So I wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning, spend about two to two-and-a-half hours researching the weather, then writing and publishing the forecast. And then, depending on the day, I either go out and try to grab first chair and get that powder run, or I’ll be running the business just like a normal person running a business.”
We get our winter rush in numerous ways. On snowmobiles, for instance, or on frozen waterfalls, axes in hand, crampons on foot. Others are more than happy on a leisure snowshoe hike, or a slower afternoon fishing on a frozen lake.
Or we’re more content just sipping hot cocoa as we shop around these festive ski towns. We might take our beverage to a horse-drawn sleigh ride through enchanting meadows and woods, making memories with family.
And all of us can appreciate a good soak. Wherever your winter adventures take you — there are plenty of other destinations and to-dos in these pages — hot springs are likely never far.
As Deborah Frazier writes in her popular guidebook: “Hot springs are Colorado’s ocean.”
It’s prime time to dive in.
Across the state, operators will tell you hot springs are quieter in winter, without summer’s vacationing families. They’ll tell you about that certain experience in winter, failing with their words.
“The snow and the snow-capped peaks all around, all of that aesthetic,” says Markus Van Meter from Ouray, where a large, geothermal pool welcomes visitors to town.
Says Scott Peterson from Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort near Buena Vista: “Something about the cold air, something about the steam, something about the snow falling on your head ...”
Allow Marshall, the wellness expert, to help.
“The secret sauce to hot springs is contrast bathing,” she says. “If you really wanna punch yourself with benefits, you do hot, cold, hot, cold. The juxtaposition is unrivaled.”
Ouray and Mount Princeton are but a couple of choices along a 720-mile route posed by a marketing project called Colorado Historic Hot Springs Loop. The loop also features Steamboat Springs, Pagosa Springs and Glenwood Springs.
From well-developed to more raw and natural, from views outside to spa therapies inside, from temperatures to mineral mixtures, “every one of them is truly unique,” says Vicky Nash, the project’s coordinator.
“And a lot of these hot springs in western Colorado had a banner year last year,” she adds, referring to the height of the pandemic when people longed for escape. The hot springs “have had so much increased visitation because people are so much more aware of the health components.”
Native Americans have always been aware.
Before their removal, tribes knew of “yampah” in Glenwood, meaning “big medicine.” Now the town claims the biggest pool of its geothermal kind anywhere. The Utes knew of “pah gosa” along what we now call San Juan River. That was a term for “bad smell,” for the sulphur. Today, Pagosa claims the “Mother Spring,” known as the world’s deepest well of mineral water.
The well, like hot springs everywhere, continues to soothe our troubled souls and mend our aching muscles and bones after long, hard, cold days.
So it is in Ouray.
“We move here because of winter, not because of summer,” Van Meter says. “We’re a people who love skiing and ice climbing and mountain climbing. And when we’re done, we love soaking.”
Soaking remains central to Colorado’s culture. It was a culture disrupted in 2020.
Capacity restrictions of the past year widely lifted approaching this winter though some remain, along with reservation systems that operators launched to control crowds. As the delta variant continues to raise concerns, the “know before you go” mantra of last year carries over to 2021.
“We’ll see what the future brings,” Peterson says from Mount Princeton, echoing worries elsewhere.
But in the hot springs, worries have a way of melting away.