We’re chest-deep in a rocky pool of hot mineral water, steam clouding the crisp mountain air. Two geologists and a miner are discussing the geothermal forces that lift the water from the depths of the Earth, using enough $10,000 words to make this reporter’s head spin.
And everyone is naked.
Welcome to Valley View Hot Springs.
Set against the western wall of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above the San Luis Valley, it’s a place that defies labels as much as its visitors defy social conventions. It’s a historic resort turned hippie hangout turned model of sustainability and nature conservation, powered by its own hydroelectric plant and heated by geothermal energy.
It’s a landscape rich in wildlife, endangered plants and animals, where the mineral water bubbling up from a mile below keeps the ground lush and warm amid the arid hills. It’s home to a thriving pinyon-juniper forest, a rare mountain orchid and Colorado’s largest bat colony. It’s one of the few places in the West where you’ll find fireflies.
And, yes, visitors are free to soak au naturale — and most do — in the four man-made pools and seven natural ponds scattered over the hillside and in a secluded valley reachable by a steep, 10-minute hike.
Things are changing in this timeless setting, as the longtime owners prepare to retire this month and leave it in the hands of the nonprofit they created to ensure the protection of the land. The Orient Land Trust, which has bought or helped to preserve from development 2,300 acres in the area, plans to turn a dilapidated ranch into an education center to teach students from around the state about sustainable agriculture and renewable energy.
But it’s the hot springs that make it possible, and they are more popular than ever. In fact, on many summer days and holidays, you aren’t getting in without a reservation.
Neil Seitz didn’t plan to stay.
He came here in 1975 for a summer job while in college, to help the elderly couple running the property as a ranch. The buildings were crumbling, the main swimming pool was broken, the natural ponds were “mud pools” and there was a complete lack of sanitation.
But still the hippies came, as they had since word of the area spread in the 1960s, gladly paying the 50 cents for day use or $1 to camp.
“Even though the place was out of working order, the hippies would come and just sleep on the ground,” Seitz recalled.
Native Americans had been using the hot springs since time immemorial. It became a recreational site for settlers in the 1880s when the Orient Mine opened — the largest iron ore producer in Colorado, with two company towns. But the mine closed in 1932, and the area was virtually abandoned. Until the hippies came along.
Seitz wasn’t a hippie, but an aspiring engineer who wasn’t “sedated” like so many of the visitors. He saw the promise of the place and never left, dropping out of college to help fix it up.
In 1976, he was working the gate when a young woman named Terry pulled up in her car. She was just passing through.
He asked her how long she was staying, a couple of years?
“Maybe,” she replied. She never left, and in 1979 they bought the land for $250,000. They later married.
They set about modernizing the springs, restoring historic buildings and developing new lodging. They replaced the swimming pool and built the hydroelectric plant along the spring-fed creek. Signs in rooms remind visitors that turning off the lights leaves more juice to heat the water in the new hot pools.
Drinking water comes straight from the ground, one of a handful of facilities in Colorado with a state waiver for treating water.
It was a glacial process. One longtime visitor recalls asking Neil each year if this was the year the sauna would be finished. It was eventually, with a unique pool inside.
Valley View began requiring memberships to try to attract a more diverse group, an idea that was later dropped. The Seitzes created the land trust and in 2010 handed over the property, staying on as employees. Neil recently retired and Terry will retire at the end of the month.
“Don’t write this article.”
During a span of three days at Valley View, I heard that several times, mostly from longtime visitors concerned that publicity will spoil their secret. My response was the same each time: The secret is out.
With no advertising, Valley View attracts 26,000 visitors a year. To avoid overcrowding, only 135 people are allowed at one time, which is why 6,000 members pay annual dues for the privilege of making reservations before the public.
The pools are the main attraction, secluded, surrounded by nature, many with long views of the San Luis Valley and distant peaks. In summer, caterpillars crawl along the banks. In winter, icicles glimmer on tall grasses and steam shrouds bathers. At night, there are no lights around the pools and few in the valley below, and the experience of lying in hot mineral water amid total silence, gazing up at a million stars … well, words do it no justice.
There are numerous hot springs in Colorado, but Valley View is different. At night, spontaneous sing-alongs might happen in the Oak House, the communal living and eating area. There’s a memorial to John Lennon next to the Soaking Pool, known to longtime visitors as the “Party Pool” for what sometimes happens there at night. Professionals from the Front Range mingle with small-town granola types, many of whom are clearly “sedated.”
“It’s the unpretentious, laid-back kind of place it is and the way they really do try to stick to their values and not make it a glitzy resort,” said Carrie Sonneborn, a Longmont yoga instructor and massage therapist who visits a half-dozen times a year.
“There’s just a wonderful feeling of family, and almost like a tribal feeling,” she said.
“I’m addicted,” said Amy Carey, a Colorado Springs massage therapist who visits at least once a month. “The therapeutic value of the minerals in the water, it’s sedating. I love it.”
But at Valley View, they also want you to learn about this landscape. Experts give talks on botany, geology, ecology, astronomy and the natural forces that make Valley View.
“It is this multi-generational opportunity for people to come from all over the world and help them to experience nature on a very personal level,” said Suzanne Ewy, executive director of the Orient Land Trust.
Bat walks are the most popular program. More than 250,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats spend their summers in the old Orient Mine after a 1,100-mile migration, the longest of any bat in the world.
Like most, they come for the hot springs, daily devouring more than 2 tons of insects that thrive in this environment. On summer nights, an expert leads hikes to the mine entrance, where the sight of hundreds of thousands of bats taking flight at sunset is another one of those experiences that defies words.
A pamphlet handed out to visitors warns that on the hike “you may encounter visitors in various states of dress” — even in the cool mountain air.
In the old days, the grizzled miners soaked nude here, which historical accounts indicate proved quite a shock to the Victorian values of visiting ladies.
The prior owners never required swimsuits, and Seitz never considered it.
“Some people come here and they have never experienced naturism. At night they may have gone without a swimsuit in the dark. My idea is if you get in that water without a bathing suit, you’ll view it in a different way.”
Ewy said Americans are conditioned to equate nakedness with sexuality, the Puritan ethic that still resonates. For her, it’s more about finding that bond with nature.
“The whole idea of naturism is we are part of nature, too,” she said. “Our bodies are part of nature. The whole concept of clothing or no clothing, it doesn’t represent our true nature. It’s just an option.”
Visitors aren’t pressured to go naked, but when they do, nobody raises an eyebrow. Nobody’s staring or making jokes. Many people bring their kids.
There’s an honesty to the conversations with strangers in the pools. People with no clothes on have nothing to hide.
The Seitzes, both 58, are looking forward to retirement after more than 35 years.
Said Neil Seitz: “With a bit of luck, it’s time for us to get some sun in Tahiti.”
He probably could have sold the place for 10 times what he paid for it and has rejected numerous offers over the years. He’s confident the place is in good hands.
The Orient Land Trust has vigorously fought off development. Working with Sen. Mark Udall, it got the Air Force to agree not to use the area for low-altitude training flights, and it persuaded the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to agree to exhaustive environmental review if any drilling is allowed nearby.
The Seitzes still will live here, so they won’t be strangers. For his part, Neil Seitz rejects the “naked hippie” stereotype that has dogged this and other naturist resorts.
He said with a laugh, “I’m too old to be a hippie.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published in 2012.
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