In Colorado’s largest wilderness area, one should expect many wonders. The Weminuche sprawls nearly 500,000 acres in the state’s southwest quadrant, serving as a majestic showcase of San Juan country. The peaks are jagged, the rock faces humbling, the waterfalls as dreamy as the alpine lakes they feed, the forests dense and in the summer alive with multicolored wildflowers.
Nature continues its cycle in the burn scar of the 2013 West Fork fire. Only people threaten to disrupt.
They start at the West Fork Trail, No. 561, bound for geothermal waters known as Rainbow Hot Springs. Descriptions of the journey — some say 5 miles one way, others say 6, with the round-trip elevation gain close to 2,000 feet — are found across the web and in the hot springs guidebook of Deborah Frazier.
“You’ll need a good soak,” she writes of the hike, a test even for the fittest and strongest-willed, “but you may have to stand in line for a place in the pool.” On one August trip, she was “astonished” to find a “tentopolis” — campers all around the San Juan River with their barking dogs. A certain scent let Frazier know that an ethic was being disobeyed, that waste was not being buried. People bathed in the hot springs and washed dishes, surely angering any native spirits lingering in a once-sacred place.
Alas, even the Weminuche is not immune to the West’s wilderness problem. Signs of man’s intrusion are found early: cabins near Borns Lake, private property signs posted all around. Owners take residence in the summer, and while crowds are largest then, it is the safest season to visit. In the spring, the river washes over the pools and makes wading dangerous, though on the way in, land managers built bridges after one backpacker’s death. In the winter, the trail is difficult to find, though horses and hunters have been known to leave tracks.
With the downed timber in the fire’s wake and amid a beetle kill epidemic, the trail reportedly has been obstructed in recent times, its several splits easy to miss. The hot springs’ seekers have been known to wander deeper into the Weminuche. Anyone advertising Rainbow Hot Springs can’t stress enough: Be prepared, and do your research.
A “tentopolis” might let you know you’ve arrived. The “main pool,” said to fit eight to 10 people, is at the bottom of a steep hill, down by the river. Smaller spots are found by the rocks forming them and controlling temperatures. For something far less primitive but far more convenient, see about commercial hot springs in the nearest town of Pagosa Springs.
FYI: Foot and horse traffic only in wilderness areas. Trail has been closed at times in recent years. Before visiting, call the Pagosa Ranger District: 970-264-2268.
Getting there: Going south on Interstate 25, exit for U.S. 160 west and follow through the town of South Fork, continuing on the highway as it becomes Wolf Creek Pass. Look right for Forest Road 648, West Fork Road, and follow to the West Fork Campground. The road goes to the West Fork trailhead.
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