Deep in the Weminuche Wilderness of southwest Colorado – the state’s largest and wildest wilderness area – is a true backcountry gem. Rainbow Hot Springs consists of three natural pools along the west fork of the San Juan River. At 6 miles one-way, the trip is feasible as a long day hike, but the springs are better enjoyed as a multi-day backpack trip. You’ll find campsites on the bluffs above the river. The main pool, accessed via a steep trail down to the river, is fed by naturally cascading mineral water. Look for a small rock cairn marking the spot. Another pool is a quarter-mile upriver in a meadow. Reach the third pool by crossing the river  – shallow except in spring – near the meadow. The pools are unofficially clothing optional, so find some peace soaking in nature’s bounty naked as you came.

It can’t be stressed enough: Do your research before visiting. The first time I made the hike, I only had vague directions about how to find the pools and wasted a long time scrambling up and down the banks of the river before finding it. I’ve also seen groups who missed the springs entirely and made long, unplanned hikes in the wilderness searching.

Pro Tips

  • The pools are in the burn scar from the 2013 West Fork fire and offer little shade, so bring an umbrella.
  • The small pool across the river is the hottest, but it also tends to get washed out by heavy rains, so a small shovel could come in handy.
  • Avoid weekends in July and August, as crowds can make finding a campsite difficult.
  • Recommended season(s): Summer and early fall. The pools are overrun by the river in spring and snow makes it a long, treacherous journey in winter.

    —R. Scott Rappold


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