There’s an “almost” secret place in the southern Rocky Mountains of Colorado, also known as the San Juan Mountains, where sulfuric-laden hot springs bubble to the surface, spewing forth therapeutic heat and mineral-rich waters from the world’s deepest geothermal hot spring.
A slice of natural paradise, the town of Pagosa Springs is located at 7,000 feet, in pine-peppered high desert plateau framed by majestic, waterfall-laden mountains.
Fight for the springs: a history
Pagosa Springs has a fascinating history. The Utes and the Navajos both revered the healing powers of the hot springs: the Utes laid claim to the land generations prior to the Navajo challenge, but shared the springs because of their sacred origins. A peaceful coexistence was not meant to be, and in 1866, the Navajos and Utes battled for control of the territory.
A certain Colonel Albert Pfeiffer volunteered to broker the dispute by suggesting that each Indian nation contribute a warrior to fight to the death for eternal rights to the springs. Because Pfeiffer revered the Utes, he volunteered to represent them in a fight against a “giant” and much younger Navajo. The Utes agreed to his representation. He also stipulated that the fight be to the death and with Bowie knives only.
Legend has it that Pfieffer also demanded that both of them fight completely naked. (Some accounts say that they fought naked from the waist up only).
Whether the 44-year-old expat German was superior to the younger Navajo is questionable. But, again, legend has it that when the Navajo warrior saw the multitude of battle scars and gunshot wounds on the elder Pfeiffer, the younger fighter was quickly intimidated and just as quickly defeated by death. Thus Pfeiffer prevailed and gave the land to his beloved Utes.
Where to soak
Fact or fiction, it really doesn’t matter: the geothermal-based therapeutic waters pools in Pagosa Springs attract an international audience.
Today, there are three ways to test the waters – each has a different look and feel as well as price point. Save money by bringing your own towel and water bottle. And be sure to wear flip-flops as many of the walking areas are wet with slick surfaces.
Also, know that sulfuric hot springs have a tell-tale “rotten egg” smell, which is caused by sulfur dioxide gas escaping into the air. (The smell is mild compared to other hot springs I have visited.) So don’t even try to ask for a refund due to the smell because you will only look foolish!
1) My favorite is The Springs Resort & Spa (left), which is located smack on top of the mother sulfur springs. With 23 terraced pools overlooking the San Juan River, you can literally choose your view and your temperature, ranging from 83 to 114 degrees Fahrenheit. An adult-only “VIP” area is available for an additional fee. General Admission is $24.50 for adults, with discounts available for military personnel and seniors over 55. Hours are from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. An outdoor bar serves smoothies and drinks with light lunch and snack foods.
2) Overlook Springs features scenic rooftop tubs and five indoor pools in a Victorian-type setting. They also offer exclusive private tub rooms for intimate bookings as well as massages on site. Customers especially enjoy the selection of beers and wines as they relax and soak. Open seven days a week from 10 a.m. – 10 p.m. and till 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, the hot mineral baths cost $10 per person. The action's on the rooftop.
3) Healing Waters Resort & Spa. This is where the locals go. The $10 admission gives you use of a mineral water swimming pool, outdoor soaking tub and indoor hot baths. Open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., the place is rustic and, unfortunately, has seen better days. Service can also be spotty.
Afterwards, a massage can be just the right treatment. Though all the above offer massages and some spa services as well, my personal favorite is San Juan Sports Massage. I’ve had many massages in my life, including a memorable mud wrap massage at the Dead Sea, but this is the first where the operator had what I would call “healing hands.”
Suds, grub and more
All that soaking can build up an appetite. Fortunately, there’s no shortage of dining options in Pagosa Springs.
For an excellent selection of award-winning craft beers and pub food a step above the usual, try Pagosa Brewing Company for lunch or dinner. Try their Chili Verde Cerveza with the Sausage Sampler. Or try the Riff Raff Brewing Company for a full spectrum of craft beers and delicious goat and lamb burgers, as well as more traditional burgers.
For the best sushi in town, head for The View Restaurant at the Quality Resort. Chances are you might see pilots from the local airstrip sharing a mug over happy hour.
The best place in town for fine dining is The Alley House (). Their Colorado-style fusion cuisine features local products like the Grilled Colorado Rack of Lamb.
If you need a boxed lunch for a picnic on one of the scenic 4-wheel drive roads such as Piedra Road to Williams Creek Reservoir, head to the Pagosa Baking Company for the freshest and tastiest sandwiches in town.
And the best breakfast in town, hands down, is at the Elkwood Manor Luxury B&B. Of course, the catch is that you have to stay here to enjoy the full three-course gourmet breakfast as well as the complimentary wine and appetizers served every evening at 5 p.m. in the Elkwood Manor’s Wine Tasting Room. But it’s worth the splurge.