By Linda Cornett
The geologic violence that gave Colorado its majestic topography left behind a benign gift that has comforted humans for millennia. The state doesn’t claim the largest number of natural hot springs in the country, but does offer a unique combination of relaxing heat and healthful minerals set amid stunning scenery, almost as though the hot springs themselves preferred natural beauty.
The disparate springs share a common history, offering ad hoc bathing to humans who passed by, then becoming a destination for nomadic tribes that enjoyed the hot pools for healing as well as pleasure. European settlers were also drawn to the springs and began exploiting the experience for tourism in the mid- to late-1800s, creating pools, building grand hotels and adding on spa amenities to tempt celebrities and other travelers taking advantage of the railroads spreading like tentacles through the region.
The springs vary in temperature from the high 90s to the low 100s and draw a wide variety of minerals from the rock they pass through. Amenities vary from picnic tables and tent sites to luxurious spas and pricey lodges.
Every list of natural hot springs in Colorado begins with Glenwood Hot Springs about 160 miles west of Denver. The journey by car on Interstate 70 or by train through the gorgeous Glenwood Canyon is a big part of the appeal. Built in 1888, the Glenwood Springs pool is the largest hot springs pool in the world. It’s certainly large enough to accommodate soaking and floating, lap swimming, water slides, bubble massages and the occasional Marco Polo game. An even hotter therapy pool is adjacent.
Across the Colorado River are the Yampah Vapor Caves. The name was supplied by the Utes who originally lived in the area; the word means Big Medicine. Visitors follow stairs down into interconnecting caves filled with mineral-rich (34 minerals have been identified) vapors rising from the 125-degree water flowing beneath the caves. It’s a quiet experience, filled with the sound of hot water flowing and cool water poured on overheated visitors.
Other notable natural hot springs include:
- just outside Steamboat Springs: The rustic retreat offers a series of interconnected pools created by manmade stone walls. The hillside that rises behind is populated with rustic cabins, covered wagons, tipis and tent sites for guests who want to stay overnight. Watsu aquatic and table massage are offered and after dark the pools are adult only and clothing optional.
- in Steamboat Springs: The eight developed pools look like a water park but are fed by hot springs. There are two waterslides, a lap pool, massages, and a fitness center offering exercise classes and tennis courts for the energetic visitor.
- in Idaho Springs, 32 miles west of Denver: A mineral pool under a huge dome is surrounded by tropical plants. Manmade caves, one for men and one for women, offer a series of small walk-in sunken tubs for soaking (no children, bathing suits optional). Outdoor jacuzzis and private indoor rooms with individual tubs and an adults-only Club Mud for smearing on and rinsing off mineral-laden mud round out the offerings.
- near Granby 100 miles west of Denver: Robust hot springs feed 21 mineral pools, including private pools. In addition to table massage the spa offers specialties like raindrop therapy, hot rock massage, reflexology, shiatsu, acupressure, herbal wraps and more.
- at Pagosa Springs 90 miles west of Alamosa near the southern edge of the state: Twenty-three soaking pools are fed by a “mother spring” that, at more than 1,000 feet, is considered the deepest geothermal hot spring in the world. A cliff, painted brightly by minerals and steaming from the hot water flowing over its curves, rises above the pools.
- in Ouray, 100 miles south of Grand Junction: Reflecting its European cousin, the spa is quiet and relaxating. In addition to an outdoor soaking pool, there is a vapor cave with a shallow soaking pool. The spa has a strict no-smoking policy, turning away anyone who admits to having smoked in the previous three months.
- 100 miles west of Colorado Springs: The pools that line (and lie within) Chalk Creek offer a variety of experiences from soaking to exercising to resting under cascading falls. A 400-foot water slide adds a bit of adrenalin to the mix.
- near the small town of Ridgeway, 27 miles south of Montrose: Seven hot pools include a natural pond with a pebble bottom. Among the natural minerals in the water is lithium, which regulars say produces a mood of tranquility. Four outdoor pools are clothing optional, as are two private pools. Suits are required at the indoor public pool.