I have been visiting Colorado since I first passed through on childhood road trips. I’ve come to know the state from many angles of adventure, from the adrenaline rushes of offroading in Grand Junction to white-water kayaking in the Crystal River. Last summer’s visit was no different, beginning with stand-up paddling in Boulder and ending with an exhausting hike up the tallest dune in North America at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
Through the years, I’ve stumbled across a few natural hot springs, which range from hippie, clothing-optional pools to family-friendly resorts. But it wasn’t until my most recent trip that I realized how much soaking is part of Colorado culture. It’s a difficult life: You play hard, you relax hard.
“People like to soak after an adventure,” said Deborah Frazier, author of “Colorado’s Hot Springs.” “They’re a great tonic after a terribly physically fit day.”
With the creation of its tourism initiative, the Colorado Historic Hot Springs Loop, the Rocky Mountain state has made it easy to plan a hot-springs visit, whether it’s following an adventure or as a stand-alone trip. The 722-mile scenic route features hot springs in five regions of Western Colorado, each with its own culture and vibe. Some soaks are serene, set under the stars, while others are lively, with waterslides and Marco Polo players.
Hot springs are linked to claims of therapeutic benefits from their geothermally heated groundwater and all-but guarantee that you’ll leave rejuvenated and free of stress. As locals explain, members of the Ute Indian Tribe would travel for days to reach what they considered to be miracle waters; some springs are still used for ceremonial purposes.
Colorado has hundreds of hot springs, Frazier said, but only 93 are large enough for a soak and 46 are accessible to the public year-round. Of those, 19 are in the loop, which makes a circle though five areas: Chaffee County, Pagosa Springs, Ouray County, Glenwood Springs and Steamboat Springs. Many are surrounded by national forests or wilderness areas, and all are near ski destinations and hiking trails, making them perfectly situated for relaxing after an active day .
Keep in mind that these 19, which all have a day-pass fee or resort fee, are fairly accessible by car compared with some other hot springs, which may require hikes. Among the most remote in the state: a free hot spring on public land known as Conundrum, which requires a 17-mile round-trip hike with 2,500 feet of elevation.
Hot springs come in various flavors, and with a little research, you’ll find a good match. Many are located at resorts with full spa and dining services, but others are bare-bones.
Among the 19, many are family friendly. Glenwood Hot Springs Resort is located between Aspen and Vail on the Colorado River and claims to have the world’s largest hot-springs pool — 405 feet long and 100 feet wide. At 90 degrees, it’s warm for swimming laps (I tried after kayaking) but heaven in the winter and — with two waterslides — a fun spot for kids.
The Historic Bath House at Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort, just south of Buena Vista, also caters to kids, with a 400-foot waterslide, a big outdoor fireplace and a 90-degree exercise pool. The resort also has a soaking pool, kept at 105 degrees, and creekside hot springs, a more private option where you can enjoy starlight soaks.
For utter privacy during your soak, head to Chaffee County, which includes Buena Vista, Nathrop and Salida, and runs along the Continental Divide. Here, you will discover three of the most secluded hot springs open to the public: Alpine Hot Springs Hideaway, a vacation home surrounded by ponderosa pines and the Chalk Cliffs; Antero Hot Springs, with two log cabins and a larger mountain chalet, all with private soaking tubs; and Creekside Hot Springs cabin and soaking pool, both of which can accommodate eight.
You’ll find more traditional clothing-optional soaking at Orvis Hot Springs in Ridgway, which has several ponds and waterfalls strategically positioned . The seven soaking areas range in temperature: the “Lobster Pot” averages between 108 and 114 degrees. Four of the areas are outside, so you can enjoy views of soaring Mount Sneffels as you soak.
A few Colorado friends agreed that Strawberry Park Hot Springs, just outside Steamboat Springs — and adults-only after dark — is among the favorites for what one pal calls “textile-free” soaks. It’s also a good option if you prefer a tub rather than a swimming pool.
The setting is rustic, and you can choose from a number of pools, moving around until you find one you like. An icy cold creek on the opposite side of a rock wall can be refreshing after a hot soak.
Before May and after November, you’ll need a vehicle with four-wheel drive and snow tires to reach Strawberry Park, and they only accept cash and checks for payment. It’s on the list for my next visit. There, visitors can take the plunge with something called Watsu aquatic therapy. My own private massage therapist in a hot spring? Sounds like a fine way to end every physically exhausting day.
1. Ask the doc: If you’re elderly, pregnant or have medical conditions, check with your physician before you soak. Avoid the pools if you have open wounds.
2. Stay hydrated: The elevation of Colorado and physical exertion will dehydrate you, and hot water — plus perspiring — will do so further. Drink plenty of fresh water before, during and after a soak. Glass is generally prohibited around hot springs, but you can take water in a plastic or metal container.
3. Keep an eye on the clock: Fifteen-minute soaks are recommended, especially if you’re new at this and don’t know how your body will react. If you soak longer, take frequent breaks. It’s not unusual to feel tired after a soak, so factor in rest time afterward.
4. Know the rules before you go: At most of the hot springs, food, alcohol, tobacco and drugs and are prohibited. Generally, hot springs don’t allow dogs on the grounds.
5. Take appropriate attire: Unless otherwise stated as clothing-optional, wear a bathing suit and bring a towel; many spots have towel and/or robe rentals. Proper etiquette: Shower before you enter the water.
6. Be safe: Enter and exit the pools slowly to adjust to the change of temperature and avoid slipping. Keep in mind that smaller pools and soaking areas typically don’t have a lifeguard on duty. You may be asked to sign a liability waver.
7. Rules on children vary: Some hot springs don’t allow children at all; some require adult supervision; some require them to vacate the area after dark (which is usually code for clothing-optional at night).
8. Be prepared for discoloration and tarnishing: Natural mineral waters are rich in iron, so veteran soakers suggest wearing an old bathing suit and removing all jewelry before soaking.
Kaplan is a writer based in the District. Her website is melaniedgkaplan.com.
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The Colorado Historic Hot Springs Loop is a circle of 19 hot springs along 720 miles of Colorado Scenic Byways in the western part of the state. The springs are in five resort areas, and hitting every spot on the loop would take around a week or more. The hot springs range from aquatic centers, like Salida Hot Springs Pool, to rustic and intimate spots, like Strawberry Park Hot Springs. Many are surrounded by national forests or wilderness areas, and all are near ski destinations and hiking trails. A map of the loop and details on each of the hot springs can be found at colorado.com/hotspringsloop. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.