It is Week Three of our month-long discovery trip through western Colorado. My wife, three daughters, and I are water-soaked, wizened road warriors, more than halfway through our quest to visit every major hot springs in Colorado. The car smells like sulphur and campfires; bathing suits and towels are draped over seat backs and we are on our way to the next set of pools.
On this afternoon, we’re driving from Durango to Ouray on U.S. 550, the “Million Dollar Highway.” I swing our minivan around another sharp turn and, slowing down, admire one more set of nearby snow-capped peaks. The scenery is insane, but I pull my eyes from the road to scan the scene in the rear view mirror.
My 3-year-old daughter is out cold, her body cockeyed in her car seat; her older sisters, 6 and 8, are as mesmerized by the scenery as I am, coloring books ignored in their laps. With their tired, golden faces and mineral-soaked, quasi-dreaded hairdos, my wife next to me and my brood in the back all look like wild women.
They’re holding up well, I think, as I return my gaze to the climb before us. After all, it’s been a jam-packed trip. This past week alone, we spent two sublime nights at Teal Campground, jumped and splashed in the warm pools at Pagosa Springs, and saw a parade of motorcycles and munchkin horses in Durango. The hot springs got us out on the road, and as we looked for fun side trips, got us to a few guest ranches and rodeos as well.
The Colorado Historic Hot Springs Loop
It started, as so many historic journeys have, with a map. Handed to me in the basement of the old Boulder train station (now a chic bar-bistro called The Roadhouse Boulder Depot, of course). It was loud down there, and dark, but I could make out a rough, amoeba-shaped loop connecting five labeled towns: Steamboat Springs, Buena Vista, Pagosa Springs, Ouray and Glenwood Springs.
The loop actually consists of 19 hot springs, all clustered around the five destinations on the map. Some are small hotels, some are bigger, city-run operations; they’ve come together to launch a marketing campaign — part of which was to create this map to tempt travelers. Despite the common element of earth-heated water, each of the 19 properties, I knew, offered a completely different experience. They also offer accommodations from bare-bones campsites to luxury cabins and suites.
I’d been to a few of these spots in my travels before but I’d never tackled them all in a single, geothermal-driven road trip. As it happened, the map came with a challenge.
“I’ll do it,” I said, grabbing the piece of paper and already feeling the hot, mineral-rich water washing over me. My wife and I had been talking about a camping trip with the family this summer, but we hadn’t yet decided on a theme for the trip, a mission. Until now.
Customizing the tour
The basic loop is 720 miles long, or 14 hours total driving time, but there are all kinds of ways to adapt the trip to your own specs. You can split it into a northern or southern loop; you can choose full-on family friendly or more adult oriented; you can pick just one hot springs and book a week there; or, you can do what we did—hit as many springs as possible, staying only one to three nights at each one, and adding (dry) side trips between all the soaking sessions.
In the end, we created our own hot springs, horses and history tour, a feast of all things Colorado that lasted nearly a month and over 1,200 miles, mostly on backroads and scenic byways. (About the other two components of the trip: My daughters love horses, so whenever we had the chance for a trail ride we took it, and I love how much history is woven into these sites, no matter where we went.)
But, as I glanced again at my exhausted family behind me, I wondered again if we’d bitten off a bit more than we could chew. Was I teaching them how to travel? Or just running them into the ground?
We finally topped Red Mountain Pass, made it down to the Ouray KOA, and set up camp. I watched everyone liven up after sandwiches and juice boxes. Then we suited up in semi-damp bathing suits, smeared on the sunscreen, grabbed our floaty toys and headed into town.
One last soak
On the last night of the trip, I’m almost too tired to leave our room at Hotel Glenwood Springs for the short walk over the highway to the last place on my list. Our family had spent the afternoon at Yampah Spa and Vapor Caves, soaking in hot, deep tubs in a private room. They are all crashed out already and I am tired. But if I don’t pay a visit to Iron Mountain Hot Springs tonight, who will? I have a job to, so I rally out the door.
Despite the Saturday night crowds, I find a space among five other people in the hottest pool, 106 degrees. I sip on a cold Colorado-brewed beer and survey the scene: there are 15 other soaking pools around me, all blue-lit from beneath. The Colorado River runs in blackness below us; the truck and car traffic on I-70 flows nearby, and though I see the lights of the stream of vehicles, I can’t hear them because of the chill spa music in the speakers, the conversation and laughter and the sound of hot waterfalls flowing into the pools. It is serene.
I’m sure many of the people here are locals, from around here, from Denver, and surely many of them are just traveling through as well. And here we all are, relaxed, buoyant and saturated in water bubbling from the mountain.
If you go: On the trail of historic hot springs…
We began our loop at Old Town Hot Springs in downtown Steamboat Springs, where a sign by the “heart of the earth” thermal spring quoted the Koran: “by means of water we give life to everything.” Part family water park, part naturally landscaped hot pools, and part community rec center, Old Town is right across the street from Rabbit Ears Motel next to the Yampah River. From there, we drove 8 miles north and pitched a tent in one of four campsites at Strawberry Park Hot Springs. No cell service. No WiFi. Just the five of us, bobbing together where hot meets cold. You can also stay in a covered wagon or train caboose.
At Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort, we stayed in a spacious creekside cabin, down the road from a variety of soaking options at this history-rich vacation spot. Our favorite was the upper pool with its 400-foot waterslide and view of several high peaks. The hot side holes on Chalk Creek were unique too, little bath puddles next to rushing snowmelt.
There are three options in town, all downtown near the San Juan River, and all fed by the world’s deepest geothermal hot spring. The Springs Resort & Spa has no less than 23 hot mineral pools, including a bigger splash pool where my kids spent six straight hours; they’ve also got a range of on-site rooms and suites. Next time we’re here, we’ll check out the other two options: Overlook Hot Springs Spa and Healing Waters Resort & Spa.
Easily the parental favorite of our trip, Orvis Hot Springs, located a few miles north of Ouray, was the smallest, quietest, and most private of all the springs we visited. Our kids’ complaint: “There was nothing to do except sit there!” Yes! It’s (mostly) clothing optional and has a designated smoking pool. More to our children’s liking was the Ouray Hot Springs Pool & Fitness Center, which has large shallow areas and slides, and is about to get a massive, multi-million-dollar makeover and renovation in the next year.
We saved the state’s most well-known, mineral rich and accessible hot spring options for last. Glenwood Hot Springs has the world’s largest geothermal pool next to its iconic bathhouse building and high-end spa. Down the block, descend into the Yampah Spa & Vapor Caves; it’s like walking into some medieval dungeon, but with hot, therapeutic steam rising out of the rocky floor. Finally, Iron Mountain Hot Springshas 16 soaking pools overlooking the Colorado River, as well as a café serving food, beer and wine and a happening scene at night.