The Love and Madness of Hot Springs in the West

The best springs are still wild, though technology is making them far less so. Locals in mountain towns do their best to keep their pools off Tripadvisor and top-ten travel listicles. The oft-debated question—Is Instagram ruining wild places?—comes to a head at hot springs. The answer is: yes, sometimes. The thousands of #natureporn images clogging our feeds are making them must-visit destinations, which, of course, I understand. But the small patches of wild where springs often reside just can’t handle 100-plus visitors a day. Especially when that level of traffic results in left-behind trash, a trampled forest, untethered dogs, and illegal campsites.

At the Conundrum Hot Springs, tucked high in Colorado’s Elk Mountains at an altitude of 12,000 feet, a permit system was activated in 2018 for the first time in the site’s history. According to the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, the 100-degree pool, which measures roughly 20 by 20 feet, was seeing upward of 200 to 300 campers a night in peak season prior to 2018. A High Country News story from 2017 reported that visitation increased nearly fourfold from 2006 to 2015. Today you have to go online and vie for a permit months in advance to camp there—and even then most don’t get lucky. Those who do are frequently met with surroundings dirtied by the usual discarded items, left there by visitors who don’t view themselves as stewards of a wild thing but passers-through going for quick-hit recreation. Maybe some mistake a hot spring’s elusive qualities—their well-calibrated temperatures and perfectly shaped pools—for something more familiar, like a private hot tub. 

There’s a series of hot springs I’ve been to a few times on the banks of the Colorado River, a three-mile hike from the highway. The pools fill up a narrow slot canyon, the kind you’d consider amazing even if it didn’t contain the springs. The trail starts out dry and barren, but the landscape changes considerably the more you descend into the river basin. Green emerges, and the coolness of the mighty river washes across your face. The pools at the source of the springs are extremely hot, around 110 degrees or more, but as water flows down the constrictions, filling up other depressions, those cool considerably, to 98 degrees or so. Salt to taste, as they say, regarding optimal warmth. I like the third pool—not painful, not lukewarm coffee.

On my first visit, a few friends and I stumbled onto a ménage à trois in the second pool, with what I can only assume were professionals in the local… entertainment business, judging by the peculiarly firm roundness of a few of the body parts on display. The candles flickering light onto the pool’s natural rock shelves gave the impression we had entered a vampire’s love nest. It was a calm night, the air still and mystic, the stars braggadocious. We headed to another pool to give them some privacy. 

Years later I returned to the same place. Visiting the springs again was a must. My wife, Christy, and I botched the approach and hiked clear to the Colorado River without finding a thing. We skinny-dipped instead. When I’d visited that first time, there wasn’t an official trailhead with placards and the whole shebang. This trip, however, what was once a little dirt pullout had become a full-fledged parking lot, and because I was looking for a dirt road, I drove right past it. There was now a sign cautioning that deadly bacterium had been found in the pools, and that you shouldn’t submerge your head in the water, possibly a sign of the hot spring fighting back against its overuse. 

Our second attempt, the following day, was a success. We arrived at dusk, wine and chocolate in hand, and as the red-gray shadows turned black, we floated in perfect animal pleasure. The desert stars filled the slit of the canyon’s berth as we soaked. We cooled our bodies by lying half in, half out, our skin marinating in both the netherworld and the heavens. We whispered to one another and squeezed the eroded sand with our toes. Slowly, the other soakers packed up and returned to their cars, and we had the place to ourselves. 

There comes a point in every dip when I wonder how places like this exist, and imagine the water making its way to where I sit, surrounded by the heat of the earth.


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