Hermosa Pagosa

Leah LeMoineJanuary 11, 2023
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Soaking in a pool at The Springs Resort overlooking the San Juan River; Photo courtesy The Springs Resort
Soaking in a pool at The Springs Resort overlooking the San Juan River; Photo courtesy The Springs Resort
Healing hot springs anchor a wellness-minded retreat in Pagosa Springs, Colorado.

“If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.” Those words, from anthropologist Loren Eiseley, echo in my mind like a mantra as the autumn sun sets over the San Juan River and the 25 pools that dapple The Springs Resort (pagosahotsprings.com) in Pagosa Springs, Colorado. I’m on my first press trip since the advent of the pandemic, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s centered on healing. And water. I am a
Pisces, after all.

Pagosa Springs is a quaint little town (2021 population: 1,631) about 300 miles southwest of Denver. It sprung up around a hot spring after a settler “discovered” the water source in the late 1800s. Of course, the spring had been in use by the indigenous Ute people for millennia, with a magical origin story of its own.

“The legend is that the Ute tribe was plagued by a sickness that the best medicine men could not cure. So, they held a bonfire one night and rallied around the bonfire, said prayers, danced around it and fell asleep,” says Jesse Hensle, director of marketing and sales at The Springs. “When they woke up in the morning, there was a pool that was bubbling with hot water. The elders came and soaked in that water the next couple of days, and it cured their ailments, cured their sickness. And from there this has consistently been a place of rejuvenation, rehabilitation, recovery and just coming together.” 

Those “R” words sound great – I could use all of them after finally succumbing to COVID a couple of months ago, after two years of white-knuckled caution. I’m still having trouble focusing, breathing and going more than two minutes without coughing. It’s the “coming together” part that has me on edge as I contemplate spending the next few days with a slew of journalists from around the country. I haven’t been around this many strangers for this many days in actual years. And now I have to do it in a swimsuit?

Getting There

American Airlines (aa.com) offers direct flights from Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to Durango-La Plata County Airport. Pagosa Springs is about an hour’s drive from Durango by rental car or shuttle. Or take a roughly eight-hour road trip from Phoenix.

Golden Pond Bridge at The Springs Resort; Photo courtesy The Springs Resort
Golden Pond Bridge at The Springs Resort; Photo courtesy The Springs Resort
Meeting the Mother

Thankfully, there’s a calming presence just outside the lobby of the lodge, the main building of The Springs. She’s the reason we’re all here, the reason the whole town is here. The Mother Spring is the deepest geothermal spring in the world. Guinness World Records verifiers measured 1,002 feet to establish the record and ran out of plumb line, not bothering to go deeper until a challenger comes along. So, she could be even longer. At her current measurement, she’s deeper than the Hoover Dam is tall. You could fit three Statues of Liberty inside her.

The Mother hovers around a scalding 140 degrees Fahrenheit, emitting swirls of steam that look otherworldly. She supplies the resort’s hodgepodge network of pools with thousands of gallons of unfiltered water – regulated by a system of valves – every second. She also generates enough geothermal energy to heat the lodge, the resort’s grow domes, the local high school and nearby government buildings. With her high sulfur content, she is a little stanky – but everyone loves her so much, they give her a pass.

“This water bubbles up to the surface artisanally,” says Dr. Marcus Coplin, The Springs’ medical director and a leading expert in balneotherapy, the use of therapeutic thermal mineral bathing. “That’s not always the case. Sometimes you have to pump it up, sometimes you have to drill for it. I think it speaks to the history and mythology behind it all. There’s something really magical and beautiful about water that comes to the surface [naturally].”

Though our visit takes place in early October, the resort and its pools enjoy year-round crowds, Hensle says, thanks to the aquifer’s continual supply of hot water. In the winter, guests bundle up in robes and scuttle between the pools, ever more grateful for their steamy embrace. Soaking is a popular recovery ritual for skiers from nearby Wolf Creek Ski Area.

AquaZen massage with David Dolan at The Springs Resort; Photo courtesy The Springs Resort
AquaZen massage with David Dolan at The Springs Resort; Photo courtesy The Springs Resort

We end our first day in Pagosa with an aqua sound bath experience (an in-pool guided meditation with sound bowls) and begin the next with aqua yoga. Both are included in the room rate, along with other wellness classes and experiences. (Non-resort guests can purchase day passes for soaking and other activities.) The warmth and buoyancy that the water provides make the all-level Vinyasa-based class a gentle way to greet the morning.

After a quick change and breakfast, we drive to nearby Respite Ranch for a short hike and then wild yoga for some folks, “hang time” for others. I choose the latter, a sound bath meditation in a hammock. It’s my first time forest bathing, or mindfully observing nature in reverent silence. I brought a book, but I don’t even open it. I just gaze at the swaying branches above and feel the cold breeze waft through the trees and across my face. I truly lose track of time, and I can’t remember the last time that happened.

I reluctantly return to reality, but am comforted by a lunch of fish tacos at Kip’s Grill (kipsgrill.com), a haunt for locals. The comfort continues at The Springs’ spa, where I get a Magnesium Muscle Melt Massage. Magnesium is one of the Mother Spring’s 13 minerals, and the treatment echoes the muscle- and joint-soothing properties of her waters. It ends with hydrating body butter, so don’t hit the soaking pools right after this treatment – you don’t want to wash away all that moisture.

Out on the Town

We venture into downtown Pagosa to meet Evelyn Tennyson and Vickie Thompson, owner and gallery manager, respectively, of Two Old Crows Gallery (twooldcrowsps.com) and adjoining 462 Gallery. They showcase the work of local artists, including Wayne Justus (waynejustus.com), who in his youth was a cowboy in Arizona. Now he’s an incredibly gifted watercolor and oil painter who specializes in Western scenes. And he’s the spiffiest dresser I’ve met in a long time, with a pressed long-sleeve button-up, bolo tie, silk kerchief, spotless cowboy hat, natty boots, and spurs and belt buckle shined to a high gloss. Over wine and charcuterie, we chat about cowboy art and how much Scottsdale has changed since he was a young man.

The cowboy vibes persist, albeit in a kitschier fashion, at Ole Miner’s Steak & Chophouse (oleminers.com), a one-time trading post that in the 1970s was transformed into a mining-themed restaurant. The booths look and feel like mining and train cars, and antiques cover every surface, including the walls. We enjoy a special tasting menu of mushroom broth, crab-stuffed artichokes, beef Wellington and chocolate cake, along with the restaurant’s signature cornbread. I’d planned on soaking after dinner, since the pools are available 24 hours a day to resort guests, but I’m so stuffed I roll into bed instead.

combo plate at Tequila’s Restaurant & Cocktails overlooking the San Juan River; Photo by Leah LeMoine
combo plate at Tequila’s Restaurant & Cocktails overlooking the San Juan River; Photo by Leah LeMoine
Water Therapy

Another day, another aquatic beginning. Coplin leads us in a Water + Wellness session, discussing the many ways thermal mineral soaking can help treat maladies ranging from eczema to chronic pain. “You have to look at the water as a whole medicine, a whole entity,” he says. “It’s not the reductionist parts, it’s the synergy of it all together that creates the effect.” Coplin joined the resort in 2022 to bolster the medical side of its programming. “There’s a lot of messaging that gets diluted on the internet,” he says. “We’re trying to cut through that when it comes to hot spring medicine.” He’s developed science-based soaking guides to help guests get the most out of their soaks.

“It gives them a language for their experience. Guests go through [the various pools, each at a different temperature] and they feel which spring resonates with them,” he says. “Now they have a language for why that might be. I think it really does enhance that experience.”

It certainly enhances our Mother’s Mud experience as we slather ourselves with mineral-rich mud and let it dry in the October sun (mud therapy is seasonal until the resort’s expansion is complete in 2025 – it currently runs from late May through mid-October). As the mud hardens to a crackle on my skin, I continue to meditate on the healing powers – literal and metaphorical – of water as I listen to the river rush by. We rinse off in a pool that’s partially fed by warm spring water and partially fed by the chilly river. It’s an amuse-bouche for our next activity: the Warrior Plunge.

This contrast bathing ritual involves warming the body for several minutes in a soaking pool and then walking down to the river – a nippy 50 degrees today – and dunking yourself. You submerge for one full, teeth-chattering minute, breathing through the panicky impulse to get out of the water now now now. You return to land, let your body come to homeostasis with the outside temperature, and then repeat the process at least twice more. It’s intense, but invigorating. Ordinarily, I prize comfort above all else, and yet I find myself wanting to plunge back into the cold water. Sometimes I surprise myself.

I’m not surprised by how moved I am by the Gratitude Ceremony, a daily ritual held at the Mother Spring to thank her for her gift of water and to ruminate on what we’re grateful for in our own lives. We write what we want to take with us from this trip on pieces of rice paper, then put them in little jars full of sulfurous spring water and watch them dissolve. We keep the jars as souvenirs.

After a break for a gluttonous farewell dinner of fried cauliflower, crispy pork belly, truffle fries, street corn and shrimp scampi at Alley House Grille (alleyhousegrille.com), I pull on my swimsuit one more time for a farewell soak with Coplin and some of the other journalists. We talk about the springs, of course, and what each pool we visit’s temperature is doing to our systems. But we also talk about our life paths, our partners, our families, our homes. It’s so nice to get to know new people again – to be together. And I haven’t coughed in hours, so that’s a start.

Pagosa from Above

Take in the remote beauty of the San Juan trio – Mountains, River and National Forest – from a toasty perch in a hot-air balloon with Rocky Mountain Balloon Adventures (pagosaviews.com). After the tour, the crew provides a Champagne celebration (or juice, for kids and teetotalers) complete with a skit explaining the history of hot-air ballooning, a flight certificate and treats.

Photo by Leah LeMoine
Photo by Leah LeMoine
Ancestral Puebloan structures at Chimney Rock National Monument; Photo by Leah LeMoine
Ancestral Puebloan structures at Chimney Rock National Monument; Photo by Leah LeMoine
Must Hike: Chimney Rock

If you’re visiting in the summer, you can retrace the steps of the ancestral Puebloans of Chaco Canyon with a guided tour of Chimney Rock National Monument (open May 15-September 30, chimneyrockco.org). Chimney Rock’s dual sandstone formations together are the only natural indicator in the world of the major lunar standstill (MLS), an astronomic event that happens every 18.6 years. MLS programming begins in 2023.