Southwest Colorado Soaks

Rainbow Hot Springs
By Deborah Frazier
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You'll need a good soak, but you may have to stand in line for a place in the pool. The trail ends about 200 feet above the two terraced pools set in the rock beside the river like small, perfect diamonds. With sandy bottoms, the pools are waist-high when you are sitting.

Where Is It: Weminuche Wilderness Area in the San Juan National Forest

Good to Know: No charge; clothing optional; primitive wilderness location

Getting There: From Pagosa Springs, take U.S. 160 northeast for 18 miles to the sign for the West Fork Campground, which is on the west side of the highway. The West Fork Campground is on the southwest side of Wolf Creek Pass. Take the West Fork Campground road for 6.9 miles to the West Fork Trailhead. The last mile or so of the road may be closed for construction. To get to the spring is an 8- to 10-mile hike round-trip, depending on the road closures, with a 1,200-foot elevation gain going in. It's difficult. Allow five to eight hours for the round-trip hike.

The smaller pool is set up on the rock face in a sliver carved out of the stone With room for about three, it offers a nice river view and the proper perspective for contemplating the fissure from which the 104-degree springs pour. It's too warm for long periods of contemplation.

The lower pool, which seats about eight, is a hot-tubbers fantasy. The rock wall allows for temperature control, and smooth flat rocks along the side are perfect for sitting while dangling sore feet in the pool. A tiny pool to one side is perfect for solo bathing. And it's a hop, skip, and a jump into the West Fork of the San Juan River for a brisk cooldown. As with all public springs, the pools change with the energy and building skills of the visitors.

About the people. Horse trips come to the springs, as do hunters, folks on snowshoes and on cross-country skis. For years the difficulty of fording the river controlled the crowds, but after a backpacker drowned, the U.S. Forest Service built two bridges and improved access.

At the end of the difficult hike up on an August Sunday, this intrepid hot springs seeker was astonished to find more than a dozen tents, three with barking dogs. There were another dozen tents outside the main camping area. As for most wilderness areas, the Forest Service doesn't require backcountry permits for campers at Rainbow Hot Springs.

Which is all to say that it's lovely, but don't count on anything like a pristine wilderness experience.

The trip in is grueling, a challenge for the hardiest hiker. The trail varies from a four-wheel-drive road to a 2-inch rock ledge. There's a steep section through scree (loose rock). And after the Weminuche Wilderness Area sign shortly after the residential area, signs are scarce, but horseback trips to the springs and hordes of hikers have left a fairly clear trail.

The first mile of trail, which starts at Born Lake, winds through a neighborhood of summer cabins. The owners have heavily embellished the forest with private-property signs and a wealth of signs for Rainbow Trail with arrows. Off to the left, the emerald lake beckons, surrounded by more "Private Property" signs.

In 1995 the hike was 10 miles because the road was closed two places below Born Lake. Homeowners, going to and fro while moving the portable "Closed" sign, admonished hikers about the dangers of the road ahead. Hikers tackling the extra miles noticed road work, but the road was passable. Of course, the closure did cut down significantly on traffic past residences.

At the end of the residential area, about a mile from the gate at Born Lake, the trail snakes through deep piney woods, aspen groves, banks of wildflowers, crowds of ferns, a throng of towering skunk cabbage, and across three bridges.

The second and third bridges are recent. For years, the river decided who reached the hot springs. Spring runoff, which sometimes lasts until August in high snowpack years, once dissuaded many hot springs seekers who chose not to ford a chest-high river of ice water. The river carried many of the foolhardy dozens of feet downstream.

At the bridges, the river smiles in deep blue pools, pale green shallows, and frothy white falls. Trout flutter in shady sand-bottomed sections. The trail and river entwine. Right after the last bridge there's a nasty half-mile of trail that shoots upward in a 15 and 20 percent grade, warning the traveler that the remaining 2 miles won't be a walk in the park. There are sections of muddy bogs, narrow goat trails along a rock face, and steep climbs. Although there's a net 1,000-foot elevation gain, there's enough up-and-down to convince hikers' carves that the gross gain is closer to 2,000 feet.

Since the early 1990s, teams of biologists have spent summer weeks and months in the Weminuche Wilderness searching for grizzlies. The last known grizzly in Colorado was killed decades ago by a hunting guide, and no grizzly has been spotted—officially—since. Bear-sighting stories abound, but the biologists have found no evidence, so far, of bears. But many are convinced the grizzly is alive and well somewhere in the thousands of acres of the Weminuche Wilderness. Prints in the sandy shores along the river report of deer, elk, and a variety of small furry wildlife with long nails.

The last mile seems the longest. At one point, the trail divides. The left fork is labeled Continental Divide, the right is Beaver Creek/Beaver Meadows. There's no mention of Rainbow Hot Springs. Take the left. Better still, pack a San Juan National Forest map.

No sign marks the springs, but the "tentopolis" with rockrimmed fire circles says you're there.

The riverside pools sparkle like small perfect diamonds set in dark stone. During runoff, the river claims the pools and the spring pours down the rock to join the raucous flow.

Linger long and gently. There's no book of etiquette for hot springs, but those who possess a wilderness ethic can spot lots of violations to basic Forest Service wilderness rules: People in the pools using soap to wash their hair, clothing, and dishes. Who wants to soak in someone's used bath water? And even worse— dogs in the springs. People without dogs gag at the thought of sharing a hot springs soak with someone else's dog. Some people with dogs gag at the thought, too.

Geology's blessing prevents camping at Rainbow, but the late summer scent around the camping area indicated a few people didn't follow Forest Service wilderness rules about human waste— bury it a foot deep and carry out the toilet paper (in a sealed plastic bag).

As any Forest Service wilderness ranger can attest, there's steady work in educating the public. Passing along the good word on hot springs care and preservation is one way to thank the geothermal gods.

Heal from the journey and rejuvenate for future forays. Listen to the river's wisdom about comings and goings and not fighting the flow. Cherish the place and the time. As the years grow, so will the crowds. Your time here is the good old days.

© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 22 Jun 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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