Pagosa Springs: Hops, History & Healing

There’s a little town in Southwest Colorado where treasures run deeper than the seemingly-bottomless geothermal hot springs burbling to the delight of soakers and sulfur-smell lovers alike (okay, maybe only a handful of people enjoy the smell of rotten eggs, but the minerals found in these rich waters make up in healing properties what they lack in perfume).  

Long before Pagosa Springs became an official town in 1891, Native Americans had been flocking to these odiferous pools for the soothing health benefits of curing diseases, relieving sore muscles, restoring balance to the soul and a hundred tiny other perks of kicking back for a bit. The Ute Indians named it ‘Pah-gosah,’ which means “water with bad smell.” 

More than interesting aromas, the Pagosa region sits along the banks of the San Juan River, whose headwaters trickle from the Continental Divide framing the horizon to the north of town. With three million acres of wilderness surrounding Pagosa Springs, a visit to the springs feels like a step back in time to the wild, wild West. 

Built on trading and ranching, Pagosa Springs evolved into a bona fide mountain town with the arrival of miners. The hardrockers would spend days on end toiling in the high places, shouldering boulders and the burdens of making ends meet at the mercy of what the mountains may or may not reveal. Whenever they’d get paid, they’d hurry to town, pockets jingling with money ready to be spent on food, feminine company, and other refreshments. 

With the arrival of the railroad in the early 1900s, the town began its transformation from dusty and derelict to a more sophisticated retreat destination attracting more affluent travelers, like John Wayne and other Hollywood icons. Fast forward to 2018, when the appeal of Pagosa Springs has changed very little, with both residents and visitors alike still gravitating toward the region for its tranquility, jaw-dropping beauty and nurturing waters. 

Like most Colorado mountain towns, Pagosa Springs offers something different throughout the seasons. The only question that remains is how will you adventure? 

In winter, Wolf Creek Ski Area sits supremely aloft in a mysterious vortex that seems to get snowstorms even when the surrounding San Juan Mountains are barely receiving a dusting. Powder hounds flock to the rugged terrain for its guaranteed adventure, charming remoteness and the potential for the best skiing of their lives.

Other wintertime outings include snowmobiling, snowshoeing, ice fishing, backcountry skiing and hut trips in the pine-studded wonderland (Of course, no chilly outing is complete till it’s been capped off with a soak in the springs and a hot toddy). For the ultimate coziness, book a cabin at the Fireside Inn and relax beside the – you guessed it – fireside with a good book. 

As the snow melts to Spring, the San Juan River swells to a rushing torrent ideal for rafting and kayaking. The fun peaks in June when the carefully-crafted whitewater park dappling the river’s in-town course takes on a life of its own, providing smiles and hoots-and-hollers from the colorful parade of river runners. Checkout Pagosa Outside for more information on trips that’ll fit your family’s style and speed. 

The nice thing about living barely over 7,000 feet above sea level is that the trails dry out a little sooner than in the high country. This means hiking, mountain biking, and trail running can be experienced almost year-round. From Reservoir Hill in the heart town to Turkey Springs loop trails on the outskirts of town, get your fill of singletrack – or enjoy an afternoon playing disc golf. 

As the last of the snow thaws, a carpet of green climbs from town toward the alpine, animating meadows by mid-July with an orchestra of wildflowers and happy wildlife. No less than 25 waterfalls can be accessed in a short drive, with adventures ranging from a short hike to Treasure Falls to more remote day hikes leading to the world’s most perfect picnic spots. 

Summer is also festival season in Pagosa Springs. From the Cruise-A-Thong to the Four Corners Folk Festival, you never know what you’ll find, but cold beer, good tunes, and costumes are almost always a guarantee (Check out visitpagosasprings.com for upcoming events and concerts. The visitor center located near The Springs Resort is also a helpful stop when you first arrive in town). 

With the approach of fall, green fades to gold and the hills come alive with the Rockies most valuable resource: aspen leaves. Whether you choose to hike in the San Juan National Forest or take a drive up Wolf Creek Pass to the Continental Divide, do not forget your camera. This spectacular time of year is hard to predict and depends on several climatic factors but can usually be experienced toward the end of September. 

Alley House Rack of Lamb

The end of September also marks your last chance to take a guided hike with the interpreters at Chimney Rock National Monument just west of town. These Ancestral Puebloan ruins are open to the public beginning in mid-May and are positively one of the most enlightening excursions in the region. History comes to life at the base of a sandstone hoodoo towering over evergreens as you learn about the Native’s fascination with the stars, sun, and moon. For a real treat, time your outing with the summer solstice, an eclipse or any other heavenly phenomena. Mind-blowing storytelling awaits. 

Whatever the season and adventure you choose, your journey will probably lead back to downtown Pagosa Springs, where a host of delicious restaurants, breweries, and even a malt shop await to fill your belly and make your taste buds sing. Savor breakfast at The Rose (the green chili is the uncontested best in the region, according to locals), fish tacos at Kip’s and live music at Riff Raff Brewing, which is powered by the geothermal forces surging underground. 

For a grab-n-go lunch, swing by the Pagosa Baking Company or snag an acai bowl at the Honest Food & Juice Co. just west of downtown. For the opposite of antioxidants, saunter into the Pagosa Bar to rub elbows with some of Pagosa’s finest characters. Or to church it up a bit, book a table at the Alley House for the roasted lamb rack and some wild mushroom risotto. 

Riff Raff Brewing

All the while, lingering in the background of your visit, the irresistible wafts of “pah-gosah” will leave you pining for a soak. Whether you want the open-air options offered by The Springs Resort & Spa, the quaintness of the Healing Waters Resort & Spa, or the views from the Overlook Mineral Springs Spa, ponder the notion that even the Guinness Book of World Records doesn’t know how deep these geothermal pools go. 

So come for the soak, stay for the hops and green chili, and get excited to experience one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets. 

by Joy Elizabeth Martin


~ Mountain Town Magazine

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