Southwest Colorado Soaks

Piedra River Hot Springs
By Deborah Frazier
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Piedra River Hot Springs
The archipelago of stones amidst sandy pools warmed by tiny springs and seeps are strung along the Piedra's shore like a string of dark beads. It's a primitive springs, especially if you consider sharing with cattle, deer, and elk a wilderness experience. Those with cloven hooves come for the salt in the springs. There's no sign, so the hoofprints in the sand and the boggy mess in the meadow above are the only hints that the springs are near.

Where: San Juan National Forest near Pagosa Springs
No charge; clothing optional; primitive wilderness location

Getting There: Take U.S. 160 about 16 miles southwest of Pagosa Springs. Just after the Chimney Rock turnoff to the south (left) is the Piedra Road on the north (right). It's also called the First Fork Road and follows the Piedra River. Follow this gravel road about 6.7 miles to the intersection with Monument Park Road and the parking area. Take the trail from the Sheep Creek Trailhead. To reach the springs is a 3-mile hike round-trip with an 800-foot drop going in.In the summer of 1995 there was also about 50 feet of green garden hose and a bucket, clear evidence of the frequent digging hot springs aficionados do to make new soaking pools with steaming water from the springs. The Colorado Geological Survey reported the springs' temperature as about 107 degrees.

Of eight pools, two were green with algae. Two of the clear pools were warmish and had gas bubbling from the bottom to the top like slow-motion champagne. And two of the pools were dried up. Alas. And not an otter slide in sight.

What the trip hinted at, but never delivered, was the sight of river otters. A small otter colony was planted in the Piedra River. The Colorado Division of Wildlife's reintroduction project in the 1980s was successful. Generations of otters have been sighted fishing, sliding down the muddy banks, and cavorting. At the trailhead there's a sign explaining the otter effort and suggesting that hikers look for them.

Which brings to mind the Moose Importation Bill—another DOW adventure in species reintroduction. In the 1970s the august Colorado legislature set aside $80,000 to repopulate the state with moose. The large shaggy beasts had been hunted into oblivion some fifty years earlier, just as otters had been trapped into nonexistence.

One key legislator opposed the moose drive, saying, "If any moose wants to come to Colorado, he can walk here." The moose move won funding. But for several years moose importation killed more moose than it moved from Utah to Colorado. In the first year the anesthesia for transport didn't work. The slightly groggy but terrified moose tore a railcar apart. The next year, the immigrant moose got shots that put them to sleep—permanently. Finally, after the proper dose for a short moose nap was established, groups of moose were moved to Colorado's mountains by helicopter and moose communities were established. Baby moose were born. And lawmakers authorized the sale of moose-hunting permits, which annoyed supporters of moose importation who hadn't read the small print on the legislation.

Fortunately for the otters, they're a non-game species that arrived courtesy of citizen donations. No hunting or trapping allowed.

The Sheep Creek Trail to the hot springs starts near a sign about the otters. The trail immediately goes ominously downward. Where there is a great down, there is inevitably a great up. After about half a mile the trail forks left and right. In both directions the trail parallels the Piedra River. Neither fork is marked with a sign. To the left is a bridge and to the right is the trail to the hot springs.

Along the broad river, anglers cast for fish like magicians with gossamer wands. The sandy reaches of the Piedra are trout habitat sublime. The mile to the springs wanders through glades with golden light filtering through the pines.

At the nearby Chimney Rock Archaeological Area is evidence that the Anasazi of ancient times developed an astronomical system that predicted lunar eclipses. The Anasazi inhabited the Four Corners area between A.D. 900 and 1300 and traded with other groups from as far away as Central America and the Pacific Northwest.

Archaeologists believe that priests from Chaco Canyon, located in northern New Mexico and thought to be the center of Anasazi culture, came to Chimney Rock and built a two-story building at the base of the distinctive stone monoliths. The building was whitewashed, making it visible for miles in the moonlight.

In those ancient days, influential people came from great distances to the observatory atop the rock for lunar events. Recent archaeological work has found a rare solar eclipse occurred in A.D. 1125, which would have surprised the observers, terrified the people, and probably ruined the observers' reputations. The observatory was abandoned soon afterward.

The Piedra River Hot Springs aren't on the Forest Service map, nor are they mentioned in the list of day hikes available at the Pagosa Springs office of the U.S. Forest Service. As a result, the trail along the Piedra is quiet. The path winds through piney woods next to the elegant fishing river. There's no hubbub, just the occasional whiz of fishing lines running through reels.

As on all trails to all hot springs, there's been a progression of people here since the Anasazi and the Utes. First the Spanish, then explorers, trappers, prospectors, and maybe settlers made the trek to warm water. And in the last thirty years, hippies, backpackers, and horseback riders have ambled through. Perhaps mountain bikes, ATVs, and paved walks are inevitable.

Perhaps not. Maybe there will be a twenty-first-century American equivalent of the solar eclipse of 1125 that will alter the course. Or maybe those who visit primitive springs will treat them gently and speak of them only with voices of respect.

© 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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