PAGOSA SPRINGS, Colo. - Our walk to the hot springs in 14-degree mountain air was short. But in bathing suits, flip-flops and our resort's ubiquitous cream-colored robes, my ankles had never been so cold. Rachael said, "Brrrrrrrr!" Or maybe it was "Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!" I was too cold to hear clearly.
When we finally arrived at The Springs Resort & Spa's 23 pools, we were too shivery to browse; we lowered ourselves into the first steaming cauldron we found - 104 degrees. Sounded hot but sure beat 14. I went first, the heat overtaking me inch by inch.
"How is it?" Rachael asked.
It was difficult to say. When goose bumps meet 104 degrees, a clash goes down - a skin-tingling, head-swirling clash. I replied either, "Ahhhhhhhh!" or "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!" I was too delirious to know for sure.
Rachael wasted no time joining me in pool and sentiment.
"Amaaaaaaaaaaazing," she said.
It was nearing midnight, and all was quiet. We leaned back in the billowing steam and blinked at the sights: the handsome stone pathways and waterfalls laced through the modern pools; the snow-banked San Juan River streaming below; a brilliantly starry Western sky.
For the next hour we moved quietly among the small, modern pools, our steaming skins no longer needing robes: from 112 degrees (we lasted three minutes) to 100 degrees (child's play) to a delightful 108-degree compromise. Winter never felt so good.
We headed back to our room, skins flush and robes around us once more.
At 9 the next morning, we headed back to the pools. I stopped by the resort lobby on the way to inquire about hot-spring theory. The woman at the reception desk said, "Listen to your body. Usually we suggest going from cooler to warmer."
Thirty or so people, including several children, were spread across the pools this time, but there was little loud chatter and no squealing from the youngsters. Warm waters made moods mellow.
We moved from pool to pool, always entering slowly: the feet, the knees, the waist, the ribs, the neck. An unspoken code seemed to urge a degree of privacy among soakers, but we inevitably soaked with strangers. We met people from western Massachusetts; Baton Rouge, La.; and, in a 109-degree pool affording views of Pagosa Springs' quiet Western main street, a 73-year-old retired Air Force pilot from Albuquerque, N.M.
"I'll tell you, boy, this is good for what ails you," he said. "I have a neuropathy in both hands; they're numb with tingling at the fingertips. But when I went home last night, neither hand hurt."
For generations - since the Ute American Indians lived on the land - the springs have been said to have healing powers ("Pagosah" is Ute for "healing waters"). The sulfur, chlorides and magnesium have been said to cure everything from arthritis to paralysis. Whether it's true I don't know. But it feels good.
If your image of Pagosa Springs is yet another Colorado burg of yuppie comfort, get rid of it. Like much of the state, this town of 1,800 has its transplants, but they're not the typical comfortable Easterners in Subarus and North Face jackets. Denim and Coors are more likely.
Because money hasn't flooded the town, there is little of a concentrated, walkable downtown. But it has two things going for it: soaking and skiing.
The Wolf Creek Ski Area 25 miles east of town is small (just seven lifts) and affordable (full-day lift tickets are $52 - about half the price of Aspen or Telluride). But it is majestic, with a 10,300-foot base (higher than the tops of many American ski resorts) and nearly 12,000-foot peak. It also claims to get the most snow in the state: an average of 38 feet a year.
After a busy day of runs, we pointed our car to one place and one place only: the hot springs. We changed quickly and, sore and spent, waded into 102 degrees. We had known little about the joys of soaking until that moment.
If you go
Getting there: Part of Pagosa Springs' charm is its isolation. The closest major airports are in Albuquerque (212 miles) and Denver (270 miles).
There are three places to soak in town:
•The Springs Resort & Spa (800-225-0934, pagosahotsprings.com) is the largest and most developed facility in town, which also offers 300 clean and comfortable rooms that range from $179 to $260 (depending on size of room and season), plus tax. Guests soak for free; daily passes available for nonguests.
•Overlook Hot Springs (970-264-4040,
•overlookhotsprings.com) is a much smaller operation popular with locals for being affordable, serving alcohol and having rooftop pools that offer fine mountain views. Does not have accommodations.
•Healing Waters Resort and Spa (800-832-5523, pshotsprings.com) is the oldest facility in town and hasn't been well maintained. But it is a less expensive option, ranging from $75 to $150 (depending on room size and season), plus tax. Guests soak for free; nonguest passes are available.
More information: visitpagosasprings.com