For over a hundred years, hot springs in Colorado have attracted vast numbers of visitors to their healing, relaxing and intriguing waters. In Colorado, we are fortunate to have both artificial and natural hot springs. The artificial ones, usually found at resorts, are similar to hot tubs and the waters are commonly pumped from the ground into artificial pools. We know this hot water comes from deep inside the Earth, but there are clearly more questions to be answered.
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So what is a hot spring? A hot spring is defined as a spring where the temperature of the water is significantly above the mean annual air temperature of the region.
How does a hot spring form? First, obviously, we need water. And as rain falls on the surrounding landscape, some of it percolates into the porous sedimentary rocks and soil. As it seeps through the rock, the water absorbs a variety of minerals that give it its richness. Moving even deeper beneath the surface, the water heats up from energy given off from the earth’s core and mantle; this is called geothermal heat. Eventually, the water encounters and goes into a large fault, or crack in the bedrock. As water continues to drip down, the pressure from the fault forces the now heated water to return to the surface along the fault-line, which appears as a hot or warm spring at the surface. Another important feature of a hot spring is that the water must have a quick route back to the surface. If the hot water moves slowly from deep fault line to the surface, it will cool back down before it bubbles out as a spring.
Hot springs even stay hot even during the cold winter months, which can provide warm relief from the cold. The geothermal heat from the mantle is not affected by the cold winter season. These hot springs can be found from Mexico to Alaska in Western North America where there is active tectonic plate movement, creating the faults required for water to be heated. There are numerous hot springs in Colorado alone that are well worth the trip.
Hot springs are located both at resorts as well as off the beaten path; you should go to at least one of each just for the experience. There are several resorts in Glenwood Springs that boast hot springs, including the historic Glenwood Hot Springs and the newly built Iron Mountain Hot Springs, as well as the famous Strawberry Park Hot Springs in Steamboat Springs, the world’s deepest geothermal hot spring at The Springs Resort in Pagosa Springs, and the riverside pools at Mount Princeton Hot Springs in Buena Vista. All of these resorts are places you can drive to, but that also means they can be pricey, and there can also be a lot of people there. Many prefer springs that you have to hike to because of the intrinsic reward, the low price (usually free), and because there won’t be as many people there. Some beautiful hot springs worth checking out you are looking for a hike with a reward are: Radium, Conundrum, Ouray, Rainbow, South Canyon and the Penny hot springs. Just be forewarned that many of the more remote hot springs can be clothing optional!
We are genuinely lucky to be surrounded by so many hot springs here in the great state of Colorado. Soaking in a natural hot spring out in the fresh air is a unique experience, and if you haven’t tried it, it’s one you should add to your bucket list. Or at least to your list of things to do before you leave Colorado.
Dylan Hurst is a seasonal Naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. Join us for free nature walks daily at 2pm at our center in Avon.