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Searching for romantic hot springs

Sarah MausolfVail, CO,
Special to the Daily
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I guess I watched one too many episodes of The Girls Next Door because I always assumed natural hot springs would be just like the grotto. You know, that jacuzzi cave outside the Playboy Mansion where models go to sponge each other.The only difference, I figured, is the natural version would have fewer butlers.Unfortunately, my first trip to a natural hot spring five years ago suggested otherwise. It amounted to a hot tub in California that smelled like rotten eggs and featured a snoozing senior citizen. This, I balked, is what all the hype is about?Unwilling to accept that hot springs are boring, I dragged my boyfriend on a tour of Colorado hot springs this past weekend. Our route included commercial and primitive hot spots within a two-hour drive of the Vail Valley. We strapped on our bathings suits and broke out our maps. It was time to get romantic.

First, we headed toward Glenwood Springs to check out what http://www.trails.com called undeveloped hot pots with a view. A local secret, South Canyon Hot Springs sounded like a picturesque destination.However, we had our doubts. A debate raged on http://www.soak.net about whether this spring was a gay cruising destination. Were we about to take a dip into a underground subculture?The boyfriend and I motored west down I-70 past Glenwood Canyon, got off at exit 111, and followed our directions about a half mile down a mountain-studded road. Unsure what to expect, we parked alongside the road and followed a dirt path about 75 yards to the hot spring.What we saw came as a surprise: The spring was just a tiny pool filled with murky blue-grey water. Rumored to attract snakes and otters, the pool was empty on this particular day except for a nude bicyclist smoking pot out of an aluminum can.The man, who identified himself as Robert Leigh but admitted thats not his real name, offered a wealth of information on the spring.Most people that come here at all get naked and sunbathe, he said. Sometimes some kinky couples come from Junction and Rifle. A lot of gay people like to fiddle around up here, too. Im one of the only straights that come up here.Having covered this ground, there was nothing to do but get in. I eased into the murky depths, pleasantly surprised by the water temperature. Our nude friend estimated the water typically hovers between 105 to 115 degrees. Champagne-like bubbles gurgled up from the bottom of the suspicious soup and I had to admit I was having a good time.However, this hot pot, with its collection of patio chairs, beer bottles strewn in the field around it and arrival of a clothed male who lingered with unknown intentions, ranked low on my romant-o-meter. It didnt help that the spring stood less than a mile from a landfill and involved dump trucks rumbling by on the road.I cant believe you got in that scum hole, the boyfriend scoffed.

Next, we headed to Strawberry Park Hot Springs, a promising, if more commercialized, destination about seven miles outside Steamboat Springs. As we drove up the steep, winding dirt road to the springs, we started to wonder what kind of resort is this difficult to visit. What is this a hippy commune? my boyfriend demanded.As it turned out, Strawberry Park was a collection of cabins and terraced hot springs. We parked in a lot with several other cars and walked up to a ticket booth, where we found an attendant peeling a carrot.His name was William Winston and he gave us the low-down on the pools. The hot springs spew from a hillside at 150 degrees, then cool to 105 degrees and below as the water trickles down into a series of pools, he said.A popular destination for couples, the springs have a flashlights-on-the-feet-only rule after dark, meaning clothing is optional. And once the sun goes down, things get interesting, Winston tells us. Half the people are making out and the other people are going to town, he said.Were we about to join a freak fest?With the sun poised to set, the boyfriend and I paid $10 each and followed the path to the hot springs. Skirting past the solar-power-heated locker rooms, we stripped down to our bathing suits in a small cave and headed down some stone stairs into one of the pools.While the sun lingered, the springs maintained a swim club atmosphere with families splashing around. Come dark, though, everyone under 18 fled and couples dominated. We shared a pool with several young pairs displaying various levels of friskiness plus one lone dude with a cooler. Word to the wise: Bring a date to Strawberry Park. You do not want to be the guy with the cooler. Despite rules forbidding food and alcohol, we seemed to be one of the the few couples not drinking.As an inky blackness descended on the springs, we found ourselves in a thick steam. Things started to heat up among the couples in their various corners.We soaked under the stars for a while. Finally, it was time to get out, and as we shivered back toward the path, the boyfriend spotted his first nude of the night, which we could only assume was the tip of the iceberg.All in all, Strawberry Park was pretty romantic.The only unsexy part is the road. Come November, visitors must have four-wheel- or all-wheel-drive cars to access it, Winston said.The road turns into this skating rink, he said. Its super sketchy.

Although we had a good time at Strawberry Park, the boyfriend and I wanted to find a romantic hot spring where we could soak for free. We struck out for Penny Hot Spring.Following I-70 to Route 82, we continued south past Carbondale to a spring about seven miles below the Crystal River Resort. The hot spring was right off the road, separated from the Crystal River by a tarp and a few strategically-placed rocks.There, we found two soakers who had just completed a bout of engineering.Mike Gould and Jesse Moreng, 20-somethings from Fort Collins, told us the pool was unbearably hot when they arrived. To cool it down, they moved some rocks to let river water seep in.I hopped in to find the water clear and pleasant, though pockets of hot and cold occasionally shock the system. As I soaked under a cloudless sky, mountains rising up around me, I concluded that this place would be pretty romantic indeed without the two dudes.Luckily, Moreng tells us the spring is usually desolate.Most of the time when I show up here, nobodys ever here, he said.

All and all, I was impressed by the hot springs in my neighborhood. There is something enticing about geothermally-heated water gurgling up from the Earths crust. Not all hot springs are romantic, but they proved a good place to meet adventurous souls, even if some of the characters bordered on creepy. Despite my research, I do not pretend to be an expert on the local hot springs. There are plenty more interesting destinations to explore. For instance, a squabble between my boyfriend and I over the 16-mile-round-trip hike to Conundrum Hot Springs near Aspen prevented us from visiting. For all I know, the most romantic hot spring of all could be just around the corner.Arts & Entertainment Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 748-2938 or smausolf@vaildaily.com.


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