Rainbow Hot Springs is a relatively unknown area located north of Pagosa Springs in the Colorado Mountains of the central U.S. So unknown, in fact, that descriptions of the hike all vary. Hikers are attracted by the isolated hot springs in the heart of the forest. The hike to Rainbow Hot Springs is challenging, but you will be rewarded with a first-class place to unwind.
To get there, follow US 160 northeast from Pagosa Springs for 16 miles and take the exit for West Fork Campground (CR 648). In about seven miles you will reach the West Fork trailhead parking. Look for the trail labeled West Fork Trail #561. The hike to the hot springs gains over 1000 feet in elevation and is not for the weak-hearted. The trail is approximately 10 miles long, so plan 5 or 6 hours for a round trip.
The first mile of trail winds through summer cabins of Borns Lake. This area is littered with “private property” signs, and it’s important to be mindful of these so the locals don’t decide to close access.
Our minds were put at ease as we saw a couple of other hikers coming back on the trail.
“This is still the trail for Rainbow Hot Springs, right?!” my friend anxiously piped.
“Yeah, just take the turnoff coming up,” the taller man reassured us. “Don’t worry, we thought we were lost about here too!” He joked with a grin.
The turnoff for Rainbow Trail reads 4 miles to go, but it feels longer. The scenery soon changed, and we left all signs of civilization behind as we got deeper into the forest. Before we knew it we were walking through a barren-looking land with blackened trees. My friend informed us that this area was affected by the West Fork Fire just last summer in 2013. Although this area was so recently burnt, it is amazing to see how fast the forest can regenerate itself. Many plants and shrubs were already waist-height and showed no signs of slowing down.
Soon we could hear the gushing of water, and taking a few steps to peer over the side of the trail revealed amazing views of the West Fork Canyon and the San Juan river below. We felt we were getting closer, but the hardest parts of the hike were still to come.
We had crossed a few streams on the journey so far, but these streams built in intensity as we continued. Soon, we were crossing bridges over rivers that surely would have swept us away had we dared to wade through them. Some research lead me to discover that these bridges were not always there, and were only built after an unfortunate backpacker drowned trying to find the hot springs many years ago. Historically, the river itself decided who would make it to the springs. After crossing over the third bridge, we reached a ominous gully of water that must have been due to a high amount of runoff. With no more bridges in sight, we had no choice but to fling our backpacks over the river and attempt to wade through it. This isn’t something I would typically advise, but we had already come too far to turn back now. In addition to the water reaching our stomachs, it was also ice-cold, but this was a sensation that lasted ten seconds before we were on the other side. From here, it was a steep trek up one final crest until we could spot the many pools of water below us that is Rainbow Hot Springs.
Once you approach the Springs themselves, you may notice many tents scattered around the site. The Forest Service doesn’t require backcountry permits to camp here, making Rainbow Hot Springs is a prime camping spot in the warmer months of the year. In addition, the spot is also popular for horseback riders and hunters. When there’s snow on the ground, you’ll see snowshoers and cross-country skiers alike.
Photo courtesy pagosasprings.com
The pools shimmer with the sunlight, contrasting the dark stone they are set into. The smaller pool, with room for only about three people, is located higher up on the rock face and provides outstanding views of the West Fork Canyon. However, the lower pool is the main attraction, with room for up to ten people. The water is about waist-height and is quite hot, although the adjacent San Juan River provides a quick cool-down.
As we soaked in the hot, 104-degree water, it was hard to dismiss the beauty of the area. The pool, lined with smooth rocks to sit against, represents a piece of subtle man-made art amongst Mother Nature. The challenging hike rewards only the most determined of people, yet I feel that this is a place I will be visiting again. It’s safe to say that Rainbow Hot Springs is still one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets.