Monday, November 1, 2010

Expand Your View in Villa Grove, Colorado

When it starts turning cold, the mind naturally turns to all places warm. And in the high desert, the only places that stay warm in the winter are hot springs. Fortunately, they’re all over the place. You just have to know where to find them. (And then, when you do, you just have to be prepared to A) hike in and B) encounter possible nudity. Most are clothing optional.)

This summer a friend took me to Valley View Hot Springs in Villa Grove, a rural enclave in southern Colorado with one general store/restaurant (Villa Grove Trade, which has a great buffalo burger). It’s the kind of place you would never discover without an introduction. The springs themselves are high up in the mountains above Colorado’s San Luis Valley, an area best known for its potatoes as well as a fascinating little New Age town called Crestone, which has facilities for every major world religion.

But once you’re in the know about Valley View Hot Springs, it’s almost like you’re part of an incredibly devoted family. People who come here have been coming for years, as a ritual of relaxation and cleansing. The overnight camping rate is just $30. And, to ensure that the experience would never change, the owners converted the place into a public trust (the Orient Land Trust) that ensures a continuing set of stewardship practices and guest policies.

During the 4.5 hour drive from Albuquerque, my friend told me not only about the unique “public ownership” aspect of Valley View Hot Springs but also the magical and healing qualities of the spring water, which pours out of the mountainside in a series of descending pools. The thing is - you just can’t believe it until you experience it for yourself. But it IS unlike any other spring water I’ve encountered.

First, the water temperature (96-98 degrees) makes it so that the water feels like a second skin. It’s not too hot. It’s not too cold. It’s just right. It’s also incredibly silky and soft and soothing. But perhaps the most amazing thing is that as a result of all this, you never wrinkle, and you never feel like you have to get out. You could easily soak in the springs for hours without any issue – not even sunburn, as several of the pools have shaded areas.

That latter detail was quite imperative as I arrived at Valley View with a nasty case of sun poisoning. I had a number of worries about sun exposure as well as hot water being potentially irritating. But they all faded away along with all sense of time, stress and “the real world.” I headed for the shady corners of each pool, and the water truly did abate the itching and redness. Life soon eased into a lazy rhythm of soaking (moving from this pool to that pool), sleeping and eating.

Adding to the enchantment is the pristine campground. Under a canopy of trees, tame deer walk right up to you, and steaming brooks of hot spring water babble down the mountainside, creating a feeling of “Gorillas in the Mist.” We set up camp at the intersection of two streams, making for the most narcoleptic sleeping conditions of all time. I was ready for a nap anytime I approached our tent.

Impressively, the entire place (including the public bathrooms, showers and a number of rental cabins) is powered by harnessing the hydrothermal energy of these hot water streams. It’s off the grid and completely self-sufficient, not to mention low-impact. There’s a respectful understanding on the part of every guest, and no one would even think about leaving a piece of trash at their campsite.

Beyond using one of the complimentary “noodles” to free-float in one of the upper pools, another great way to take in the "Valley View" is from the swings, which allow you the giddy pleasure of feeling as free as a child as you gaze down on the vast valley below. You feel so incredibly far away from everything down there. And you are.

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