Tucked in the San Juan Mountains just 35 miles north of the New Mexico border, Pagosa Springs, Colorado, offers a wealth of outdoor adventure.
Located at 7,126 feet above sea level, this southwest Colorado town has a reputation for mild winters and warm summer days, making it a popular destination year-round. The town reopened to visitors in early June after COVID-19 restrictions were lifted. (Be sure to check local guidelines before you go.)
As you might guess from its catchy name, Pagosa Springs was named for its geothermal hot springs. The word Pagosa comes from the Ute word for healing waters, and people have been drawn to the springs for their soothing properties for centuries.
The mother spring, which you can see if you walk along the 1.9-mile San Juan River Walk, feeds all the geothermal pools and springs in the area. At 1,002 feet, it is said to be the world’s deepest geothermal hot spring aquifer.
In this quiet corner of Colorado, you can still see the vestiges of the ancient cultures that once called the region home. Nearby Chimney Rock National Monument is among the most sacred sites of the Ancestral Puebloans of Chaco Canyon. About two hours to the west is Mesa Verde National Park, which is home to the most famous cliff dwellings in the country.
Coloradans and visitors know that Pagosa Springs is an excellent outdoor playground. With 300 days of sunshine a year, it’s a place where you can spend much of your time outdoors. My favorite time to visit is during summer, when the days are warm, but the nights are refreshingly cool.
I like staying right in the center of town so I can be near the river (the center of life here), as well as the town’s many hot springs, restaurants, and shops.
One of the main reasons people visit Pagosa Springs is to enjoy the hot springs. If that’s on your agenda, then you might consider staying at The Springs Resort & Spa. Located on the banks of the San Juan River in downtown Pagosa, the resort has 24 hot springs pools, each at a different temperature. The hot spring pools are open to the paying public, but a few of the mineral springs are reserved only for hotel guests.
There’s nothing like soaking in the warm springs on a refreshing summer afternoon, watching hummingbirds flit among the flowers that surround the pools. Other hot springs to visit include Overlook Hot Springs and the ones at Health Waters Resort and Spa. Each facility is open to the public with paid admission.
Kayaking and Rafting
The San Juan River, which runs through the center of town, provides an endless supply of recreation. From around mid-April to June, when water levels are high, river kayakers and rafters utilize the river.
Then, when the water level drops below 400 cubic feet per second, river tubing begins. Inflatable kayaks also take to the water during this time. If you have little ones who want to float the river, wait until water levels drop from 150 to 90 cubic feet per second. Toward the end of the season, when water levels drop even lower, it’s time to get out of the water.
You can bring your own tubes and just drop into the river. Or, several of the shops in town will rent you everything you need to float on the river, including tubes, life jackets, and helmets. Tip: Make sure you wear shoes, as the bottom of the river is rocky.
Canoeing and Standup Paddleboarding
If canoeing or standup paddleboarding is more your style, head to one of Pagosa’s many area lakes and reservoirs. You can rent canoes and paddleboards in town at Pagosa Outside, Pagosa Mountain Sports, or other outfitters. Several shops even offer lessons.
One unique way to experience the Colorado outdoors is on a trail ride. With access to more than 3 million acres of national forest, there is an endless supply of horseback riding trails.
Numerous local ranches and stables offer trail rides. Crazy Horse Outfitters is in the heart of the San Juan National Forest and Weminuche Wilderness, while Fish Creek Outfitters offers horseback wilderness adventures for hunters and fishermen. Others, like Bruce Spruce Ranch, provide lodging at rustic cabins in the San Juan Mountains, as well as horseback riding.
For most visitors to the Colorado Rockies, hiking is a good way to get outside and enjoy Mother Nature. Favorite local trails include Cimarrona Trail, which has plenty of wildflowers and scenic views of Williams Creek Reservoir, Alberta Peak Trail, which begins at the summit of Wolf Creek Pass and the Continental Divide Trail and makes you feel on top of the world as you hike along the backbone of the Rocky Mountains.
Anglers will find plenty of fishing opportunities in Pagosa Springs. Fishermen can drop their lines in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. At lower elevations, you can reel in catfish, perch, and bass. The higher lakes, with their cooler waters, offer pike, salmon, and trout. The local enthusiasts at the Pagosa Quality Fishing Project stock the San Juan River with trout in the summer.
If you’d like to go out with a local fishing guide to the backcountry, check out High Country Fishing Charters. They offer wade and float trips with experienced guides. For fishing gear, guided tours, and local fishing advice, stop by Let It Fly, a full-service fly fishing shop in town.
Hot Air Balloon Ride
Perhaps one of the grandest ways to enjoy the great outdoors in Pagosa Springs is with an early-morning hot air balloon ride over the valley. You’ll have an expansive view of the river as it winds its way through the mountains and valley, and you’ll glimpse views of local wildlife, from deer and elk to red-tailed hawks.
Life in Colorado is meant to be enjoyed outdoors, and in Pagosa Springs, you can do just that.
Janna Graber has covered travel in more than 55 countries. She is the editor of three travel anthologies, including “A Pink Suitcase: 22 Tales of Women’s Travel,” and is the managing editor of Go World Travel Magazine.