Last Updated on April 4, 2023
Pagosa Springs is geographically challenged–in a good way. Situated at 7,000-feet above sea level, this small town in southwestern Colorado is encircled by the largest contiguous wilderness areas in the lower 48 states.
To the north and east, the massive slopes of the San Juan Mountains block easy road access. Visitors driving from Denver must negotiate the winding Wolf Creek Pass, one of the steepest routes over the Continental Divide.
The nearest airports are in Durango (60 miles west) and Denver (275 miles northeast). Actually, the best way to reach this friendly, remote oasis may be driving up from the south as Pagosa Springs is about a three-and-a-half hour drive from Albuquerque and just under three hours Santa Fe, New Mexico. Times can vary significantly in winter conditions!
What to do in Pagosa Springs, CO
The former mining town, best known today for its hot-springs resorts, stretches along the banks of the scenic San Juan River. A collection of century-old storefronts lines the narrow main streets, with local shops like Goodman’s Department Store, which opened in 1899 and is still family owned, and the eclectic Two Old Crows Gallery, featuring regional art and furnishings.
Trendy shops and chain restaurants, however, are scarce in this town of 1,600 residents surrounded by jagged peaks and mountain lakes. Pagosa Springs is the only incorporated town in Archuleta County, which has a total of 16,000 residents.
I added Pagosa Springs to my travel list after Covid-19 grounded my international travel plans in summer 2020. I quickly discovered that this is one of the coolest places within driving distance of Central Texas (I live in Austin).
It is also a popular ski town in winter due to its proximity to Wolf Creek Ski Area, which often tops state records with its abundant snowfall.
On my third visit in August 2022, I finally felt confident that the coronavirus was waning, so I added some new experiences. I rode a hot air balloon in Colorado with glorious mountain views, tasted Colorado wine made from grapes grown on a remote 900-acre sheep farm, and spent a day soaking in the steamy hot springs that drew Indigenous people to the area centuries ago.
Hot Air Ballooning Colorado
On my first early morning walk in the crisp mountain air west of town, I spotted my first hot air balloon in Colorado, striped in bright reds, blues, and yellows soaring above the trees. Then a larger balloon appeared. Finally, a third, with different, but equally colorful markings floated into the powdery blue sky.
I later learned that one of the balloon pilots was a woman–a rarity in this male-dominated adventure sport. When I called Pagosa Adventure, co-owner and pilot Marissa Myers immediately invited me to meet her near the local Walmart at 7 a.m. the next day. I had never flown in a hot air balloon, but this was an adventure I did not want to miss.
Bleary eyed, I found Myers and a small crew already unrolling an enormous crayon-yellow balloon, with green, blue, and red stripes. Once the nylon fabric was spread out, Myers began directing air heated by a propane burner into the balloon until it resembled a giant light bulb, towering 50-feet over our heads.
Hot Air Balloon Rides Offer Stunning Mountain Views
After the balloon tilted the rattan basket upright, we quickly climbed inside. It gently rose off the ground, gaining altitude as we soared over nearby roads and houses. Soon we were treated to breathtaking 360-degree views of the valley, dotted with shallow lakes, a golf course, and three million acres of national forests.
The rugged peaks of the San Juans loomed almost at eye-level to the north and east. For the next 30 minutes our hot air balloon in Colorado floated low enough to wave at people on their decks.
Myers directed the balloon to ‘splash and dash’ in several of the area’s shallow lakes so we could take pictures of the balloon’s shadow on the water. Only the occasional whoosh of the burner pushing hot air into the balloon punctuated the silence.
Myers managed the balloon expertly with strong, steady hands, her dark hair pinned back with sunglasses. Born and raised in Pagosa Springs, she took her first balloon ride in her mother’s womb. Though both parents are hot air balloon pilots, she didn’t earn her pilot’s license until 2019, after she retired from nursing.
“Everyone is having their best day ever when they’re ballooning,” said Myers. “I was ready to share good news with people.”
Champagne Toasts Part of The Hot Air Balloon Experience
I was still grinning when Myers guided the balloon to a soft landing in a parking lot beside a lake. Once the balloon was deflated, folded, and loaded into the chase vehicle, we celebrated with a champagne toast. A bottle of bubbles has been a feature of balloon rides since the 1780s when the first balloons took flight in France.
Then, champagne was often necessary to assuage the fear of farmers when a balloon landed unexpectedly on their property – you can imagine how strange and possibly frightening that experience might have been in the 18th century!
Though most locals enjoy the sight of a hot air balloon in Colorado floating overhead, Myers said she’s had a few unexpected landings. On one winter flight, a wind shift forced the balloon to land in waist-deep snow, requiring a snowcat to retrieve the balloon and passengers.
Wind changes can be challenging, but the wide valley west of downtown that includes the Pagosa Lakes development makes Pagosa Springs one of the best mountain towns for hot air ballooning year-round. Her husband and business partner, Cody Myers, is also a licensed pilot, and their three teenage children are sometimes among the crew.
Pagosa Adventure’s two balloons can carry about six people each and fly most days, depending on the weather.
Cody also runs white-water rafting trips in spring and summer.
Colorado Wine Tasting
Cold climates and mile-high elevations like those in southwestern Colorado aren’t known for producing exceptional wine so I was intrigued by a Friday night wine concert with live music at Fox Fire Farms sounded like fun.
I figured the one-hour drive west of Pagosa Springs to the 910-acre farm outside the town of Ignacio would be scenic anyway. I was right. Stunning mountain views greeted us as we travelled twisting two-lane roads, braving brief showers between bursts of sunshine, and eventually a rainbow.
The estate wines surpassed my expectations, especially the winery’s Marquette Colorado Reserve, Traminette Colorado Reserve, Chloe Petite Pearl, and Juliet Rose. I was so impressed with the Chloe Petite Pearl, a light red with hints of berries, that I bought a bottle to enjoy that evening under a dusty blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds.
Fox Fire Farms Colorado
Five generations of the same family have owned Fox Fire Farms for the past 107 years. Richard Parry took over the family business of raising sheep for wool and meat in 1971. He didn’t plant wine grapes until 2005.
Most of the first vines did not survive the harsh winters and high altitude. Then he learned about cold-climate hybrids such as Corot Noir, Traminette, Petite Pearl, and Marquette (the winery’s best-selling wine).
Fox Fire wines began winning area awards in 2015 and drawing crowds for weekend wine concerts and tastings from Pagosa Springs, Durango, and communities in northern New Mexico.
When we arrived at the winery late on a Friday afternoon, the airy tasting room, whose windows look out over rolling green pastures and neat rows of grape vines, was empty. Parry joined us while we sampled the winery’s most popular whites and its top summer seller: the sumptuous Juliet Rose.
By the time we graduated to reds, the line to purchase wine was out the door. Vehicles filled the grassy parking lot and blankets covered the lawn.
Activities in Pagosa Springs
Parry joined his staff serving customers and we took the Petite Pearl to an outside table. While devouring barbecue pork sandwiches purchased from a food truck, we tapped our feet to a lively mix of contemporary rock and country music from the Black Velvet band.
The setting sun painted the surrounding fields in golden hues.
Parry stopped by later after the line dwindled to introduce his wife, Linda. While he is the farm’s self-taught vintner, she is a sommelier and the inspiration behind the winery.
The couple’s travels to New Zealand and to vineyards in California and Texas led to their experiments in grape growing. Nearly nine acres are planted in wine grapes and the couple intends to keep the business small and manageable.
“It was an experiment that worked,” Richard Parry told me. “We want to enjoy the vineyards and the winery.”
The Parrys no longer maintain their own sheep, but they offer grazing for the livestock of neighboring farmers.
Pagosa Hot Springs in Colorado
Native Americans bathed in the hot springs along the San Juan River long before the 16th century when the first Spanish explorers arrived in what is now Pagosa Springs. Named “Pagosah” by the Ute tribe, the name has been interpreted to mean “healing waters.”
Today, the Mother Spring, considered among the deepest in the world, feeds three mineral spas located in the middle of town along the picturesque San Juan River. Geothermal water supplying the spas and some local businesses rises from fractures 6,000-feet below the earth’s surface caused by ancient volcanic activity.
At the Springs Resort & Spa, I found tranquility soaking in several of the resort’s 25 hot spring pools while sipping a frozen mango daiquiri.
Resorts Pagosa Springs
Before slipping into the mineral-rich water, I toured the Springs Resort & Spa with Jesse Hensle, the marketing and sales director. The Springs Resort & Spa is the largest of the three spas, with 79 hotel rooms and suites along with a restaurant and wellness center. Plans are underway to double the size of the resort and the number of pools over the next two years.
The Springs Resort is also close to the Mother Spring, which looks like a steamy pile of mineral-rich lava flowing into a shallow pool of neon-blue water. Too hot for humans – up to 145-degrees Fahrenheit – the site is worth a visit to understand the history of the springs and the source of the healing waters.
Water from there naturally cools as it is piped into the resort’s geothermal pools, which are terraced along the banks of the river. There is also a large swimming pool.
Temperatures in the thermal pools vary; the Lobster Pot is the hottest at 112-degrees, fortunately it’s located next to the river so visitors can cool off between soaks.
Pagosa Springs Hot Springs in CO
The Lobster Pot proved a too hot for me. I preferred the adult-only pools near the wellness area where I could watch tubers floating lazily down the river. My fellow bathers were mostly older people, but included a few young couples with children.
Hensle said the Springs Resort has begun adding more guest options designed to enhance health and wellness.
Yoga classes, mediation sessions, guided river walks as well as a daily gratitude ceremony at the Mother Spring are among the resort’s offerings. Massages, facials, and other treatments are also available.
Though I did not have time for a spa treatment, my afternoon soaking in the mineral rich pools fortified with zinc, silica, magnesium and iron, was an especially relaxing experience after a strenuous morning hike.
When I return to Pagosa Springs this summer, I plan to visit the other two spas. The Overlook Mineral Springs Spa offers soaking tubs on a rooftop deck above the town and the river. At Healthy Waters Resort and Spa, guests can swim in a large family-style pool and soak in private and group pools.
Reaching Pagosa Springs poses challenges, you may wish you could arrive by hot air balloon in Colorado, but the area’s rugged geography enhances the many activities available to locals and visitors.naturewine