Three Days In: Small town ski & soak
After a great day on the slopes, nothing soothes your tired muscles better than a soak in hot springs. Colorado is blessed with so many geothermal water options, there’s even an historic hot springs loop. Take a ski-and-soak road trip and spend a day in Glenwood Springs, Pagosa Springs, and Salida, or spend three days in each. You’ll ditch the crowds; get free parking while you ski or ride at Sunlight Mountain, Wolf Creek, or Monarch Mountain; and enjoy some small-town charm. Whether you spend 24 hours in each, or three days, here’s how to maximize your time for a fun winter getaway.
Carving turns in the glades at Sunlight Mountain Resort in Glenwood Springs. Courtesy of Sunlight Mountain Resort/Todd Patrick
Sunlight Mountain Resort, 12 miles south of Glenwood Springs, is a boutique ski resort where nearly half of the terrain is rated beginner or intermediate. For experts, take on The Heathen, one of the steepest lift-served runs in the state. Sunlight has added five new runs this season, and if you’re a long run fan like me, cruise the 2.5-miles Ute Trail. Families love Sunlight because kids 12 and under ski for free. You can also Nordic ski or snowshoe the groomed trails in Babbish Gulch, flanked by Sunlight Mountain and Williams Peak, or go full throttle on a one-hour, guided family snowmobile tour covering 16 miles in the White River National Forest.
Ready to soak those aching muscles? Sip a beer, wine, or canned cocktail in one of Iron Mountain Hot Springs’ 16 pools ranging from 98 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. including two infinity pools, nestled along the Colorado River. I like sitting in one of the two pools with pebbles on the bottom to get a little reflexology while I soak.
The Yampah Spa Vapor Caves are the only known natural vapor caves in North America. The mineral water, flowing through the cave floors at 125 degrees Fahrenheit, creates the natural geothermal steam baths. Ute Indians used the underground steams baths to purify body and spirit for hundreds of years before pioneers entered the area in the mid-1800s. It’s one of the most unusual experiences I’ve done in the state, and highly recommend detoxing with a steam, relaxing in a hot spring bath, then rejuvenating with a spa treatment.
To stay where you soak, book one of the 107 rooms at the AAA Three Diamond-rated Glenwood Hot Springs Resort. Overnight guests get unlimited pool access and made-to-order hot breakfast. For some extra TLC, try one of the Spa of the Rockies’ indigenous inspired treatments. Day rates at this AAA GEM (Great Experience for Members) attraction are available for the pool, and anyone can make a spa appointment.
With its historic charm dating back to 1915, the AAA Two Diamond-rated Hotel Denver is my favorite place to stay in Glenwood Springs. Don’t let the lower Diamond rating deter you, this boutique hotel is pet friendly, and the hotel’s River Blend Coffee House is perfect for a morning latte paired with a breakfast sandwich, burrito, or croissant. They serve locally baked treats to satisfy your sweet tooth. If you’re looking for a sit-down breakfast, head over to Rosi’s Little Bavarian Restaurant and Pastry Shop for schnitzel and eggs, one of their benedicts, or Vienna crepes.
From sour beers to blended wild ales, Casey Brewing and Blending’s new taproom is a locals’ favorite for an après beer. If you have a hankering for a burger, the AAA Two Diamond-rated Grind restaurant is the spot. Add the buttermilk, beer-battered onion rings and a boozy shake with your grass-fed beef burger for the full Grind experience. For the more adventurous, try the buffalo or ahi tuna. The house-made burrata fundido and roast Rocky Mountain trout are to die for at the AAA Three Diamond-rated The Pullman Food & Drink restaurant. Order their mac and cheese and one of their creative craft cocktails if you really want to indulge. I’ve been a repeat visitor to Grind and The Pullman for years.
Zipping through the snow on the Alpine Coaster at Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, Glenwood Springs. Courtesy of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park
For some more winter fun, take the new Glenwood Gondola up to Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park—the only mountain-top theme park in the country—to see the park lit up with half a million lights during “Winter on the Mountain” (through February). Take the guided walking tour through the historic Fairy Cave or the King’s Row Cave—the largest show cave in the state. For the adrenaline seeker, plummet 110 feet on the Haunted Mine Drop or zip through a winter wonderland on the Alpine Coaster.
Soaking up time together at The Springs Resort in Pagosa Springs. Courtesy of The Springs Resort/Gil Santana
Known for “the most snow in Colorado,” Wolf Creek Ski Area gets 430 inches of natural snow, annually. It’s also the first solar-powered ski area in the nation. As one of the last family-owned ski resorts in the country, Wolf Creek is celebrating its 80th Anniversary. The Pitcher family has been running the ski area since the 1970s, and as I found out when I skied with them, it’s a powder paradise. Beginner and intermediate skiers and riders have lots of options off the Bonzana and Raven chairlifts, while experts can head to the Waterfall or Knife Ridge Chutes. If downhill isn’t your thing, you can cross-country ski or snowshoe for free on Wolf Creek’s nearly 10 kilometers of trails. Ski in the morning, then go on an adrenaline packed ride to the top of the Continental Divide on a one-, two-, or three-hour excursion with Wolf Creek Snowmobile Tours.
About 30 minutes west of Wolf Creek, is Pagosa Springs The Southwestern Ute Indian word “Pagosah” translates to “healing waters.” The Mother Spring aquifer holds the Guinness World Record for “the world’s deepest” geothermal hot spring—it’s over 1,002 feet deep.
To stay where you soak, The Springs is my pick. It’s right on the San Juan River, has 24 pools (more than anywhere else in the state), with temperatures range from 83–114 degrees Fahrenheit. There are five adult-only pools on the Relaxation Terrace, brand-new bathhouses, and you can nosh on a crepe in their new café overlooking the pools. Book the Snow and Soak Package to stay in one of their 79 rooms or suites with lift tickets for two and 24-hour access to the pools.
Healing Waters is the most budget-friendly of the three hot springs. It’s been open since 1950 and has hotel rooms, suites, and cozy cabins. Their soaking options include a large outdoor pool, outdoor hot tub, and separate men’s and women’s indoor hot baths. The Overlook has a Victorian ambiance with new courtyard tubs plus five indoor pools. Soak in one of their two rooftop tubs with panoramic views. All three hot springs have spas, so if you’re extra sore, add a massage.
To fuel your ski day, try a breakfast burrito or quiche at the AAA One Diamond-rated Pagosa Baking Company. I can’t go in without taking home a loaf of bread or a slice of one of their homemade pies. For a more substantial breakfast, try the smothered country taters at 2 Chicks and a Hippie. Their grilled parm tomato sandwich is stellar for lunch.
When you’re ready for an après-ski pint, sip a Powder Day IPA or Soaker’s Stout to pair with green chile stew or beer-battered salmon fish and chips at the AAA Two Diamond-rated Pagosa Brewing and Grill. Thai Pagosa is where to go to get a curry fix. For pizza, the go-to spot is Rosie’s Pizzeria, and if you’re in the mood for margaritas and tacos, head over to the AAA Two Diamond-rated Kip’s Grill and Cantina.
Ski along the Continental Divide at Monarch Mountain, known for its snowcat skiing access to steep chutes, glades, and wide-open bowls. Expert skiers will find Mirkwood Basin a powder bliss. Riders can test their agility skills on the boxes and rails in two terrain parks. You can also learn or improve your telemark skiing on “Free-Heel Fridays.” Other fun activities include a guided Continental Divide ride with Monarch Snowmobile Tours, or laugh and scream as you swoosh down the hill in an inner tube at Monarch Tubing Park.
I love to stay in one of the cabins at Mt. Princeton Hot Springs Resort, about 25 minutes north of Salida. You can also stay in a room creekside, cliffside, hillside, or in the lodge. The hot springs are open to the public and included for overnight guests. Soak in a pool right outside of the Historic Bath House or in one of the creekside hot springs where 140 degrees Fahrenheit water bubbles out of the creek bed. If it gets too hot, just move a stone to let Chalk Creek’s cold water rush in. If staying all weekend, try a water yoga or aqua stretch class, or unwind with a spa treatment.
If you’d rather soak inside, Salida Hot Springs Aquatic Center is the largest indoor hot springs pool in the country and open to the public. For a more intimate experience, stay in one of Antero Hot Springs’ cabins. Each has its own private hot spring pool. If you want to stay in town, Amigo Motor Lodge is an old 1950s roadside motel transformed into the most Instagrammable place to stay in Salida. Go retro and stay in one of their chic airstreams. Then there’s the historic Palace Hotel, established in 1909, which oozes elegance and romance with its vintage chic décor. Complimentary room service of a continental breakfast means a little extra time to stay cozy in bed, like I did during one of my stays.
For breakfast, go for flapjacks at the AAA Two Diamond-rated Patio Pancake Place. Originally opened as a drive-in in 1964, the family-owned restaurant does good old-fashioned buttermilk pancakes, along with decadent ones like cheesecake or banana split. If you’re craving an omelet or biscuits and gravy, start your day at The Firefly Restaurant, or if you just want a coffee and a light bite, try the Hair of the Dog blend at Brown Dog Coffee Company. Pick up some homemade dog treats for your pooch, too.
For après ski, grab a beer at Elevation Beer Company. They usually have up to 16 beers on tap along with food trucks onsite. Fish tacos are my go-to at Boathouse Cantina on the Arkansas River, for fish and chips or steaks, head to Currents Steaks and Seafood, and it’s a toss-up for pizza in Salida, both AAA Two Diamond-rated restaurants, Moonlight Pizza and Brewpub and Amicas Pizza Microbrew & More, have creative pies and local beers.
Before you hit the road to explore Colorado’s historic hot springs loop, follow AAA Colorado’s guidelines for winter driving, including having an emergency kit, extra washer fluid, chains, and adequate tires to be compliant with Colorado’s updated laws. Then head off to find powder stashes galore, vibrant historic downtowns, and therapeutic steaming waters in Glenwood Springs, Pagosa Springs, and Salida on a small town ski-and-soak adventure.
Chilean ski adventure
Heli skiers head for the high peaks at Valle Nevado Ski Resort in the Andes Mountains of Chile. © Buddy Mays/Alamy Stock Photo
In addition to these small-town ski resorts, Colorado has a plethora of other great places to ski/ride, from Vail to Aspen, Breckenridge to Steamboat, or Purgatory to Winter Park, just to name a few. However, if you’re wanting to venture out and expand your ski horizons, and try something new and more adventurous, you’re in luck. This summer, AAA Colorado is offering a unique skiing experience in the Andes Mountains of South America.
You’ll join Karina Alder, one of the top ski pros with Aspen/Snowmass and more than 20 years of teaching, coaching, and racing experience, for five days on the breathtaking slopes of Valle Nevado, Chile.
At 10,000 feet, and its geographic location, this year-round resort is among the best high-end ski destinations in the world. During the day, you’ll get to ski/ride in great powder, wide-open terrain, and have the option to try heli-drop skiing. At night, you’ll enjoy scrumptious meals and lively entertainment.
After five days in the snow, you may feel the need to warm up. If so, you can extend your trip to explore the spectacular town of Santiago, Chile; before heading to the fertile oasis of the Atacama Desert. Here you’ll discover an astonishing diversity of flora and fauna, as well as enjoy an evening of telescope star gazing, hot air balloon rides, and remarkable Andean cuisine.
More “Three Days In”
Watch your inbox for another option for a small town ski & soak in the next EnCompass Exclusive e-newsletter—a monthly email that provides exclusive content you won’t find in the print edition. Plus, keep an eye out for the next series of “Three Days In” in the March-April 2020 edition of EnCompass.