|The Great Pagosa Hot Spring, the world’s largest and deepest hot mineral spring, blesses residents and visitors alike with legendary waters known for their palliative qualities — or their ability to merely wash away the aches of a rigorous day on Pagosa Country trails. With three downtown bathing facilities offering either indoor or outdoor pools (or both), and water temperatures that vary between hot and very hot, soakers have little choice other than to sink into a pool, kick back and say, “Ahhhhh!”
The Real Story
On the west side of Hot Springs Boulevard, southwest of The Springs office and near the two-story hotel, you’ll find the Great Pagosa Hot Spring. At 144 degrees, the main spring is too hot for bathing, but its water heats the Springs Resort. In fact, many downtown buildings are heated by privately-owned geothermal wells or the town’s geothermal heating system, fed by a town well.
The process essentially begins as water percolates through the Earth’s surface in its endless cycle (evaporation/condensation/precipitation/collection), eventually descending through super-heated rock and magma, gaining a three- to five-degree increase for every 300 feet of depth. Under pressure, the heated water begins to rise, following cracks and fissures in the rock, eventually making its way to the surface. On the way, it can pick up a host of minerals such as sulfur, silica, calcium, potassium, etc., and, if the water retains heat, emerges in the form of hot springs.
The Great Pagosa Hot Spring is one of the largest and hottest known geothermal pools in the world. A recent attempt to measure the depth of the Great Pagosa Hot Spring by an engineering firm (during rehabilitation of the site) ended when the sounding plumb dropped to a depth of 1,500 feet and failed to touch bottom.
The birth of The Great Pagosa Hot Spring begins well above our heads, forms well beneath our feet and then realizes itself to the benefit of our tired legs and other muscles.
The area’s earliest explorers marveled at the Great Pagosa Hot Spring, renowned even then as a sacred site by the mountain-dwelling Ute Indians. An ancient Ute legend thus describes the origin of the spring:
A dreadful plague once devastated the clan, while obstructing the potions and power of tribal medicine men. Many tribal members were lost. To offer a plea to the gods, the people gathered on the banks of the San Juan River. There, they built a huge fire, prayed and danced to the point of exhaustion. Eventually, all fell fast asleep. In the morning, as they awakened, they discovered a pool of boiling water bubbling from beneath the coals of the ceremonial fire. Seeing this as a sign from the gods, the afflicted bathed in the soothing water and were, at once, cured. From then on, the great spring became known as “Pag-Osah,” a place of peace and healing.
A more recent tale depicts a long-standing confrontation between the Utes and Navajo Indians for ownership of the spring. Well before white settlers entered Pagosa Country — perhaps between 1865 and 1874 — at a time when an unwritten truce recognized the San Juan River as the boundary between nations, the warring tribes clashed over control of the healing waters. Rather than a battle between warriors, though, leaders from each side agreed to select a single individual to represent their respective clans. The skirmish would be a fight to the death, with the winning tribe forever maintaining possession of the Great Pagosa Hot Spring.
The Navajos chose a giant of a man, known for his combat skills. The Utes selected Col. Albert Pfeiffer, an Indian agent, friend of Col. Kit Carson, and an adopted member of the Ute tribe. The combatants stripped to the waist in true frontier fashion and, with a Bowie knife in one hand and the other tied behind the back, promptly confronted one another.
After a preliminary scuffle, the quicker, more agile Pfeiffer suddenly threw his knife at the opposing warrior. The steel blade found a lethal mark and the mortally wounded opponent collapsed. The Utes claimed victory and ownership of the Great Pagosa Hot Spring. Ultimately, however, as whites gradually settled the area, the federal government claimed ownership of the spring and eventually deeded it to private “citizens.”
To this day, the battle site is honored with a memorial alongside U.S. 160, about four miles west of Pagosa Springs. While the site was identified by Pfeiffer’s granddaughters, the actual duel apparently took place a few hundred yards south of the monument.
Because the waters of the Great Pagosa Hot Spring are roughly 144 degrees Fahrenheit, no one bathes directly in the spring. The Utes took steam baths in natural cavities adjacent to it, or trapped the water in pools and allowed it to cool before taking mud baths. Early pioneers and settlers carried water from the spring to nearby bath houses, where they filled tubs, then waited until the water cooled enough for a soak.
By 1881, Thomas Blair erected Pagosa’s first public bathhouse along the river near the spring, where a ditch carried water from the outflow to the bathhouse. When title to the spring and its surrounding 40 acres was eventually awarded to The Pagosa Springs Company, Blair was forced to move. The company took over the facility and in 1888, modified the bathhouse and added others.
The Great Pagosa Hot Spring has long been an important part of Pagosa Country culture and history.