Published in Backpacker Magazine‘s October 2016 Issue.
The walk through pine forests and stands of gold aspen was peaceful. We gained just a thousand feet of elevation over 5 miles alongside the charged San Juan River, where we parted swaths of skunk cabbage and ferns beneath the pink dome of 13,168-foot Sheep Mountain. It’s dark by the time we reach camp. The beam from my headlamp reveals my breath smoke—and a cloud of steam twisting above the embankment. It’s our prize: Rainbow Hot Springs, nature’s hot tub. From its warm waters, we’ll be able to see downcanyon to Sheep Mountain as the rising moon sets it alight. We should make camp or start dinner, but we have other priorities.
Distance: 10 miles (out and back)
Time: 2 days
From the West Fork trailhead
(1) Head .4 mile north on the dirt road to a junction.
(2) Turn east onto the West Fork Trail (also called the Rainbow Trail) and parallel the San Juan River 4.5 miles upcanyon.
(3) Veer west onto the social path and take it .1 mile to Rainbow Hot Springs.
(4) Retrace your steps to the trailhead.
Rainbow Hot Springs (mile 5)
Set up at one of the 10 or so first-come, first-serve sites on the cliff overlooking the springs. It’s an easy scramble down to the water.
A sight for sore eyes (and legs): Rainbow Hot Springs owes its relative quiet to remoteness, sure, but that’s a small price to pay for getting it to yourself. Expect to share in the high season (summer), but come November, it’s private.
The West Fork Trail intercepts the Continental Divide—and the CDT—6 miles north of Rainbow Hot Springs. From there, fuse together any number of trails (Pine River and Sawtooth are good bets). Loop option: Take the CDT east about 7 miles and link up with the Beaver Creek Trail, which meanders 6 miles south before converging with the West Fork Trail (call before you go; it may be closed for mudslides). All told: a 28-miler that samples the Weminuche’s best high passes.
DO IT Trailhead 37.457627, -106.919307; 17 miles north of Pagosa Springs on W Fork Rd. Red tape Check before you go: The beetle kill can make travel dangerous. Season June to November; fall is best for solitude. Permit None Custom mapbit.do/BPmapRainbowHotSprings ($15) Contactbit.do/weminuche-wildTrip databackpacker.com/rainbowhotsprings
- State: CO
- City: Denver, CO
- Distance: 10.0
- Land Type: Wilderness Area