Town Story: Pagosa Springs
Pagosa Springs doesn’t end at the city limits. The people who live here feel an intimate connection to the river, the forests, the mountains and the ski slopes just up the road at Wolf Creek Pass.
Pagosa Springs is surrounded by the vast San Juan National Forest. Williams Creek Reservoir, just north of town, is a popular spot for fishing. The forest also is a mecca for big-game hunters.
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(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)
THE SNOW SHED that covers U.S. Highway 160 at Wolf Creek Pass is there to keep avalanches from blocking the road. It was not intended to be used as a ski jump – a detail that Larry Fisher duly noted and ignored.
A framed photograph of Fisher flying off the snow shed on skis hangs on the wall inside the Ski and Bow Rack, the Pagosa Springs shop he has owned for nearly three decades. It’s one of several photos of Fisher performing acrobatic flips on skis. Elsewhere in his skiing and hunting store is a bear skin from a massive animal he brought down with a single arrow in the forest outside of Pagosa Springs.
As he recounted his bear adventure – he had been hunting elk when the bear suddenly appeared – Fisher was interrupted by his nephew, who works at the store. “Linda stopped by to return this,” he said, handing Fisher an empty plastic tub whose label indicated it originally contained yogurt. We had to know: Why was Linda returning an empty yogurt container? It turns out Fisher had repurposed the tub to hold a batch of his homemade ice cream that he’d given his friend, who thoughtfully gave back the tub so he could use it again.
Our conversation with Fisher was Pagosa Springs in a nutshell: People here like to ski and hunt in the beautiful mountains that surround them, but most of all, they like each other. They are compulsively neighborly.
PAGOSA SPRINGS LIES along the San Juan River in southern Colorado, in a valley bordered by the San Juan Mountains and the San Juan National Forest. It would have seemed logical if the town were called San Juan, too, but it gets its name instead from the Ute word for “healing water.” People have been drawn to the hot springs along the riverbank since the days of the Ancestral Puebloans.
The valley’s prevailing sense of tranquility seems to emanate from the springs, as it has for time immemorial. Before the town existed, the Ute and Navajo people of the area sometimes fought each other, but the steaming hot springs were always a place where violence was forbidden.
The springs emerge from a deep aquifer, though no one knows exactly how deep it is. In 2011, Guinness World Records measured the “mother spring” to a depth of 1,002 feet, but that figure was arrived at because they couldn’t measure any farther – the plumb line they used had been fully extended. It was enough to net Pagosa the title of “World’s Deepest Geothermal Hot Springs.”
The mother spring feeds the therapeutic mineral pools and waterfalls at The Springs Resort & Spa, an elegant hotel just off Main Street on Hot Springs Boulevard. Across the street is Healing Waters Resort & Spa, a folksier motel and RV Park that’s been here since the road was unpaved. Healing Waters has been owned by Marsha Preuit’s family since 1950. Her mother, who lived to just shy of her 97th birthday, took daily mineral baths and drank glasses of water from the springs. Though many people say the spring water tastes like sulfur, Preuit has lived here so long it just tastes like regular water to her.
The town has changed over the years, but Preuit has never wanted to live anywhere else. The place still has an openness about it, both figuratively and literally – a lot of people here don’t lock their doors and leave their car keys in the ignition.
That level of friendliness and trust can be jarring to outsiders. Once, when Preuit was at home on holiday break from college, a Pagosan friend of hers on break from Northwestern University dropped by to visit, bringing along a Chicago-born classmate. Instead of knocking, the friend opened Preuit’s door and marched inside. “Oh my gosh!” the Chicagoan exclaimed. “What are you doing? You just walked in the house!”