Rainbow Hot Springs
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

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Incredible Backcountry Trails
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    Distance: 9.4 miles (round trip)

    Walking time:  5 1/2 hours

    : 1,000 ft. gain/loss
       Rainbow Trailhead (start): 8,160 ft.
       Rainbow Hot Springs: 8,990 ft.

    Trail: Mostly well marked and easy to follow.

    Season: Summer through mid-Fall. The upper parts of the trail are generally covered with snow from Late November through mid-June.

    Vicinity: Near Pagosa Springs

    Rainbow Hot SpringsRainbow Hot Springs


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    Your reward at the end of this hike will be a rare opportunity to lie back and immerse your tired body in a waste-deep pool of warm spring water on the shore of a scenic, fast-flowing mountain stream. The spring flows from a small fissure on the east side of the West Fork San Juan River and tumbles down the rock face into two small pools that have been constructed by previous hikers. The lower pool, about 20 feet long and 8 feet wide, is situated right on the shore of the river. Its temperature averages 95 degrees F, but if that is not hot enough you can climb up to the slightly smaller upper pool. The smaller pool is 15 feet closer to the spring and 10 degrees hotter. Most people cannot stay in the upper pool for longer than about 15 minutes, but there is always the option of cooling off in the 50-degree water of the river.

    Although Rainbow Hot Springs is not well known outside southwestern Colorado it is quite popular among local hikers and you are unlikely to have the springs all to yourself. Nevertheless it can be a very enjoyable hike. There are also a number of fine campsites in the open forest above the springs, and many people do this hike as an overnighter.

    When you leave the parking area you will initially be walking on a jeep road that runs through an inholding of privately owned land within San Juan National Forest. Soon you will pass several summer homes, and after 10 minutes you will come to a well-signed junction where the Rainbow Trail departs from the right side of the road. The road actually ends 0.2 miles beyond the junction on the south side of a large privately-owned lake, but numerous signs make it abundantly clear that visitors are not welcome at the lake and hikers are expected to stay on the trail! The residents here could legally close the trail if they felt that their rights were being abused, so I suggest that we all comply with the signs and respect their privacy.

    Soon after leaving the road the trail turns north and begins following the rim of West Fork Canyon. The canyon cannot generally be seen from the trail, but there are a few viewpoints along the way and it is very impressive. The steep V-shaped gorge has been cut from a relatively soft strata of volcanic tuff by the cascading river 300 feet below the rim.

    0.8 mile after leaving the jeep road the trail finally leaves the private land and enters San Juan National Forest. Then, 0.2 mile later you will see a sign indicating that you have entered the Weminuche Wilderness Area. The forest of huge Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce is so pretty in this area it is reassuring to know that it will never be developed.

    Within 250 feet after passing the wilderness area sign the trail comes to the first of three large bridges that have been constructed by the Forest Service. This one crosses Burro Creek, a tributary on the west side of the West Fork. From Burro Creek the trail continues high along the west side of the West Fork of the San Juan River for another 1.2 miles before crossing it on the second bridge. Then just 0.2 mile further it crosses Beaver Creek on the third bridge.

    Before the mid 1980s there were no bridges across West Fork and Beaver Creek, so it was necessary to ford these rivers in order to reach the hot springs. Both streams carry a substantial flow of water, especially in early summer, and wading through the icy, chest-deep water was often hazardous. Finally, after a backpacker was drowned trying to cross West Fork, the Forest Service decided to improve the trail and bridges were constructed across West Fork and Beaver Creek.

    After crossing Beaver Creek the trail climbs about 200 feet up the east side of the canyon and continues north. 1.0 mile from Beaver Creek you will come to a trail junction where the Beaver Creek Trail heads east towards the Continental Divide. Bear left at this point.

    In the next 0.7 mile after leaving the Beaver Creek Trail Junction the trail crosses two more small drainages. Immediately after the second drainage you will come to a fork in the trail where you must turn left, and within 200 feet the path passes through a well-used campsite about 90 feet above the east side of the river. The rim of the canyon is only 20 feet from the campsite, and from there you can look down at the two small bathing pools that comprise Rainbow Hot Springs directly below the camp.

    There are several other campsites in the area, but there are no signs indicating the presence of the hot springs and there are no good trails leading to them. They are easy to miss if you arenít paying attention. In order to reach the hot springs you must continue northward along the rim of the canyon for another 100 yards to a point where there is an easier access to the river. Once you reach the river you can double back along its shore to the pools where your reward awaits you.

    If you are in the mood for some exploration you will find another small pool 250 yards upstream from the first pools. The third pool lies 10 feet from the water in a flat grassy area that is much easier to access than the first two pools. In my opinion, however, it is not as interesting as the first pools.


    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Rainbow Hot Spings Trail
    we recommend:
    Weminuche Wilderness  (Trails Illustrated, map #140)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

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