On a Colorado topographic map, the San Luis Valley stands out as a vast, vacant area amidst the peaks and troughs of the state.
Bordered by the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, whose red glow at dusk gives its Spanish name "Blood of Christ," it's a spot many Summit County folk drive through but don't take the time to stop. We typically stop somewhere in the Arkansas River Valley or keep going toward Wolf Creek and beyond into New Mexico.
It doesn't seem like much is happening in that vast wide open space that can fit the state of Delaware inside it nearly four times, but once you turn left off Highway 285 and meander along one of the many dirt roads leading back into the mountains, it's otherworldly. Add to that the oasis of Joyful Journey Hot Springs, a lodge and spa set right out in the open with spectacular views of the glowing red mountain sunsets, and you've got a little getaway from frigid Summit County temperatures.
In Summit County, we have the luxury of looking east and west, south and north for escapes from the pre-snow season game of watching blue sky after blue sky roll through the chilly High Country. Moab was an option, and so was Denver, but I decided to head south, toward Salida, and go the little extra distance up and over Poncha Pass to Joyful Journey Hot Springs, a place I'd heard was a serene getaway but had never experienced it.
As a former river rat and current snow bum, I have passed through Salida many a time for everything from stopping for last-minute stores on the way to a river trip in the Southwest to stopping for dinner on the way back from Mammoth Mountain.
My hands-down favorite stop for food is Amicas Pizza and Microbrewery, so that was my first stop after poking around the cute, artsy town of Salida. I do wish more shops and galleries were open when I was there, though! To die for is the simple but delicious insalata spinaci and the alghero pizza. Spice it up with splash of the restaurant's famous pepper-infused oil and a bottle of their green chili beer.
In our foodie satisfaction and as we enjoyed the warming day, we set off for the vast valley without thinking much about the fact that we'd need dinner later on - a mistake for two people accustomed to full markets with fresh produce. Please note: the grocery stores near Joyful Journey meet basic needs, but don't provide a selection of cheeses and crackers, for instance, one might want on a relaxing trip to the hot springs. Buy your food in advance! Particularly so if you arrive at the hot springs near sunset, you can enjoy it using the provided microwave and grill rather than voyaging out for stores.
Before landing down at the hot springs, we'd scoped out a few dirt drives into the canyons of the Sangre de Cristo, so we peeled off Highway 285 and headed east. There, we entered the Orient Land Trust, a naturist organization protecting the land - the "naturist" part meaning one might encounter nude people in the clothing-optional area. The Orient Land Trust houses Valley View hot spring, natural mineral springs tucked away in the hills, as well as the bat cave. We headed toward the bat cave, home to the largest bat colony in Colorado - though the Brazilian free-tailed bats were long gone for winter, as they stick around from early June to September.
At the Glory Hole, a place where the Orient Mine collapsed into itself, these bats make their globally-significant home. Near sunset, they emerge from the gaping hole in the earth in a ribbon and spread out across the valley, eating two to three tons of insects per night, according to plaques in the area. The land trust has established a fenced boundary around the hole to prevent visitors from falling into its 150-foot depths. It has also installed benches, welcoming bat watchers to sit and observe the bats as dusk turns to night and the stars begin to creep out of the dark sky.
Finishing the hike and departing with a fact about Colorado we'd never known before (almost on par with the fact that Colorado has huge sand dunes not far away from where we were), we hopped back in the car to take in the relaxing and healing waters of Joyful Journey.
In a world of yucca and sagebrush, Joyful Journey is an oasis in the San Luis Valley's high desert. It's just two-and-a-half hours from Summit County via Breckenridge, but it's otherworldly. The temperatures are warmer (I sunbathed in 50 degrees after stepping out of the hot baths), and there's typically less snow on the ground, making it an ideal weekend getaway for locals and long-term visitors wanting a break from the ongoing whitewash of winter.
Joyful Journey built its lodge roughly four years ago as a place for conferences to convene and as a more established housing option in winter. It complements existing tent camping and a yurt area (some of which are pet-friendly), and gives a feel of New Mexican charm with its colors and use of bare tile and earth-toned stucco.
The large room with two clean queen beds greeted us with a feeling of simplicity, charm and cleanliness. The tile had a hint of heat running through it, welcome to one who forgot her slippers. Those who stay at the lodge (rates vary by season, day of week, type of amenity and whether its a holiday or not) are given access to the pools two hours before the general public, so a sunrise soak isn't out of the question.
Joyful Journey offers a line of handmade health and spa products along with its mineral waters piped from where they leave the ground through the pool system that's scrubbed nightly. The place has a hint of Native American history, as the valley used to be a resting place for area tribes. There's also a sense of forced disconnectedness, as rooms are void of televisions, phones and radios (though a wireless Internet signal can be picked up in many rooms).