Steam rose from the hot springs that gushed down a hillside into creek-fed pools.
We carefully waded into the water surrounded by lush orange, red, pink and purple flowers capped by sunny blue skies overhead.
It felt like we had dropped into some tropical paradise — except we were in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
I was visiting my sister, Megan Smith, a Minnesota native now living in Denver. Leaving behind the traffic jams of her adopted city, we drove three hours northwest for a weekend in the relaxed mountain town of Steamboat Springs.
While Colorado has seen a record-breaking growth in tourism, Steamboat Springs (pop. 12,000) felt less crowded and further off the beaten path than other ritzy ski villages. This was particularly true during my summer visit, when its green ski hills sat empty. Turns out, you don’t need to be a skier to enjoy the city dubbed Ski Town, USA.
Our main destination was Strawberry Park Hot Springs — one of about 30 hot springs throughout Colorado. But unlike others that require a backcountry hike to reach them or boast resort-style tiled indoor pools with waterslides, Strawberry Park is a natural, laid-back outdoor escape, no matter the season.
Located about 7 miles outside Steamboat Springs, the pools are open daily year-round. Named after the strawberries that grow in the area, the pools are carved out of a wooded area of evergreens and towering white aspens. The aptly named Hot Spring Creek flows by and cools off the 145-degree spring water.
After driving a two-way aspen-lined dirt road, we reached the hot springs and paid admission at an old truck and wooden trailer (only cash or check is accepted for admission, which is $8 for ages 3-17 and $15 for adults).
A lack of pretension and a low-key vibe prevail at Strawberry Park, perhaps reminiscent of the days when the therapeutic hot springs drew the area’s American Indians, then ranchers. There’s no electricity and sparse cell service, but that was OK; we were there to disconnect.
We dropped our towels off on a bench and dipped our feet into the largest pool, the dark warm water gleaming in the sunshine, surrounded by rocks and stone ledges, and expansive landscaping.
“That’s what I like about it — they kept it natural,” my sister said. “It feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
The connected pools vary in temperature ranging from 101 to 107 degrees. Kids and families filled the cooler pools while adults soaked in the hottest ones.
In the hottest, steaming water slipped down the side of a rocky wall. We watched as one-by-one, bathers moved toward the hot spring before lurching back, surprised by the scalding water.
A group of middle-aged women next to us blurted out “eww” as their feet touched algae-covered rocks below. Strawberry Park may not be for everyone, but for us, growing up swimming in wild Minnesota lakes, it was the wilderness-like atmosphere that drew us there.
We soaked in the heat, our eyes lulled shut by the warm sunshine and the constant gurgle of cascading waterfalls as water dropped to the pool below. The experience was similar to a sauna; we occasionally hopped out and cooled off at the pool’s edge before sinking back into the steamy pool.
Even on a summer day, with temperatures climbing into the 70s, the pools drew a crowd with families filling the park. Children aren’t allowed after dark (that’s when there’s natural bathing, aka clothing optional). The park doesn’t have a concession stand or restaurant and there is limited parking. But there are rustic cabins for rent and those looking for a spa experience can book a massage.
After three hours of bathing, we changed in a simple poolside building and sought out a larger, colder waterfall.
About 10 miles away, we hiked a quarter-mile and cooled off in the popular Fish Creek Falls, dipping our feet in the icy mountain base of the waterfall that drops 280 feet and stumbles over boulders.
We wandered down the main street of Steamboat Springs, a Western town filled with tidy shops and restaurants. The night before, after a dinner of “Colorado-style” pizza, thick rolled crust dipped in honey from Beau Jo’s, we split a flight of beers at Mountain Tap Brewery — part of Steamboat Springs’ growing brewery scene.
Then we strolled along the Yampa River near downtown. The boom of a rodeo announcer echoed in the distance as bicyclists quietly cruised by on a trail.
Two anglers fly-fishing in the middle of the bubbling river cast their lines at a leisurely pace, as the sun set in a haze of pinks and orange on the ridge-lined horizon.