If you visited Valley View in June or July 2013, you may have noticed the thick, choking smoke and the western horizon ablaze.
The West Fork Complex fire, actually three fires started by lightning in spruce forests that had been ravaged by beetles, burned 108,000 acres. In the heart of that fire was Rainbow Hot Springs, a collection of primitive, clothing-optional pools every bit as lovely as those at Valley View, but requiring a long hike each way into the Weminuche Wilderness to reach.
Some wondered what would happen to the springs. Would the campsites be destroyed? Would post-fire erosion fill in the fragile pools? Would the U.S. Forest Service keep the trail closed?
I am happy to report the answer is "no" to all of the above. Though the area is a sea of dead or burnt trees, as of late June 2013 the campsites were usable. The largest pool, known for its huge slime-coated waterfall, was hot and clear. The relaxing warm pool in the meadow beyond was fine, and some good Samaritans had recently dug out the hot pool just across the San Juan River. They told me it was 104 degrees, hotter than they'd ever seen it.
The hike is not for the faint of heart, 6 miles and 1,200 feet of climbing - and you thought the hike to the top ponds at Valley View was a lung-buster. But make the trek and you'll experience solitude and immersion in the wilderness like never before.
- still very delicate
- dead trees falling
- not ready for stock users yet
- seeking restoration support
Reach the trailhead just west of Wolf Creek Pass on U.S. Highway 160. Turn north at the sign for the West Fork Campground and drive 3.5 miles to the trailhead. Trail No. 561 goes up the dirt road then turns off to the right and is easy to follow. You'll know you've reached the first pool when you see a trail to the left marked by two small cairns. Carefully follow this down steeply to the river for the first, and largest, pool.
To find the other pools return to the main trail and hike another quarter-mile, where a trail branches to the left and leads into a meadow. One lukewarm pool is in the meadow and the hottest pool is across the river.
The area is snow-covered and difficult to access November through April.
by Scott Rappold