Pagosa Springs offers Western Slope isolation in a developed area
PAGOSA SPRINGS — The word “remote,” according to some dictionaries, is a place situated far from the main centers of population or distant from others.
Well, sort of.
I suppose that is relative. What is considered a densely populated area to some might be insignificant to others. What is distant to some might be just around the corner to others.
For many Americans, western Colorado as a whole could be considered remote. But as a resident of western Colorado, I tend to think of remote not so much in population terms, but in geographic terms.
For example, to a resident of Grand Junction, while one may be far from the big cities of the coasts, remote would be better described as the hidden corners of the Colorado National Monument or one of the wilderness areas, such as Flat Tops to the north.
But this past weekend, I found remote along a paved road. Traveling in and out of western Colorado, most routes take us along a heavily traveled route. Not this time.
Destination: Pagosa Springs.
Pagosa Springs, to me anyway, is remote.
Remote in a good way, though. South-central Colorado is great country, it’s just not much on the way to anywhere else as one might commonly travel. You have to plan to go there for the sake of going there. A beautiful area, easily accessed with all the traits of a small tourist or ski town.
Pagosa Springs’ claim to claim, as to tourism, is the hot springs pool. What I really want to talk about is the river, but briefly I’ll say the pool was great. Different from others I have been to, while there is a large swimming pool, the soaking pools are small, but numerous. They’re closer to the size of a large hotel hot tub.
Each one is partially secluded from the others, and each has a posted temperature. Some are mild, some moderate, and some you-can’t-stay-but-a-few-minutes hot.
Since it was late April and the off-season, the town and pool were active but not overly crowded. That added to the remote feeling. Similar for the river.
The San Juan River is highly acclaimed at the tailwater below Navajo Dam in New Mexico. But here in Pagosa Springs, closer to the headwaters, the river is a typical mountain stream that has turned into a river by the time it reaches the valley floor and the town itself.
The San Juan begins northeast of Pagosa Springs, in the area of Wolf Creek Pass. That pass is along the Continental Divide — indeed still Western Slope territory — and the nearby ski area is notorious for the high amount of snowfall received annually.
The West Fork and the East Fork are the primary fishing waters in the upper reaches. Highway 160 follows a tributary of the West Fork down off the pass and combines with the East Fork about 10 miles upstream of Pagosa Springs. In the lower valley reach, the river is private, and one must get into the U.S. Forest Service public lands for access. The West Fork is more secluded with less road access and more hiking access compared to the East Fork, which has a good dirt road along its lower 5 miles.
In town, for a little more than a mile, there has been significant stream improvement work, using large boulders to create alternating pools and riffles for fishing habitat. The city and the businesses have a fund they collect, using the proceeds to purchase and stock catchable trout. And they buy some big ones — every year someone catches a large fish measured in pounds rather than the usual inches.
I stopped into Let It Fly, a local fishing retailer, and talked to owner Mark Miller. Known locally as “Pops,” he had all the where-to and how-to information on fishing the San Juan. Following his directions and using some flies he suggested, I made my way to the river. I had fished here in town before, but it was many years ago, so back to the remote theme, even though I was in town, being April, I had my choice of spots.
It did not disappoint. With only part of a day to sneak up on a trout, I managed to catch and release a number of nice fish, including one hefty brown trout that measured more than 19 inches. With low and cold water, the fish were all hanging out in the deepest holes by the rock structures. A double nymph rig with a weighted fly was enough to get into their underwater hiding place.
Also in the area between Pagosa Spings and Durango are the Florida, the Piedra, and the Los Piños Rivers. Each one is a destination spot.
Remote? Maybe. Accessible, yes. Combined with the pool, the nearly San Juan below Navajo, and headwaters up the pass, I’ll take this version of remote any day.