Go Off the Beaten Path: Joyful Journey Hot Springs

    There's more than soothing soaking at these two hot spring oases in the San Luis Valley. Discover a combo getaway at the easily accessible, yet off-the-beaten path Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa and Sand Dunes Recreation.

    soakers at joyful journey hot springs
    Photo courtesy of Joyful Journey Hot Springs and Spa.

    I’m giddy as I pick up one of my girlfriends for a much-overdue two-day road trip. The hot waters of the San Luis Valley are calling on this early spring morning, and we’re on our way to soak away stresses while sharing some quality time.

    Friends—including the one accompanying me—have been recommending Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa for years. I’ve been told it’s a healing escape. Turns out they were right. From the hot mineral waters that fill their pools with no smell of sulfur to the stunning mountain peak views surrounding the property, the facility provides a peaceful haven.

    Located in Moffat, Colorado, about 30 minutes south of Salida, Joyful Journey is an easy two and a half-hour drive whether you go south through Pueblo or west through Woodland Park. We choose the latter route with a quick lunch stop in Salida.

    When we arrive on property, we’re ready to settle in. We’re housed in one of the lodge rooms, and we immediately pop out to our private back patio to take in the views across the sweeping valley and savor a few sun rays. Later that evening we sit outside to ogle two owls as they play and perch in nearby trees. (A staff member tell us the next morning that the birds spend much time here, and have recently hatched babies.) Inside, we’re pleased with the simple aspen log furniture, private bathroom and lack of a television. But for those who prefer even less hotel-like housing, Joyful Journey also offers a choice among fully furnished, heated yurts; RV, tent and car camping sites; and seasonally-available tipis.

    Beneath the Sangre de Cristo mountains sit heated tipis for a less hotel-like experience.
    Lodging options include the main Lodge, yurts and even tipis beneath the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Photo courtesy of Joyful Journey Hot Springs.

    Soaking, of course, is the primary activity here, and the pools do not disappoint. Cooled from their natural 120- to 145-degree temps to a more manageable 98 to 108 degrees, the waters feature nearly 20 different minerals including lithium, calcium, boron and magnesium. Signs around the pools remind those in the area to “Keep voices soft and bask in the beauty.” Soaking is complimentary if you’re staying on property, as is a continental breakfast and hearty soup-and-salad-bar dinner.

    And while it might seem weird to say: Come for the soaking, stay for the salad. Hear me out.

    Yes, the pools are primary to Joyful Journey, but soaking is not the only activity here. There’s a labyrinth to walk, crafted of large granite stones and modeled after the Chartres Cathedral in France. Regardless of its inspirations, I’d venture to say this is quite possibly the most beautiful setting of any labyrinth anywhere.

    The Labyrinth is crafted from granite stones and modeled after the Chartres Cathedral in France.
    The Labyrinth is crafted from granite stones and modeled after the Chartres Cathedral in France. Photo courtesy of Joyful Journey Hot Springs.

    A short hike past the labyrinth will bring you to Meditation Hill, with benches to sit on and ponder the towering peaks. On your way back from these two areas, make sure to stop in the geodesic dome greenhouse, where plants, flowers, herbs and greens grow year round—including many that may end up in your aforementioned dinner salad.

    We soak once the day we arrive, and we rise early to soak again in the morning before packing up. Both times we choose the same pool. It’s the largest, hottest and, most importantly, empty when we arrive. We can gaze at the mountains and chat intermittently without bothering anyone. (Overnight guests can access the pools at 7:30, before they open to the day-soaking public at 9 a.m.) We could easily hang around here for another day, so it’s with a bit of melancholy that we head off.

    Down faces, though, turn quickly into perma- smiles. That’s because Sand Dunes Recreation is a completely unexpected oasis of joy.

    Located near Hooper, about 30 minutes south of Joyful Journey, Sand Dunes Recreation features multiple indoor and outdoor pools filled with hot water originally discovered in the 1930s by oil drillers. The largest is a family-friendly swimming pool, with diving boards, a baby area, a 24-foot kids’ waterslide, and expansive views of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. It’s busy when we arrive, and I’m not the only one with a grin on my face.

    The hidden gem here is the recently added Greenhouse. Set aside as an adults-only area, the 10,000-square-foot space includes a 75-foot-long, zero-entry pool and three smaller soaking pools of varying temperatures starting at 103 degrees. There’s also a sauna, an outdoor patio with fireplaces and the Steel Box Bar. Fully enclosed, the structure is a literal greenhouse, in that visitors are surrounded by lush gardens and grass. It’s a rare and welcome treat in Colorado to float in a pool with tropical greenery and sweet-scented flowers hanging around your head year-round.

    As we wade into the zero-entry pool, I notice that this is no pop-up tourist trap, but a community gathering space. A physical therapist conducts water therapy with two clients at one end. An older gentleman reading The Art of Dreaming by Carlos Casteneda on a poolside lounge chair tells us that he lives in Alamosa, and makes the 25-minute drive to the Greenhouse twice a week. One of the staff chefs plays a (very slow) game of chess with another regular at the bar—which brings me to the food.

    The Steel Box Bar wine and beer list is quite extensive, with Eddyline and Great Divide, plus Omission’s gluten-free lager sitting aside the usual domestics. The food menu is eyebrow-raising. We’ve had two separate recommendations of the local Gosar Ranch andouille sausage and shrimp skewers, but we’re both vegetarian. We order the flatbread special (hold the prosciutto), layered with fresh mozzarella, mascarpone cheese, fig jam, arugula, shaved Parmesan and fresh cracked pepper. Add the housemade olive tapenade with French baguette, and once again, we’re all grins as we fill our bellies. 

    We’ve got plans to hike the Sand Dunes this afternoon before heading home, but I’ll admit, I contemplate just staying put. I’ve always loved the San Luis Valley for its grounding sense of scenic solitude. Now I’ve got two more reasons to make regular visits to the region a priority.

    Want to Go?

    » Drop-in soaking: $15 for adults at Joyful Journey and Sand Dunes.

    » Spa treatments, including massages and facials, available at Joyful Journey.

    » Info and lodging rates: joyfuljourneyhotsprings.com and sanddunespool.com

    Find more hot springs in our Hot Springs Escapes here.