Four for the Road

There's nothing more American than a long stretch of highway (or a winding stretch of dirt), a full tank of gas—and nowhere to be until work on Monday. Whether you're looking for luxurious hot springs, Technicolor waterfalls, small-town beer tastings, or some down-and-dirty four-wheelin', we've got the perfect trip for you.

May 2010

4. Some Like It Hot

Our three-day pursuit takes us through two states and over three mountain passes, and lands us in four fabulous mineral springs.

The route: Denver to Saratoga, Wyoming, to Steamboat Springs
The distance: 525-mile loop driving time: 10 hours

Westerners have relatively easy access to some of the country's most stunning geography. We can jump in the car and explore soaring peaks, high desert, pine forests, and a variety of geothermal hotspots—which is exactly what we're hoping to find on our trip through northern Colorado and southern Wyoming this weekend.

My husband, Matt, doesn't love hot springs, but he's indulging me, mostly because I remind him that we can stop at Johnson's Corner, a landmark truck stop and diner just south of Fort Collins, with a solid breakfast menu and mouthwatering cinnamon rolls, on our way north on I-25. Fully sated after a breakfast of eggs and biscuits and gravy, we buy a cinnamon roll for the road and cruise toward our first destination of Saratoga, Wyoming.

The drive through southern Wyoming resembles what I'd imagine Siberia might look like: dry and desolate and isolated. It's beautiful, though—antelope dot the rolling prairie, and tall, spindly grasses sway in the near-constant breeze. But it's the beauty of Medicine Bow National Forest that really catches my breath. Interstate 80 elbows around the forest, but during the warm season Highway 130 opens and makes for a lodgepole pine- and wildflower-lined drive through Medicine Bow and into Saratoga.

The rustic town of about 1,700 residents straddles the North Platte River and sits atop one of the most active mineral springs in the state. The Saratoga Resort & Spa, an inn built in the 1950s that still has a middle-of-the-last-century ambience, takes full advantage of the area's geothermal goings-on. Captured in a variety of stone-enclosed pools, a nearly odorless hot spring gurgles up through the ground in the resort's backyard. The pools, some small and some large, hover anywhere between 100 and 106 degrees. Before heading to the inn's on-site brewery for a late lunch of piquant green chile and happy hour-priced brews, we slip into each of the four intimate, tepee-covered pools before cooling off in the more temperate, 70-foot-long pool.

After a night at the resort, we wake up, throw on our still-wet bathing suits, and drive less than a mile to the town's Hobo Hot Springs, a public spring that's free and open 24 hours a day. The pool area is Spartan at best—it's really just a concrete enclosure that envelops some seriously hot spring water (the main pool's temp can reach 110; the "lobster pot" at the back can hit 120 degrees)—but it's worth the stop for its sheer uniqueness. In the summer, bathers can walk from the Hobo Hot Springs down to the North Platte River, where a small area closed off with rocks catches enough hot spring water to make a refreshing pool right in the river.

Back in the car, we towel off and wiggle into warm, dry clothes before pointing our GPS toward Steamboat Springs, a three-hour drive south from Saratoga. The route takes us through stunning geography—rolling hills lined by high peaks—along Wyoming's Highway 230 and Colorado highways 125 and 14.

The scenery in Steamboat Springs is just as picturesque, if a bit more metropolitan. We pull up in front of Winona's, a quaint breakfast and lunch joint along the main drag of Lincoln Avenue. There's almost always a wait, but we sit down to a bowl of delicious tortilla soup and a juicy burger after just 15 minutes. From there we check into the Rabbit Ears Motel, a roadside spot with typical motel furnishings but with an atypical location: right on Lincoln Avenue and adjacent to the Yampa River. This location is also ideal for hot springs aficionados. Directly across the street lies the Old Town Hot Springs, a recreational facility that has eight hot spring-fed pools, two waterslides, a fitness center, and massage facilities. The atmosphere feels a bit like you're going to soak at a 24 Hour Fitness, but it's great for families with kids, and it's easily accessible after a long day in the hills.

For a more adults-only swim, we drive the seven miles uphill to Strawberry Park Hot Springs. In the twilight, we get enough of a glimpse of the hot springs' layout—a gorgeous spread of six pools of varying temperatures surrounded by stone walkways and Adirondack-style chairs—that we can feel our way around the pools once darkness descends. (Tip: Bring a flashlight.) As the sun sets over the springs, two things happen: A brilliant display of stars emerges and swimsuits disappear. Don't fret if you're the least bit shy, though—it's so pitch black that it's nearly impossible to see your hand in front of your face. The nighttime ambience, fueled by alcohol snuck in past the entrance staff, has a distinctly risqué—and plain fun—vibe.

Fully relaxed and a bit pruned, we retire to our bed at the motel for a deep, hot water-induced sleep. The next morning we're back in the car on our way home to Denver, passing dangerously close to Hot Sulphur Springs Resort & Spa. Typically it'd be a must-soak for any hot springs tour—it's one of the oldest and largest springs resorts around—but we decide we've simmered enough for one weekend. —Lindsey B. Koehler