Rico hot springs

A recently installed gate and sign alerts visitors to the private land ownership at the Rico hot springs. The popular spot, once a local secret, is now touted on multiple tourism websites, prompting increased traffic to the unregulated pools. The hot springs are now under new ownership and closed to non-Rico residents. (Photo by Bria Light/Telluride Daily Planet)

Once upon a time, there was a secret hot spring just outside the tiny town of Rico, Colorado. Residents and locals in the know would go there to soak in the mineral-rich water and the peaceful mountain views, soothed by the soundtrack of the Dolores River burbling softly nearby. The whereabouts of the hot water haven was shared by word of mouth, the pullout unmarked and the spring hidden just out of view from the nearby highway.

As anyone who has visited the Rico hot springs in recent years knows, the much beloved spring’s general anonymity is no more. The word of mouth days are long gone, with detailed directions popping up on a dozen different “must do” websites. Cars frequently clog both sides of the highway at the pullout. Camper rigs cram onto nearby dirt roads for an extended stay. Music blares out of portable speakers. Occasionally, rabble-rousers stir up dust.

All that is changing now though, since the parcel of land on which the hot springs is situated sold to new owners in October of last year. The new owners, Michelle Haynes and David Bulson, have called the region home for decades, and they want to see the Rico hot springs return to a more peaceful existence. To that end, they are allowing Rico residents only — after signing and submitting a waiver — to access the springs moving forward.

“Our philosophy is that we want the hot springs to be an asset to the town of Rico,” said Haynes, adding that they’ve made day passes available to guests staying at the Mineshaft Inn as well. “Rico is extremely special. It’s important to us personally to do something that has a community benefit.”

The couple doesn’t envision turning the springs into a commercial enterprise, an undertaking that they are “not prepared to launch into,” but rather prefer to offer free access to Rico residents so long as the handful of boundaries are respected, like not leaving trash, being respectful and not parking on the highway or in front of the newly installed gate. In the future, they plan to build a home on the 30-acre parcel, and are considering forming a nonprofit driven by involved locals to add modest amenities like a composting toilet and a teepee for changing. Haynes and Bulson also plan to add a nearby yurt for a potential caretaker.

“We love hot springs, and we have traveled around and seen how a lot of once-rustic hot springs have progressed,” Bulson said, lamenting the trend towards chic, manicured hot spring resorts. “Part of our vision is to try to preserve something that is nostalgic. Neither of us come from money. We took what little we have and are trying to make something cool.”

Over the years, the Rico hot springs had been the site of unfortunate events running the gamut from overcrowding and abandoned trash to alcohol-fueled kerfluffles involving law enforcement. The Town of Rico had negotiated with the previous landowner for increased management, but “really didn’t have the resources” to implement meaningful changes, according to town manager Kari Distefano.

“The popularity of the hot springs has always created some difficulties with respect to parking along Highway 145 on and near the road that accesses them,” Distefano observed, noting that the curve of the highway above the springs created visibility problems for drivers when cars crammed in to park roadside near the springs.

“Unauthorized camping and trash have been an ongoing challenge,” she added.

Haynes and Bulson acknowledged that the new restrictions for the hotspot will not be popular with everyone, especially visitors from the surrounding region who are no longer allowed to use the hot springs.

“I don’t think it will ever be easy,” said Bulson.

The couple, in addition to erecting a gate across the downward sloping road that leads to the spring, is also leaving notes on cars parked at the pullout, informing them of the new rules as well as recording their license plate numbers. A second violation, the note reads, will be reported to law enforcement to cite the vehicle owner for trespassing. Their first goal, they said, is to re-educate visitors and hope for a respectful recognition of their rights as private landowners.

“This is private property, but we want to make it available to Rico residents. It’s a goodwill gesture,” Haynes said, adding that so far nearly 90 Rico residents have signed the waiver, and many residents have expressed their support and gratitude for the new rules. Commenters on posts made on a Rico residents Facebook group were largely positive.

“I think the sentiment in town is that people are grateful that someone is willing to take on responsible management of the hot springs and still allow some public access,” said Distefano.

Bulson, who lived in Rico for 10 years, consulted his friends and other Rico residents before he and Haynes proceeded with the purchase last fall, curious what the reactions might be to what would amount to big changes to the longtime open access, unregulated spot.

“Everybody I talked to said, ‘You know what, people are just tired of the mayhem up there,’” he recalled, noting that the lack of funding to manage it publicly meant that it would be left to a private entity to step in. “That’s kind of where we came from.”

Though the Rico hot springs are now open to Rico residents only, Bulson and Haynes welcome input from anyone who cares about the springs and hope to engage area residents on the issue. Their website, ricohotsprings.com, offers additional details, and Haynes noted that those who wish to be kept in the loop can reach out at ricohotsprings@gmail.com to be added to a mailing list.

“We are invested in this community,” Haynes said, adding that initial misconceptions to the changes included assumptions that the new owners were wealthy, detached outsiders. “We care. This is a grand experiment.”