November 19, 2011
View West Fork San Juan River in a larger map
Location: West Fork San Juan River, Rainbow Hot Springs
Pagosa Ranger District, San Juan National Forest
From Pagosa Springs, take U.S. 160 northeast for 18 miles to the sign for the West Fork Campground, which is on the west side of the highway. The West Fork Campground is on the southwest side of Wolf Creek Pass. Take the West Fork Campground road for 6.9 miles to the West Fork Trailhead. The last mile or so of the road may be closed for construction.
Guide books and Maps:
USGS Saddle Mountain and South River Peak; Trails Illustrated Weminuche Wilderness.
1,000 ft. gain/loss
Rainbow Trailhead (start): 8,160 ft.
Rainbow Hot Springs: 8,990 ft.
Length: 9 total miles
Trail Type: Out-and-back
Access point to Continental Divide Trail (CDT).
Fees or Passes:
No charge; clothing optional; primitive wilderness location
Dog should be kept on leases due to private property.
Most of the road in is covered with snow. 4 wheel drive is strongly suggested. Once you cross the bridge over the West Fork you might want to park here as the rest of the way is blocked by thick snow. It’s only about another half mile to the trail head.
The trail itself to the hot springs is almost 99% covered with snow. We blazed a pretty good path on our out and back so until it snows again the trail should be easy to follow and walk on. I would suggest snow shoes. There was one down hill with ice.
What to expect:
The first mile or so is on private land and there is no lack of signs reminding you to stay on the trail. The trail starts as a roller coaster and soon mellows out with short to moderate climbs of varying difficulty. You’ll get views of the West Fork below and the beautiful peaks of the Weminuche Wilderness as you head north to the hot springs.
You’ll cross over two bridges and after the second the trail becomes harder as the climbs are longer and for the most part the trail is uphill. You’ll pass a sign indicating which is the main trail, follow this. Soon after the second sign indicating the main trail for south bounders you’ll come to a large flat area and in summer you’ll see fire rings. If it’s winter hopefully you’ll get the feeling I did that this large flat area must be the spot. If you’re not sure head to the bluff. If you see steam rising you’re there.
Note that Pine Beetles have killed many of the trees on the bluff making camping there less than safe. There are four pools below the bluff to soak in. One is more of a foot bath. A local told me later that if you head up stream from the main area the springs reemerge and are hotter. I can not confirm but if you have time it might be worth it as the main pools were not that hot for winter soaking. They’d be great for summer time.
Local Groups/Clubs/Bike Shop: