Legend has it, somewhere south of Carbondale, there exists a non-commercial hot spring, free and accessible at all hours except when the river swallows it in spring. Tenacious soakers then rearrange the stones to balance scalding hot water with the cold river to make comfortable pools. It’s no secret that this natural amenity is a cherished gem of the Crystal Valley.
Historically, the site known as Penny Hot Springs, along with other nearby thermal pools, was frequented by natives and later pioneers. As noted in a comprehensive history published by Pitkin County in 2020 (www.bit.ly/PennyOST), the land was owned by Dan Penny who operated a spa with a guest house and dining establishment in the late 1800s.
By the mid-1900s, property now called Filoha Meadows was acquired by Joseph Grange. Around that time, the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce reportedly built a concrete bath house across the river (today’s Penny Hot Springs) which succeeded in attracting many nude bathers. This was bulldozed by the county in 1972, at the request of the Grange family, citing “naked hippies as the health hazard justifying the destruction,” according to one hippy accused of public nudity.
When pools re-emerged from beneath the rubble, multiple acts of vandalism occurred including the dumping of tar into the river and dropping of boulders into the pools. “Penny Hot Springs rocked by massive sabotage” read a Valley Journal headline in 1988.
The conflict was resolved when Pitkin County acquired the land from the Colorado Department of Highways in 1991. Shortly after, the Grange family sold their property to Chrysler Vice President Gerald Greenwald who later sold it to Pitkin County Open Space and Trails (OST) in 2001.
In 2019, Pitkin County opened a public survey to plan improvements at the site and received nearly 300 responses. A management plan, adopted in 2020, delineates that most people enjoy the informal character of the hot springs, but some enhancements are needed.
In alignment with that plan, a toilet was added to the highway pullout, which also serves rock climbers and wildlife watchers. Eventually, interpretive signage will be installed with historical and geological information, plus the formalizing of several rules: no dogs, no camping, leave no trace, no glass, no amplified music, no drones. There is also discussion about installing an emergency call box at the site, which is outside cellphone reception.
For now, OST is seeking public input on two options for changes to parking and access to the pools. As described by a press release: “One leaves the parking much as it is, but focuses on enhancements to the steep and, during the winter, slick pathways between the parking area and the springs.” This option would cost an estimated $105,000 and require more maintenance over time, according to OST.
“The second option proposes improved trail access, as well as riverbank and parking improvements. A short, stone retaining wall would be required to create a level parking platform and prevent further erosion of the parking surface.” The second option, OST states, would cost an estimated $600,000.
A third, more expensive option was discarded by the OST board earlier in August because it would have dramatically reduced parking, from around 20 spaces to 9, and trustees of the board foresaw the impact spilling over to other highway pullouts and potentially creating greater danger. As stated at that meeting, traffic accidents are not common with the current parking configuration.
Further details will be presented at a public open house/presentation at the Third Street Center on Aug. 29 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Open Space and Trails staff will also do outreach at First Friday, Sept. 2 and on-site Sept. 3, 8 and 14. The bilingual survey will remain open until Sept. 19 (www.bit.ly/PennySurvey).