Your Watershed column: Hot Springs — The science |

Your Watershed column: Hot Springs — The science

Jon Nicolodi

Glenwood Springs is renown for its hot spring activity, and has been throughout history. Yampah literally means “Big Medicine” to the Utes, who used the hot springs and caves for healing and relaxation.

Following the Ute Removal Act of 1880, the land and hot springs were purchased by investors who developed the springs in the late 1800s, drawing the likes of Doc Holiday and Theodore Roosevelt. Glenwood Springs has relied mostly upon tourism since it was founded, and its hot springs are an important part of the local tourism economy.

But where do they come from, and what is the science behind the purported health benefits of soaking in a hot spring?

Generally, groundwater percolates through soil and bedrock, traveling on fractures and faults down toward the mantle. As it gets closer to the earth’s core, it heats up to incredible temperatures.

Physics dictates that hot things rise while cool things sink, and thus the hot water rises back up toward the surface. In volcanic regions, magma has risen closer to the surface, and so the heated water has a shorter distance to travel back to the surface, resulting in hotter springs. Yellowstone and Iceland are two great examples of this extreme end of the continuum.

No thorough papers have been published on the cause of hot springs around Glenwood Springs, but we can extrapolate a few things. It’s well known that this region of Colorado is highly faulted.

Though Glenwood Springs is outside the Colorado Mineral Belt (otherwise it would have had a mining boom of some sort), it undoubtedly contains faults and, at the very least, any resident can tell you that it has earthquakes. The seismic activity denotes tension, released through the shifting of rock against rock deep in the geologic layers, creating cracks along which water can travel.

The Leadville limestone of the area, a type of sedimentary rock that can be dissolved by carbonated water, also plays an important role, allowing passage of the heated water to the surface. Dissolution of the Leadville limestone by carbonated water is responsible for the Yampah vapor caves, supposedly the only natural vapor caves in North America. It’s also responsible for sinkholes and the many caverns available to explore.

According to a field trip guide of the Colorado Geological Survey, the Yampah springs discharge around 43 gallons per second at around 122 degrees Fahrenheit. The dissolved salt in the water is predominantly halite and gypsum from the Paradox formation, a geologic unit rich in evaporites that the water must travel through at some point in its journey, and just like making a simple syrup for your margarita, hot water can hold more sugar, or salt.

The Yampah springs collectively discharge about 120 cubic yards of salt each day into the Colorado River. High water salinity can be bad for nearly all human uses of water, and it can be harmful to aquatic life. The Colorado River Basin Salinity Control Program actively works to control this geologic contribution, as well as the numerous human contributions to river salinity.

Now that we’ve nailed down where this hot water is coming from, is it actually good for your health? Research performed on balneotherapy, the treatment of disease with mineralized water, does not provide a clear answer. Mineral composition varies from hot spring to hot spring, and it’s difficult to conduct a hot spring placebo group. But the general agreement, thus far, is that it’s a good complimentary treatment for low-grade inflammation, for reducing stress, and for some skin conditions.

In the end, if it feels good, why not?

Jon Nicolodi writes a monthly column for the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, which works to evaluate, protect and enhance the health of the middle Colorado River watershed through the cooperative effort of watershed stakeholders: anyone standing in the watershed. To learn more about the MCWC, visit You can also find the Council on Facebook at

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