Pitkin County officials to ponder upgrades to popular Penny Hot Springs near Carbondale

Jason Auslander
The Aspen Times
Penny Hot Springs.
@Diggadd #postsnaps

After much hand-wringing, a proposed plan for managing a popular roadside hot springs in the Crystal River Valley near Carbondale includes installing a covered, portable toilet on a trial basis.

Other improvements at Penny Hot Springs — located next to Highway 133 about 14 miles south of Carbondale — will include a defined parking area with designated entrance and exit points, an improved trail down to the hot springs area beside the Crystal River and signs posting rules for using the site as well as those focused on the site’s natural and environmental history.

“Penny Hot Springs is a beloved place, and management actions in the area should take into consideration, and not negatively influence, all of the reasons that the community loves this location,” according to the plan developed by the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails program and a community steering committee.

Pitkin County commissioners and members of the county’s Open Space and Trails Board are scheduled to address and possibly adopt the management plan Tuesday at 11:30 p.m. during a joint meeting at the Pitkin County Building on Main Street in Aspen.

The question about bathrooms at the site was controversial, according to the plan. County staff had heard about people “relieving themselves” across the highway, and received reports about human waste found near the springs, though staff members found no evidence of that, the plan states.

“Whether or not to locate restrooms at Penny Hot Springs was one of the most discussed topics during the planning process,” according to the proposed plan. “Those who advocate a phased approach are concerned that a bathroom would attract more people, in particular highway users. … Those who want a bathroom now believe the amount of use currently at the pullout necessitates a restroom.”

The idea of a “trial port-a-potty” gained favor because the experiment will allow county staff to monitor who uses the bathroom: those who came to the site for recreation or others who just want to use the bathroom, the plan states.

The port-a-potty will be surrounded by a structure to guard against tipping and conceal it from the highway. It might also feature “an additional panel to help screen those changing clothes from the highway, pullout and hot springs,” according to the proposed plan.

Installation of the bathroom, which would require permission from the Colorado Department of Transportation, would cost $6,000, plus port-a-potty rental and $400 a month for twice weekly cleanings.

County staff and committee members also pondered installing trash cans at the site, but decided against it.

“At this time, the steering committee would like to focus on the promotion of ‘leave no trace’ principles and not provide trash receptacles given the proximity to the highway and propensity for dumping,” the plan states.

The parking area along Highway 133 is problematic because it “has evolved organically over the years” and can be a hazard for highway drivers passing by. To fix the problem, open space and CDOT staff will organize the lot into 10 defined parking spots with a specific entrance and exit.

“The parking area design should not impede views from the highway and should respect the natural aesthetics of the area,” the plan states. “Parking spots should be set back from the edge of the riverbank so vehicle occupants cannot sit in their cars and watch hot springs users.”

Limiting the number of spaces to 10 (up to 14 were considered) will “help control overuse,” according to the plan.

Access to the hot springs at the river’s edge will be improved and made safer by building a trail, while both stabilizing and restoring the river bank will help the ecology of the area. The current trail is unimproved and alternate access routes have been created over the years, according to the plan.

Other site improvements will include looking at alternate parking for rock climbers who use Penny Hot Springs to access the Narrows across the highway, and possibly changing the highway to a no-passing zone in the hot springs area.

County officials also want to install signs at Penny Hot Springs listing rules for using the site, including no dogs, no amplified music, no camping and no littering. The sign will also list “environmental ethics” and include “etiquette guidelines” asking that hot springs users be “respectful of other visitors” and not make others “feel uncomfortable,” the plan states.

Open space rangers will have the authority to enforce the rules after the county signs a proposed lease agreement for the property with CDOT, which owns it.

Other signs at Penny Hot Springs will include those focused on the site’s geology, wildlife and history.

“Special effort will be made to reach out to Native American representatives to gather Native perspectives and history,” according to the plan.

An exhaustive history included in the plan says that Ute Indian camps were sighted at the hot springs as late as 1950.

The site featured a bath house, guesthouse and eatery in the 1880s, when it was served by stagecoach and eventually the Crystal River Railroad. Current Pitkin County Commissioner Steve Child remembered going to the hot springs bath house as a boy of about 8 years old around 1955 and said the water “was really hot,” according to the history.

Hippies found the site in the 1960s, before escalating use in the early 1970s led to excessive trash, nudity and problems with neighbors. Vandalism to the site and threats from government officials led the landowner to bulldoze the bathhouse and pools in 1972, covering the springs with boulders.

After much back and forth in the 1980s, the county finally acquired the hot springs in 1990. It is now managed as part of the Filoha Meadows Nature Preserve.

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