“Freedom” means many things.
For outdoors-loving Coloradans, it can mean standing alone atop a 14,000-foot peak you just climbed. Or being the first person to carve your skis’ signature through virgin powder. Or backpacking to a mountain lake and camping with nobody else around for miles.
For my money, nothing sums up “freedom” like swimming or soaking in Colorado’s natural waters in your birthday suit.
Freed from the constraints of material sticking to your body like a second skin, you’ll experience a new level of oneness with nature.
The bathing suit wasn’t even invented until the Victorian Age — and then by stuffy Englishmen who regarded skinny dipping as immoral. In most societies for most of the history of the world, swimming was done in the nude.
Of course, prudishness still has strong roots in America, and as a society we lag behind Europe, where nudity is not such a scandal.
Colorado, though, is more progressive than most places in the U.S.
In fact it’s one of six states where women are allowed to go topless, and there are many places where you can swim or soak in the nude — at resorts and out in the wilderness, where the morality police aren’t around.
As the weather warms, here’s your guide to the best places in Colorado for a skinny dip. Since Colorado waters are fed by snowmelt and frigid on all but the hottest July afternoons, it should come as no surprise that most of the places on this list are hot springs.
Valley View Hot Springs
This rustic resort in the San Luis Valley has been home to skinny-dipping since the nearby Orient Mine opened in the 1880s (reportedly to the shock of Victorian ladies in the mining camp). The resort has 10 pools scattered across a hillside, from the man-made swimming pool to remote natural pools high above, so if you’re new to this sort of thing you can ease into it in privacy at one of the upper pools. Soaking here can feel like a wilderness experience, with solitude and great mountain views. In summer you can hike to see the largest colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in Colorado as they take flight at dusk from the abandoned mine. Be warned, clothing is optional on the entire property, including the hike.
- Lodging: There are campsites, restored cabins and a few motel-style rooms.
- What you need to know: Advance reservations are required.
- While you’re there: Great Sand Dunes National Park is a short drive away, as is the mountain-biking and rock-climbing of Penitente Canyon.
Conundrum Hot Springs
This magical hot spring is one of the most remote in Colorado, at 11,200 feet and deep in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen.
It’s a grueling, 8.5-mile hike to reach, but worth every step. Geothermally heated water flows from fissures in the Earth’s crust, forming one large pool and a few smaller ones. The views of the Elk Mountains are unparalleled and make it easily the most gorgeous place for a hot springs soak in the state. Of course, such beauty comes with a price, and the U.S. Forest Service in recent years began requiring permits to visit due to overuse. So plan in advance, prepare to spend at least one night camping, and get ready for the soaking experience of a lifetime.
- Lodging: Camping in designated backcountry campsites.
- What you need to know: Permits are required to camp, which the vast majority do because of the long hike in. The reservation period for April 1-July 31 has passed, but on June 15 you can start making reservations for August through November. The pools are at timberline, so prepare for extreme weather, and the hike requires a creek crossing that can be dangerous in high water. Since the area is in wilderness, only foot and horse traffic are permitted, and campfires and dogs are not allowed.
- While you’re there: If the weather is good, a day hike up Triangle Pass will give your sore legs even more work and make the soaking later feel like a sweet reward.
Orvis Hot Springs
The San Juan Mountains around Ouray, Telluride and Silverton are the most dramatic in Colorado, jagged, forbidding and known as the “American Alps.” Enjoy the view from the comfort of geothermally heated, lithium-rich water at this small resort in the town of Ridgway. With lovingly manicured grounds and several man-made pools of varying sizes and temperatures, it’s a perfect end to a day of exploring this amazing landscape. Clothing is optional outside but required in the visitor center and indoor pool. Be warned: The natural lithium water may lull you into an early night, so plan accordingly.
- Lodging: Tent campsites, RV parking and a few hotel-style rooms.
- What you need to know: This is a 5-hour drive from Denver, so be sure to make reservations to stay at the hot springs well in advance. Plenty of camping can be found in nearby national forests.
- While you’re there: If you can pull yourself away from the lithium water, visit Ouray, a charming hamlet located in a dramatic box canyon, or take a hike to Blue Lakes, an easy day trip nearby.
Dakota Hot Springs
Don’t feel like driving to the Western Slope for your naked excursion? Have no fear. This hot springs pool is near Penrose, southwest of Colorado Springs. There’s one large man-made pool, fed by a well that delivers 108-degree water year-round. The hot springs was known as The Well until 2003, although many people still refer to it as such.
- Lodging: Vehicle and tent campsites.
- What you need to know: Because of COVID, reservations are required and good for a 10 a.m.-3:30 p.m. or 4-9:30 p.m. soak session. Children are not allowed. It is closed Mondays. Bathing suits are required on Tuesdays but are optional the rest of the week.
- While you’re there: Take a tour of the famous Royal Gorge Bridge or a raft trip on the Arkansas River.
Desert Reef Hot Springs
These springs near the town of Florence feature one large pool fed by a deep well. The water is kept just below normal body temperature in summer and over 100 degrees in winter.
- Lodging: None
- What you need to know: Closed Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Swimsuits are required on Fridays until 6 p.m. and optional other days.
- While you’re there: See previous entry
Take a cold plunge
As I mentioned, natural water in Colorado that doesn’t have a hot spring tends to be very cold. Still, on a sunny afternoon in July, August or September, splashing around in a mountain lake or river can be invigorating. Use your best judgment on whether to wear a swimsuit. If there’s a drive-up campground at the lake or heavy boat traffic on the river, skinny-dipping probably isn’t a great idea. But if you’re on a backpack trip deep into a wilderness area and want to freshen up at a remote mountain lake, other hikers are unlikely to complain if you’re discreet. Remember, the Wilderness Act of 1964 was designed to preserve lands “in their natural condition.” Why shouldn’t we enjoy such places in our natural condition?
Social nudity etiquette
- Be an adult. Don’t stare.
- Clothing optional means just that, “optional,” so don’t give people a hard time if they opt to wear a suit, or conversely, choose not to.
- Don’t take pictures, especially of people not in your group. Picture-taking is not allowed at some of the hot springs resorts.
- Sit on a towel outside of the water if you’re not getting dressed. Don’t make us explain why that’s a good hygienic practice.
- Clothing-optional doesn’t mean a swingers club. If being in the buff with your significant other leads to amorous behavior, go to your room or campsite.
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