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Hot springs south of Colorado Springs aims to be welcoming, refreshing haven

April 30, 2018 Updated: May 14, 2018 at 10:29 pm
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People in Colorado Springs looking for a soak in the state's famous geothermal waters look to Mount Princeton Hot Springs or other big-name spots. Dakota Hot Springs is one of the closer hot springs to Colorado Springs. The water temperature is about 108 degrees at the wellhead in the middle of the free form pool where it flows into a 6 foot diameter circular tub. The rest of the pool averages 95 to 98 degrees. The facility is clothing optional, except on Tuesdays when bathing suits are required. Lydia Ramirez wades through the shallow part of the pool on a nice Spring day on Thursday, January 19, 2018. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

PENROSE - To get to the Front Range's strangest geothermal pool, you have to go through Toni Shenise.

She's the tall boss behind the counter in the tin-roof building at the end of a bumpy, dirt stretch near the crossroads of U.S. 50 and Colorado 115. The highway sounds fade the farther you drive into the rough country, past two competing signs: the old one displaying The Well and the newer one announcing Dakota Hot Springs. "Visitors Welcome" it reads, with the encouragement to "Be Well."

First, though, they must hear out Shenise.

"I do need to go over the rules with you before you go out there," she says to a pair of first-timers on their way to the door, out to the mountain vistas and the cement circle filled by 108-degree water piped deep from the Earth.

Shenise starts by saying, "You are aware that we are suits-optional, correct?"

The customers know, as do most who seek the unadvertised spot on the outskirts of Cañon City.

"OK, we have a really strict behavior policy," Shenise continues. "We have zero tolerance for any kind of intimate behavior. The other side of that coin is, if you see anything out there that's inappropriate or personally offensive, or have any kind of issue and we haven't already caught it, please come and tell me or whoever's behind the desk. Let us go out there and deal with it and get 'em outta there."

Outside food and beverage is fine, but no glass, she says. And no smoking by the pool. And absolutely no marijuana. And last but certainly not least, no cameras or cell phones. Leave them in the car. "If you have them, no discussion, you'll be asked to leave," Shenise says.

Then she takes $10 from each and tells them to enjoy.

"Far more than the name has changed" at Dakota Hot Springs, reads Deborah Frazier's preeminent guide to Colorado's famous, and infamous, dips.

People in Colorado Springs looking for a soak in the state's famous geothermal waters look to Mount Princeton Hot Springs or other big-name spots. Dakota Hot Springs is one of the closer hot springs to Colorado Springs. The water temperature is about 108 degrees at the wellhead in the middle of the free form pool where it flows into a 6 foot diameter circular tub. The rest of the pool averages 95 to 98 degrees. The facility is clothing optional, except on Tuesdays when bathing suits are required. Sierra Wieman floats in the pool on a nice Spring day on Thursday, January 19, 2018. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

The author visited The Well in the 1990s, when the manager could be found with his shotgun from the shooting range, reloading between customers. "The prominently displayed hobby doesn't encourage riffraff, the bane of clothing-optional springs," Frazier writes.

The riffraff was such that Frazier says she wouldn't have dared go at night. Vigilance ramped up under Shenise, who in 2002 began erasing the dark reputation. Swingers and sharks had been known to gather at the pool.

And while some accosted Frazier for including Dakota Hot Springs in her latest edition of "Colorado's Hot Springs" in 2014, she countered by saying Shenise had turned the page.

"Toni rocks," she says.

As she pulled overgrown weeds surrounding the place, Shenise also banished the drunks and dealers who had taken root. She designated Tuesdays as clothing-only, hoping to win over families. The new name would be a nod to the Dakota Aquifer giving life to the pool and its renewing powers.

Now, "everybody comes for the water," Shenise says. "If you come for other reasons, go someplace else."

She came to admire the water upon moving to Penrose in the 1970s. She and her husband ran cattle nearby while their young daughter delighted in the magic pool that was then private. It swapped owners in the decades after a 1924 oil exploration led to the artesian well's creation.

But in the '80s, a commercial operation sprouted, giving way to the grimy scene that Shenise insists is gone, despite disbelievers who see the property as a stain.

trauma unit
Dakota Hot Springs near Penrose, Colorado. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

Shenise says business is thriving. Weekly visitation hovers around 800 - "mind-boggling for an itty-bitty place like this," she says - with most coming from Colorado Springs and Denver.

Penrose's Paul Pedtke is one loyal local. He wasn't discouraged by what neighbors had to say about the pool when he moved to the area last year.

"When I found this, it was like nirvana," he says.

Keri Pollakoff says she's always felt welcomed and refreshed, the reasons she frequents from the Springs. She's soaking beside Mike Miller, another pool devotee from the city who says he doesn't bother with the state's higher-regarded waters.

"Why?" he asks. "This is only 30 minutes from my house." He gets the solitude and healing he needs right here.

From the deck, Shenise watches the water continue its nearly century-long flow. "Three hundred gallons a minute at 108 degrees. That's a phenomenon," she says, a miracle worthy of respect.

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