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Local Legends and Lore: Tales from Pagosa Springs' History

For much of the era of mankind, history was passed down through oral storytelling and legends. While folklore may be entertaining, it also serves as a window into the culture of a town and its people. Legends adapt based on the changing beliefs and values of society. Nowadays, ancient legends may seem exaggerated, but for a long time were regarded as important lessons.

Pagosa Springs is known for its own unique folklore. Our quiet town in Southern Colorado is charming not just because of where it’s situated but because of how the town came to be. When you stay with us at our Pagosa Springs hotel, you’ll understand our legends and appreciate them that much more. Read on to learn all about Pagosa Springs folklore!

a beautiful day by the river

History of Pagosa Springs

The Southern Ute Indian tribe, meaning “mountain people”, inhabited the lands surrounding modern day Pagosa Springs prior to white settlement in the 1870s. The Ute word “Pagosa” (originally Pahgosa) means “healing waters.” The most famous feature of Pagosa Springs is the hot springs. The town is home to the deepest hot spring aquifer in the world. Native Americans frequented this area for the healing and therapeutic powers of the natural hot springs.

The medicinal properties of the water were studied by the U.S. Army in the 1860s. Amazed by the waters, Captain John M. McComb stated, “It can hardly be doubted that in future years it will become a celebrated place of resort.” The hot springs sat along an important mining route. As settlers made their way west looking for work, more people visited the springs for medical reasons. Naturally, the area became more populated, and the town was officially established in 1877.

The area surrounding Pagosa Springs is closely tied to indigenous culture. Just west of the town is Chimney Rock National Monument, believed to be a very sacred site to the Pueblo Indians. If you travel a little further west, you enter Mesa Verde National Park. Here, you’ll witness the famous cliff dwellings carved into the sides of vertical rock walls. The Ancestral Puebloans called this place home 700 years ago.

Pagosa Springs Folklore

The beautiful landscapes of Southern Colorado provide the perfect setting for exciting legends. Here are some of the most popular Pagosa Springs folklore stories.

Treasure Falls

Only 15 miles northeast of Pagosa Springs, Treasure Falls is a stunning 105-foot waterfall – a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. While it is breathtaking to see, the name alludes to a deeper meaning. As the story goes, Frenchmen in the late 1700s collected millions of dollars in pure gold in the San Juan Mountains. While in disagreement over land rights with the Native Americans and Spaniards, they hid their loot near “a great water fountain” and fled. Several decades later, the French returned to the area with directions to the gold. However, during the pursuit, the clan was killed by Native Americans, and the location of the treasure remains a mystery to this day. It is believed that the “great water fountain” is Treasure Falls and that the gold is hidden in a cave behind the falls. An appropriately named landmark, indeed.

road sign to san juan river

Healing Waters

A Ute legend describes the origins of the hot springs beginning with a plague that ravaged the Southern Ute tribe. They described the mysterious plague as a sickness that even the most powerful healer couldn’t cure. After the death of many in their tribe, a great bonfire took place on the banks of the San Juan River. They danced and prayed around the fire all night long. When they finally awoke, they came to find a large pool of boiling water where the fire had been. After bathing in and drinking this magical pool, the Utes were healed of their illnesses, and the plague ended.

Fight for the Hot Springs

The Navajo and Ute tribes recognized the San Juan River as a border between their lands. However, the Navajo were seeking possession of the hot springs located on Ute territory. Legend tells of Col. Albert Pfeiffer, a name you’ve probably never heard of but one with a reputation in Pagosa Springs. He was known to the Utes as a friend and ally. When confronting and battling each other over ownership, the tribes agreed on a fight to the death over the springs. The Navajo selected a warrior very large in stature, and the Utes selected Pfeiffer, much smaller in frame. With knives as the weapon of choice, Pfeiffer killed the Navajo, and the Utes reclaimed victory over the hot springs. You can visit the grave of Pfeiffer about 50 miles north of Pagosa Springs.

Preserving the Legacy

While small, our charming town puts a great deal of effort into preserving the uniqueness of our history. Through cultural attractions like annual events and history museums, you’ll be able to learn why Pagosa Springs is set apart from the rest of the west.

Every year, the Life at Chimney Rock Festival is held at Chimney Rock National Monument on the first weekend in June. Take your family to visit the monument for free! The Forest Service waives the entrance fee in honor of the event. Family activities and interactive demonstrations fill the schedule, highlighting the skills of the ancient indigenous peoples who lived on these lands. Rock art, weaving, pounding yucca, making coil pottery, and throwing spears are all activities you can take part in. Visit the Native American Market, where handcrafted pottery, jewelry, paintings, and carvings are sold. Vendors are from various tribal nations, including Pueblo, Navajo, Apache, and Ute.

If you haven’t gotten your fill of history yet, fret not! Visit the Pagosa Springs History Museum to learn more detailed accounts of the town’s coming about. Step back in time and visit a dentist’s office, barber shop, country schoolroom, and general store. See what it was like to live in an early 1900s home by walking through a life-size kitchen, blacksmith shop, and ranch with antique farming equipment. Since Native American culture is so entrenched in our town’s history, be sure to check out the quilt exhibit showcasing three intricate quilts created by Susan Hudson, a Navajo storyteller who honors the ancestral past through her creations.

riverwalk inn bedroom

When you stay with us at our Pagosa Springs hotel, you will be pleasantly surprised by the rich history our small town has to offer. There is much to do and learn here at the foot of the San Juan River. Dive into Pagosa Springs folklore by visiting the world-famous hot springs and hiking to the spectacular Treasure Falls. Celebrate the legacy of the Native Americans by visiting Chimney Rock National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park. You very well may end up passing off our legends to your friends and family back home. Book your stay with us now!


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