To get there: To the hot springs: From the town of Buena Vista head south on U.S. 285 to County Road 162 and turn right. Follow the road to the hot springs resort, which will be on the left. To the campsite: Continue past the hot springs until you see a turn off for Hancock Pass on the left. This is about 1/4 mile before the town of St. Elmo. Continue on this road for about 5 miles and take your pick of free campsites!
The Plan: Drive from our new home in Fraser to a remote campsite near St. Elmo on Friday to meet Alex’s family for a camping trip. Spend Saturday climbing our third 14er of the season, Mt. Princeton. Spend Saturday afternoon or Sunday soaking in the nearby Mt. Princeton hot springs to get all those 14er aches out. Drive home Sunday.
What really happened: We set out to meet Alex’s family at the campsite five miles from St. Elmo on Friday at about one o’ clock. His uncle had directed us to go through Buena Vista, turn right on County Road 162 and continue for about 17 miles. Then we were to turn left at a junction a quarter of a mile from St. Elmo. It was 17 miles up County Road 162 that the trouble started. We could see our turnoff when Alex’s accelerator stopped working. This had happened the previous week and all he had to do to fix it was turn the car off and back on. He tried that now, only to find that the car was shuddering and shaking…and not going anywhere. I tried once by myself to push the car to a pullout. But it was really heavy so I gave up and flagged down some friendly Texans to help us out. Once we were safely in the pullout Alex tried again and again to start the car, and even opened up the hood to peer in at the disobedient/broken engine.
“Well my limited knowledge of all things car tells me it’s probably the alternator,” he told me.
It was now about 4 in the afternoon and we were stuck on the side of the road with no cell phone service. But who needs modern technology to call for a ride when you’ve got good walkin’ legs? We packed a bag and started up the road, hoping that we would, in fact, find our family at this campsite. We walked about 2 and a half miles as ATVers zipped past, heading the opposite direction of us. Eventually, some were heading our way and I flagged them down. I scooted into the third seat of the vehicle- a kind of big-wheeled golf cart with a windshield- and Alex crawled into the mini-bed of the cart.
“I hope he’s okay back there,” the lady said, her Oklahoman accent coming through.
“We just spent two months in Africa and had lots of uncomfortable rides. I think he’s okay,” I assured her.
We thanked them and went on in slight confusion, looking for our campsite half a mile up the road where we thought it would be. We stayed on with them for another two miles, until the bottom of Hancock Pass. They wished us luck and, after a minute, we spotted our group out in the trees.
Alex’s uncle gave him a ride back to get our stuff and we resolved to skip the 14er hike and get our car fixed the next day. After a few drinks and a few hours in the cold, high elevation air the rest of the hiking group backed out too, so we didn’t feel so bad.
We left our campsite, at 11,000 feet, early in the morning to get Alex’s mom to a lower elevation because she was suffering from altitude sickness. While in Buena Vista, we made numerous phone calls to tow trucks and mechanics and resolved to ask Alex’s uncle to use his Jeep to tow our broken car to town. As the rest of the family prepared to hike near our campsite that afternoon, Alex’s mom and I headed for Mt. Princeton Hot Springs.
From the parking lot we took a flight of steep steps down toward the pools and bought our tickets. Right off the building there are two swimming pool-sized hot springs pools. The pool closest to the building is hotter and its neighbor is cooler and includes lap lanes. We soaked in the hot pool first and then back to our chairs to eat lunch. In the intense mountain sun, I was surprised and a little disappointed that there was absolutely no shade in the hot springs area. After lunch I took my book down to the Arkansas River, which runs below the large pools and is lined on one side by natural pools of hot springs water. Sitting down in a pool, I leaned back on a flat rock and read until I almost dozed off. Paradise! With mountain views from the river, I contemplated which of the nearby towering giants was Mt. Princeton; surely we could see it from here. After a couple more dips in the big pools we inquired about Mt. Princeton’s wedding facilities (Alex and I are planning our wedding for next fall!) and headed back up the hill to our campsite. The next day, Alex’s uncle towed our car into Buena Vista and we got a ride back to Fraser!