By Cara Guerrieri
As a young girl with romantic leanings, the legend of Waunita Hot Springs fascinated me. It is said that the tears shed by the beautiful Waunita, a woman of the Ute tribe, created the hot springs. She had fallen in love with a Shoshone warrior, who was then killed in battle. In her grief and sorrow, Waunita wandered the valley and was so heartbroken that she died within days and was buried in a nearby cave. Her love was so strong, however, that where her tears fell, the earth weeps. In the remote valley twenty-seven miles from Gunnison, Colorado, millions of gallons of water per day flow at up to 174°. The legend of Waunita is written on a plaque near the springs and as a youth, I remember reading it and trying to imagine a love that powerful.
I hadn’t thought about the legend for decades, but when I was asked to write this article on the historic Waunita Hot Springs Ranch, I pondered what effect the love-story folklore might have on modern visitors. To find out, I asked Waunita Hot Springs Ranch co-owner, Tammy Pringle, about it. The Pringle family has owned the ranch for over fifty years and has hosted countless numbers of guests and visitors, and employed hundreds of summer wranglers. Tammy laughed when I posed the question, and said, “Among the family, we often refer to this as ‘The Love Ranch.’
According to Tammy, up to twenty couples, and maybe more, have met at the ranch. “Most of them were young people we hired for summer employment,” she said, “But some were guests who met here. One couple even came back on their tenth anniversary to celebrate. My sister met her husband here, in fact.”
As I researched for this article, I also discovered that a cousin of mine fell in love at Waunita. June Guerrieri Kolz Martinez sent me this note, “My first husband, Blue Kolz, was working for Waunita when we met. We worked there off and on for a couple of years after we got married. Waunita does have a strange pull. Once you have lived there, it calls to you. I miss it very much. I find myself drifting back there. I can smell the sulfur in the water, and feel the steam of the hot springs. I don’t know how Blue’s and my romance matched the Indian story. It was an adventure while it lasted, we had three children, but the marriage ended in divorce. Blue passed away two years ago but he still talked about his Waunita adventures … Waunita does have a spirit about it.” June remarried and now has five children, ten grandchildren, and two more on the way. “All from an Indian girl’s tears,” she says.
Set high in the Rocky Mountains at nearly 9,000 feet, Waunita Hot Springs Ranch is only ten miles from the Continental Divide. Surrounded by undeveloped national forest, the view and privacy are uninterrupted. Thirteen- and fourteen-thousand-foot peaks can be seen from the ranch property and make a perfect Colorado backdrop for a week of family fun, any type of retreat, or weddings and receptions.
While the focus of Waunita Hot Springs Ranch is on its weekly guests, for decades the ranch has provided fun for local youth as well. My mother, Phyllis Guerrieri, recalls being bused out there to swim on the last day of school in the 1940s. Then in the 1960s and ‘70s, when I was a kid, Waunita was the place for church retreats, 4-H gatherings, and scouting. My classmate Judy Wood Lease recalls our times at Waunita: “I remember swimming while the boys threw snowballs at us in the pool. I remember many Girl Scout camps there. I remember hiking up to the lake to go fishing. I remember running from the pool to the dressing room before your hair froze. I remember playing “spoons” in the TV room and baseball in the big yard out front. I remember!”
First used by the Ute tribe as wintering ground, Waunita was developed in the 1880s as a resort and a healing hospital. At that time, the minerals in the water were said to cure arthritis, rheumatism, and a variety of other illnesses, and the resort was world famous. In the early 20th century, guests came to Waunita seeking relief from such diseases as eczema, gout, and nervous temperament. Bottles of Waunita’s healing water were shipped across the country for those unable to travel. In the past few years, Waunita has been rediscovered as a wellness center in the winter season. The ranch hosts yoga, massage, counseling, and prayer gatherings. “We’d love for more folks to utilize the healing aspects here for their retreats,” Tammy Pringle says.
Whether guests come for healing or good old-fashioned family fun, great memories are made at this tremendous hot springs. Between the beautiful setting, the delicious home-cooked meals, the friendly atmosphere, and a well-maintained facility, one can almost guarantee a memorable experience, but a romantic would also believe that there really is something in the water. In fact, a romantically inclined writer would pen that the hot springs really are a testament to the great love of Waunita and her Shoshone warrior, and that the peace, love, and healing found in this unforgettable valley are not just part of historic folklore, but are pieces of the legend carried on to the present.
Off-season, October through April, Waunita operates as a bed and breakfast, a site for group retreats, conferences, destination weddings, or daily use. During the summer months all ranch facilities are open exclusively to guest ranch guests. Phone: 970-641-1266, www.waunita.comMs. Guerrieri has an MFA in Creative Writing from Western State College and splits her time between Gunnison, CO and Blue Hill, Maine.