If world citizen and international businessman Christoph Henkel considers a former gold mining town nestled deep in the Rockies as the place to relax, then there must be something in it. Head for Dunton Hot Springs in Colorado, the best-kept secret in the US.
It’s a bit of a Wizard of Oz feeling. You know, Follow The Yellow Brick Road and all that, into an unknown, enigmatic world. In our case, we are following the crystal clear Dolores River that wends its way through a quiet part of the Rocky Mountains. Somewhere between the quaint towns of Telluride and Durango, we turn on to a small track that winds upwards, taking us through dense woods of aspen trees, which at the end of September are wearing their explosive yellow Indian summer foliage.
We follow the path out of the woods and across open fields, where proud mountain peaks such as Mount Nelson and the Dolores Peak are indications that we are at high altitudes. The air is crisp, the nature around us is grand and alive. There’s not a living soul in sight; the Rockies are ours. Maybe it’s that same Land of Oz feeling ambitious gold diggers had when they set up their tents here in the 1880s. “No one will find us, whether we’re looking for gold and silver, relaxing in steaming hot springs, or sipping our Scotch while watching the sunset colour the Rockies pink and black bears roam through the woods.” Rumour has it that even Butch Cassidy once hid here: it’s that remote. A secret paradise, for the happy few who find their way here and like to stray from the beaten path.
Every cloud has a silver lining
The name of this refuge is Dunton Hot Springs: once a forgotten ghost town at an altitude of almost 2,600 metres and now one of the most extraordinary resorts in the US. The history of Dunton began somewhere in the 1880s, when an enterprising gold prospector built a homestead here with a scattering of log cabins for other gold enthusiasts, who paid a few cents to relax in the hot springs.
Despite its remote location, Dunton had a restaurant, bar and shop and was a perfect place to escape from the world. When the former owner sold this piece of land, with its dilapidated log cabins, in the 1970s, it became an enclave for hippies, shepherds and passing travellers. That is, until Christoph Henkel, a German businessman based in London, came here by chance. Henkel had a skiing accident and was told by his doctor not to go up the slopes of Telluride, so instead he went exploring. He describes the moment he first set eyes on the ghost town as a revelation. Together with his family, Henkel holds a majority stake in the multinational Henkel AG & Company, worth 46.5 billion USD, and is also the founder of Canyon Equity, an American company that owns luxury hotels and resorts, including the two Aman Resorts in the US. He saw potential in Colorado and the romance of the Wild West in this godforsaken, paradise-like valley.
Return to the Gold Rush
In 1994, Henkel bought the almost-75-hectare piece of land, including hot springs, two rivers and crashing waterfalls. He first planned to build villas here to sell; but the entrepreneur and his family found the place too beautiful, too pure. “I could not bear to see this place ruined or to lose its essence”, he explains. So, initially, Dunton served as a holiday home for the Henkel family.
For a couple of years now, the retreat has operated as a small hotel, with 13 original log cabins all lovingly and painstakingly restored over seven years. The old wooden floors have been kept (despite the addition of under floor heating), and the artefacts and Wild West antiques are not overshadowed by the luxurious beds with fine linen that now stand in these former gold miners’ cabins. Ours is called New House and has a veranda with a rocking chair, perfect to read a book in the evening from Dunton’s gigantic library. Bjoerkmans, one of the oldest cabins in Dunton, looks on to a waterfall; the Dunton Store, the former village shop, is now a guest room; and Well House has its own private hot spring. Many returning guests have their favourite. The American singer-songwriter Jewel, who wrote her last book here, is one of them. Dunton seems the perfect place for celebs to hide from the rest of the world.
The social heart of the village is the saloon, with a 19th century bar in which, believe it or not, Butch Cassidy carved his name. Hearty, homemade fare is always on the menu and is served on a long wooden table where like-minded souls, often with rosy cheeks from the rugged air outside, meet. Lunch is served on the enormous terrace with views over the mountains. When pitch black night falls over the hushed valley, guests cosy up for the evening in the saloon. Stories are told; new friendships are made.
At home with cowboys
The simple life can be beautiful – and here at Dunton you start to realise this. A fireplace is always burning. The smell of freshly baked bread always hangs in the air. Cowboy boots and checked shirts are the preferred dress code. The indoor and outdoor hot springs are constantly inviting you for a dip, and the Rockies keep, like a faithful guard, a vigilant eye over secret Dunton. In summer, you can relax after a day of fly fishing, horse riding or hiking. In autumn, guests can admire the late summer beauty of the aspen trees changing colour; and in winter, guests can relax after a day off-piste skiing in neighbouring ski villages like enchanting Telluride or fancy Aspen.
Amy, a forty-something American beauty, is here with a girlfriend for a short break to escape work and family life. They enjoy fly fishing and then relaxing in the hot springs. We meet couples in their thirties and sixties with friends or simply alone… The mix of fellow guests is diverse and interesting, the conversations are lively and the wine glasses always full. It’s a bit like visiting old friends, just as the owner intended. Henkel is himself a modern nomad, and together with his wife Katrin and two sons, he travels around the world a couple of times a year, and not only for business.
Despite his cosmopolitan lifestyle, Dunton remains his resting point. The resort closes its doors to paying guests a couple of times a year so that the Henkel family can come here with friends and family, to recharge and rediscover that unique feeling. Dunton Hot Springs – which began as a simple, welcoming homestead for hardworking and enterprising gold miners – has, after nearly two centuries, regained that same special function: to give guests a homely, welcoming and out-of-the-world feeling, and the idea that falling for the charm of the old Wild West is absolutely blissful.
Debbie Pappyn and David De Vleeschauwer are a freelance travel writer and photographer duo working as partners in crime for several newspapers and magazines worldwide. Read more about them on classetouriste.be.