The county seat (1878, 7,079 feet) took its name from the Ute word for “boiling water” or “healing water.” Ute legends speak of a plague that fell upon the tribe. In desperation, they held a council on the banks of the San Juan River. The Utes danced and prayed around a huge bonfire until, exhausted, they slept. Upon awakening the Indians found, in place of the bonfire, the steaming waters of the Great Pagosa. After they bathed in and drank the water the Utes were cured.
Colorado's largest natural hot springs also attracted white hunters and prospectors. By 1876 placer claims and cabins rimmed the main spring. One square mile surrounding the principal spring was staked out as a townsite in 1877 and platted in 1883. Fort Lewis was established at Pagosa Springs in 1878 to protect the interlopers from the Utes, but was moved to a site near Durango in 1880.
With a population of just over 1,200, Pagosa Springs is the only sizable community in a county of about 5,500 residents. Thanks to a $1.3 million Department of Energy grant in 1979, many downtown buildings are on a municipal geothermal energy circuit. Other buildings have their own private geothermal systems. During the early 1990s the town constructed a landscaped river walk with paved paths, a restroom gazebo, and covered picnic tables. A modern resort and condominium community three miles west of town on U.S. 160 includes the picturesque, hewn log Six Mile Ranch Cabin (1891).
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