Four or five years ago, friends invited Chris McLaughlin, a fairly new resident of Fremont County in southern Colorado, to what was an exclusive New Year’s Eve tradition at a pool fed by a little-known hot spring.
“It was very special,” McLaughlin recalled. “I remember that first night, floating in the pool, looking up at the stars, and I was like, ‘I really have to change the course of my life.'”
Flash forward until today. McLaughlin, 42, finds himself in charge at Desert Reef Hot Springs near Florence. He wouldn’t use that phrase, “in charge.” Ownership of the geothermal pools, big skies and mountain vistas, he knows, belongs to the community that took root here long before he arrived.
He consulted with members of that community on major renovations to Desert Reef, what some have simply called “the reef” or “the house.” The oasis became McLaughlin’s property two years ago, and he continues to seek advice on the prospect of a more public future here.
“Everyone who works here was regulars, so that’s a lot,” McLaughlin says.
Some reject his ideas, “and I want them to,” he says.
“If I have a concept that’s not in the right direction for the venue, I think a lot of that is. We all stayed at a farm in Taos (NM) for the weekend, just to regroup, celebrate what we’ve done so far, and talk about these ideas for the future.
What they have done so far: updated electrical and plumbing; added a public bath; added four swimming pools; and added vintage Airstream trailers, overnight accommodations alongside new private dips. The plan is to add smaller houses for more overnight options. On a hill where the original owner hid a safe, a shady “den” has been built.
The website has been updated, topped with a “opening SOON” notice. The FAQ section details the upcoming operations: attendance will be capped at reservations; guests must be at least 18 years old; during a “limited opening time” clothing will be optional, “but we intend to offer a mandatory clothing experience during all opening hours once we are fully open”.
On the home page of the site, a message is prominently displayed:
“Desert Reef Hot Springs was originally established in 1986 as a labor of love and effort to build a community, a secret and protected refuge from the world. This intention rings true in the recent expansion and renovation of the springs hot ones completed in 2022.”
A man named LJ is credited with the creation, including a waterfall shaped with a cracked city sidewalk. LJ passed away in 2017, leaving the land to his wife, who passed by Ro. She entrusted the location to McLaughlin and has since moved to Hawaii.
“To the best of my understanding,” McLaughlin says, “(LJ’s) goal was to live in a van on the property and earn $50 a week. And if he could do it by letting a handful of people in, life was good.
This handful along with the memberships gave Desert Reef its quasi-public status. But even today, the inhabitants of Florence will tell McLaughlin that they never knew the place. Case in point: He says he went to get a demolition permit for a building, “and they were like, what building?”
“LJ worked really hard to keep it a secret,” McLaughlin says.
That’s why McLaughlin hesitated to speak for this article. “I’ve been quite hesitant to talk to a lot of people,” he says. “I want it to succeed, but I don’t want it to blow up either.”
He wants more people to feel transformed like he did on New Year’s Eve. As a member of the local tourism board, he wants the region to realize its economic potential, to continue the momentum the Gorges Royales, rafting and mountain biking.
“The only thing that motivates me is to increase the incomes of people who live in the county and to increase the diversity of jobs in the county,” McLaughlin says. “I really care about the people who live here.”
He has been in care for seven years now, since he moved here and they cared for him in a time of bereavement.
He was a businessman in Chicago who suddenly lost his mother. On the day of his death, McLaughlin’s close friend and business partner discovered he had cancer and died shortly thereafter.
“Everything just exploded,” McLaughlin says. “I realized, ‘I work all the time, and life is short.'”
He wanted simplicity. He found this at Desert Reef.
Can this last? Goes a question on the website FAQ: Could the place be crowded?
“God, we hope not,” the response responds, pointing to the goal with reservations and limited capacity.
“We try to be really intentional with the growth,” McLaughlin says, “and ask people to respect the place and the culture.”