You can’t help but get a bit of a Wizard of Oz feeling as you make your way to Colorado’s Dunton Hot Springs. We were told that by following the crystal-clear Dolores River through a quiet stretch of the Rocky Mountains and traversing past the quaint towns of Telluride and Durango we’d come across a once-forgotten ghost town that is now one of the most extraordinary resorts in the US. Continuing along our own yellow brick road, we meandered through forests of aspen trees – in September wearing their explosive yellow Indian-summer foliage – and open fields offering unimpeded views of Mount Nelson and Dolores Peak. For much of the journey, travellers are unlikely to spot another soul; there’s a sense you’re leaving the world behind.
The gold diggers who set up their tents here in the 1880s felt the same way. An account from the time reads: “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.” The region remains a secret paradise for the happy few who like to stray from the beaten path.
Dunton Hot Springs CREDIT: DAVID DE VLEESCHAUWER
Set at an altitude of almost 2,600 metres, Dunton Hot Springs dates from the time of those first prospectors. Back then, an enterprising gold digger built a homestead here, adding a scattering of log cabins for other gold enthusiasts and charging them 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 relax and recuperate.
When in the 1970s the then-owner sold this piece of land, with its dilapidated log cabins, it became an enclave for hippies, shepherds and passing travellers. That is, until Christoph Henkel, a German businessman, came here by chance. On a skiing trip, Henkel had an accident and was told by his doctor not to go up the slopes of Telluride — so instead he went exploring.
Age-old views from the Dunton Hot Springs estate CREDIT: DAVID DE VLEESCHAUWER
That journey led him to Dunton and 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, and is also the founder of Canyon Equity, an American company that owns luxury hotels and resorts, including Amangiri in Utah and Amangani in Wyoming. He saw the romance of the Wild West and Colorado’s potential as a travel destination in this forgotten, paradise-like valley.
In 1994, Henkel bought the almost-75-hectare plot of land, which included its 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 few years now, the retreat has operated as a small hotel, with 13 original log cabins all lovingly and painstakingly restored. The seven-year project saw enhancements such as underfloor heating being installed beneath the old wooden floors, but in many respects Dunton seems untouched. Original artefacts and Wild West antiques remain in place, even if the luxurious beds are now dressed in linens considerably finer than those used by the miners.
Our cabin is called New House and has a veranda with a rocking chair, perfect for reading a book from Dunton’s gigantic library come evening. Bjoerkmans, one of the oldest cabins in Dunton, looks on to a waterfall; the Dunton Store, the former village shop, is now guest accommodation; and Well House has its own private hot spring. Many returning guests have their favourite.
One of the rustic lodges at Dunton Hot Springs CREDIT: DAVID DE VLEESCHAUWER
The American singer-songwriter Jewel, who wrote her last book here, is one of them. Dunton seems the perfect place for celebrities to hide from the rest of the world. The social heart of the village is the saloon, with a 19th-century bar in which 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 exertions in the rugged mountain air, meet. Lunch is served on the enormous terrace with views of the surrounding peaks. When pitch-black night falls over the hushed valley, guests return to the cosy salon for the evening. Stories are told; new friendships are made.
The simple life can be beautiful – and Dunton excels when it comes to unfussy pleasures. A fire is continuously 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 beckon, there’s biking, hiking and horse riding, and skiing in nearby Telluride and Aspen in winter. All the while, the Rockies keep, like a faithful guard, a vigilant eye over secret Dunton.
The bar is inscribed with the signature of Butch Cassidy CREDIT: DAVID DE VLEESCHAUWER
We meet Amy, a 40-something American 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 chat with couples in their thirties and sixties, visiting with friends or on their own. The mix of guests is diverse and interesting, the conversations are lively and the wine glasses always full. It’s a bit like catching up with 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, 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 family can come here with friends, to recharge and rediscover the sense of tranquillity that drew Henkel here all those decades ago.
Therapeutic waters at Dunton CREDIT: DAVID DE VLEESCHAUWER
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 away-from-the-world feeling. That sense of escaping the stresses of modern life amidst the charm of the old Wild West remains intact, and it is absolutely blissful.
Stays at Dunton Hot Springs start from €570 per night per couple; rates include full board and activities.
Icelandair flies from London to Denver via Reykjavik, where passengers can book a complimentary stopover. Economy rates from €455; business-class rates begin at €3,500.
Should you wish to drive around Colorado, Sunny Cars is a recommended agency and charges €388 per week for use of a Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV. Colorado’s tourism board offers recommends for the state’s best road trips.
Journalist Debbie Pappyn and photographer David De Vleeschauwer venture tirelessly to the most beautiful corners of the world. Having already visited over 100 countries, they regularly write about their adventures forTelegraph Luxury and other publications internationally. The couple’s own, award-winning website Classe Touriste is a visual chronicle of those global adventures.