AT FIRST GLANCE, the landscape around Highway 17 through the San Luis Valley might appear incapable of hiding anything. The earth spreads wide, splayed out below 14,000-foot peaks and an impossibly open sky. But off toward the Great Sand Dunes an oasis hides in a stand of tall, skinny trees. Finding this gem on accident feels unlikely; from the highway it’s hard to notice the trees or surrounding buildings unless you’re already in the know. Even after turning into the gravel parking lot it’s unclear what exactly lies inside. But if the sign on the gate reads Sand Dunes Recreation, you’ve found the Hooper Pool.
The space inside might seem unassuming, even unimpressive, upon first entry. The Hooper Pool isn’t flashy. It doesn’t go looking to make a big first impression or wow visitors with glamor. Guests pay at a small window and walk through a metal turnstile into the main pool area. To the left, a snack bar kitchen pick-up window opens to round tables. An opaque plastic roof partially encloses the space, creating a curious feeling of being simultaneously inside and out. A small wading pool sits under the roofline, and the main pool stretches out into the open with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains visible in the distance beyond.
The beauty here is stark and simple. The pool measures 50 x 100 feet, a basic rectangle. On the east side, two diving boards — one short, one tall — wait for kids (or kid-like adults) to show off their cannonballs or swan dives or belly flops. Past the main pool, a short slide goes down a small hill, ending in a shallow pond.
The Hooper Pool isn’t quiet. Kids splash, adults chat, music plays over the loudspeaker. The gift shop loans out various toys for a reasonable price — give them a shoe, they give you a beach ball. People come here to relax, but not the somber, serious brand of relaxing that must be enjoyed in silence. The vibe is fun. The people are real. No one tells anyone to be quiet.
If the magic of the main pool doesn’t hit you right away, that’s okay. These things take time. I suggest waiting until the sun dips in the west and the clouds turn pink against a darkening blue sky. Listen as the kids play and laugh into the night, swimming past their bedtimes. Watch the mountains change color and etch into the sky. Float in warm water while stars come out. You’ll understand soon enough.
Another way to glean the magic of Hooper Pool is to visit The Greenhouse. And while part of me is tempted to keep this secret in my pocket — all Gollum-like and greedy — I think I’d be risking death in the fires of Mordor for hiding a mystical land such as this.
To enter The Greenhouse from the main pool, open the sliding metal door by the bathroom. Beyond lies a neon blue portal into another world. (Someone said it’s actually a hallway made of shipping containers with blue Christmas lights, but I don’t believe them.) At the bottom of the portal, open another door and emerge into a new, humid latitude with towering tropical plants and cold beer on tap.
The Greenhouse was once used to grow vegetables, but now it’s a jungle of green leaves, bright flowers, four soaking pools, a bar, and better food than you’d ever expect to find off County Road D. The central pool stretches halfway down the length of the building, a long rectangle of water at the most perfect temperature ever. Three other soaking pools lie amongst the greenery, the hottest set at 111 degrees and shaped like a coffin.
The Steel Box Bar (a converted shipping container) serves beer, wine and small plate appetizers. The staff consistently feels like the perfect balance between incredibly friendly and refreshingly real — and the food is surprisingly delicious.
But the plants. The plants are the true superstars. Tall, green, lush — the variety boggles the mind. A jade plant more than 75 years old sits by a waterfall. Geraniums bloom year-round. The night blooming cereus, a thick-stemmed plant with star-shaped flowers that only open at night, hangs over a soaking pool.
Try a mid-winter visit to The Greenhouse. Drive through a January blizzard, one that whips snow across the belly of the valley. The kind that makes it feel like spring will never come. Then, walk down the blue tunnel, slide back the metal door and enter into paradise. Green tropical trees. Warm moist air. Pink flowers blooming. This is when you’ll know you believe in magic.
Lisa Ledwith loves swimming pools and wants to play Marco Polo with you. She lives and loves in Salida.
The Places column is sponsored by Mark Zander and Leslie Champ.