Soaking in the Land of Enchantment

Two Hot Springs Near Taos, New Mexico
By Craig Martin
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Rio Grande Gorge
The banks of the Rio Grande in the river's wild 90-mile gorge.

The shape and texture of the earth, water, and sky that make New Mexico are like the musical landscape of a Beethoven or the artistic landscape of a Picasso. They are varied, complex, full of contrasts, bursting with surprises, and rich in masterpieces. Craggy mountains, tortilla-flat basins, deserts, alpine meadows, weirdly eroded badlands, black-rock gorges, and blinding-white sand dunes are all part of the state. Those fortunate enough to call New Mexico home quickly become spoiled by the embarrassment of natural riches that the state has to offer.

Hot springs are one type of masterwork in the repertoire of New Mexico. Like a complex musical work, the state's hot springs can be approached at many different levels. One can seek a spiritual revelation in thermal water, or a mystical experience that can bring a new approach to life. Many visitors look at mineral water as part of a holistic health regime. More superficially, but no less valid, New Mexico's hot springs can be a source of physical comfort, a warm, liquid wrap to soak out the tightness of your muscles, or simply a place to soak your tired feet. Because everyone attaches individual significance to hot springs, you will find them inhabited by a wide variety of people: New Age believers, naturists, grandmothers, families, hikers, backpackers, and those who simply enjoy the outdoors.

Hot springs are places to find healing or comfort, but that's not all. Foremost, they are intriguing freaks of the earth's geology, born of heat far below the surface. They are, too, pleasant destinations for a hike, places to spend meaningful time with your children, to share quiet time with good friends, or perhaps to make new acquaintances.

The United States Geological Survey database of geothermal anomalies lists seventy-seven locations in New Mexico where unusually warm water reaches the surface. About half of those spots have water that can scarcely be called warm, ranging from 75 to 88 degrees. Of the state's true warm or hot springs, all but twenty-four are on private land and closed to public use. The springs that remain accessible are a mix of private mineral bathhouses and pools, and hot springs on public land, which in all cases are managed by the United States Forest Service.

Writers have long discussed the cultural mix of New Mexico—Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo—and how the three combine to create the state's distinctive charm. For the scattered mineral waters, however, the charm lies not in the mixing of the peoples who used the springs, but in how the springs have been shared by each culture, each with its own similar purpose. The pageant of seekers at each hot spring has made the journey to find some sort of healing. The Apaches sought a spiritual cleansing in their sweat baths, the Spanish and Mexicans sought to heal the wounds of battle or the travails of overland travel by wagon or cart, and the Anglos came to the waters hoping for a cure for all manner of ailments. It is a common theme throughout the history of the springs that the special powers of the waters made each spring a sacred place and one that even traditional enemies could share, putting their hostilities aside as they partook of the mineral cures.

The land itself exerts a powerful influence on the people who live in or visit the state. The southern two-thirds of New Mexico fits best the impression that the outside world has of the region. Broad desert plains separate wrinkled mountains, the climate is dry, and there is plenty of sunshine. Many visitors find it a delightful surprise to discover that the northern part of the state is part of the Rocky Mountains. With high peaks over 13,000 feet, tree-covered slopes, and streams that support healthy populations of trout, this part of New Mexico is a remarkable contrast to the deserts in the south. Throughout, mountains and high plains prevail; the state lies above 4,000 feet in the south and 6,000 feet in the north.

One of the unique attractions of soaking in the Land of Enchantment is the predominance of open-air pools and tubs, both man-made and natural. The state offers seven indoor mineral bathhouses, commercial establishments ranging from simple to luxurious. The other seventeen thermal waters—including both developed and backcountry sites—are outside, under the sun and stars. Thus, enjoying hot mineral baths in New Mexico is most often an outdoor experience. The natural settings of springs and pools, along with the accompanying views of the New Mexican landscape, are what set these thermal features apart.

Hand in hand with the land goes the history of the springs, each of which has a story that may include Apaches, Civil War heroes, or conniving scoundrels. After a trip to one of the springs, you will come away with a sense of place that includes the environment of the spring and its position in history.

There's a more basic attraction to hot springs in New Mexico. Like the owner of one of the state's developed springs told me, "You don't have anything if you don't have the water."

In an arid region, all water takes on exaggerated importance and a special fascination. Heat adds yet another dimension to water, and indeed gives it a mystical significance that people have appreciated down through the centuries.

© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 5 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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