Who doesn’t long for water? – Especially the essential luxury of hot water on a cold winter’s day, with snowflakes falling on your face while you soak in an outdoor 103.5-degree pool (my personal favorite temperature). But since I’m a Methodist/hedonist, I prefer to earn my comforts first. Here is my perfect fantasy day:
First thing in the morning, the ski patrol drops the gate, opening the awesomely steep tree run called Pierre’s at Taos Ski Valley where I teach. I get to make first tracks in two feet of new powder. Afterwards, I teach a private lesson – gotta work for a living – to a student wanting to ski powder who afterwards leaves me a great tip because, after all, enthusiasm is contagious. Later, I head for the nearest hot springs, which in this case is Ojo Caliente, about 45 minutes from Taos. First things first, though: dinner at their restaurant – I have a glass of Chianti then settle in for that relaxing massage. After this, I slip like a poached egg into the outdoor mineral pool, feeling magically ten pounds lighter because, after all, water is indeed miraculous, buoying us up materially and metaphorically. I float blissfully and watch the glowing Orion and his followers migrate across the star-drenched sky. It is just another simple New Mexico night, graced by the scent of pine minerals. Embryonically safe and warm, I never wanna come out. They can’t make me. This fantasy is not a lie. You can head to one of the many hot springs right after outdoor fun. I tell my students, who often come for six mornings of ski week lessons, to take a day off – technique be hanged. “Head for the hot springs – get a massage, and you’ll come back renewed,” I say. After they are chilled out and blissed out, they avoid the midweek slump and are reborn. After all, life is more than just technique – I want them to have the larger experience of northern New Mexico’s nature and culture, which after all, are intertwined.
So I’ve paired some of my favorite hot spots with some of my favorite cold spots. It’s like pairing Chateaubriand with a bottle of, say, ‘62 Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild. Like I would know. But I do know many of these ski areas and hot springs.
Both Nordic and Alpine skiing may be relatively modern but humans have been coming to the hot springs for millennia. Native Americans held the springs sacred and as legend has it, believed they emerged into this world from such places. Which makes perfect sense. The water, after being held deep in the earth is eventually delivered hot and health-giving, laden with minerals. How well cared for we all are!
Europeans too have a long tradition of “taking the waters.” The state often paid for people to travel to the baths to recuperate from various maladies. The Romans built their first public baths in 12 BC – a good strategy for satisfying the masses and quelling rebellion.
Not all hot springs listed here are spa-like and luxury-laden. Some wonderful spots in northern New Mexico and Colorado include some “hippie hot springs,” too. You don’t have to be a hippie to appreciate them, but if you want a massage, you will have to bring your own masseuse. Some are not easy to get to, which is also a part of the charm. Water isn’t guaranteed to arrive between 90 and 130 degrees, which commercial spots do quite predictably. But the value of fresh perspectives from the natural springs is immeasurable. Nature offers surprises, like a canyon wren singing from a cliff at full moonrise. Sometimes the Rio Grande goes wild, for example, reclaiming her own and washing out the warm pools.
The many natural springs are untamed and unmaintained, like Manby Hot Springs (also known as Stagecoach Hot Springs) or Black Rock, both along the Rio Grande near Taos. Daytime skies are just as blue and night stars just as many.
Such visits have helped me to press the reset button on my crazy life while waiting or the next miracle to come along – like winning the lottery or getting first tracks on Pierre’s. The real miracle is that such places as these exist at all, elemental and comforting, reminding us that life’s not only worth living, it’s worth celebrating.
Einstein soaked here. It doesn’t take a genius to know that soaking and sunning feel great. Water bubbles up, hot and heady from the various springs: Lithia, iron, soda, and arsenic.
One of the country’s oldest hot springs brought others: Cabaza de Vaca, Utes, Comanches and Navajos were drawn here by the water. The Puebloan people established a pueblo, Poseuinge, and people slowly drifted in from all over global tarnation.
The 1880s-era bathhouse still stands, but the place has gone upscale to include newer lodging with private pools. In winter the largest public pool is covered. Hiking trails have been expanded, too; take a super scenic hike before taking the waters. Ski areas less than an hour or two by car away include Santa Fe, Taos Ski Valley, Angel Fire, Red River, and Sipapu. Take your ski lift ticket for a discount.
TEN THOUSAND WAVES
This Japanese health resort is over the top, even for Santa Fe. There are more than a hundred therapists on staff – no, not for any mental problems – which will evaporate into the ethers here. The menu of treatments includes everything from aromatherapy and acupuncture to Watsu and too many Zen amenities to mention. Make your reservation, don a kimono, watch the koi swim in gorgeous pool and choose from every combination of inside/outside, cold/hot, public/private that will leave you to meditate on the paradox of Zen decadence. I pray they will add a service (litters, anyone?) to carry loose-as-a-wet-noodle clients back down to the parking lot. I envision the Japanese lanterns lighting my way, my skin glowing from aesthetic treatments. But it’s probably wiser to stay in the romantic and elegant lodging, especially if you’ve just come off the slopes from the nearby Santa Fe Ski Area. Who says you can’t have it all?
For Norteños, this is an end-of-season ritual to rejuvenate après ski season and to escape mud season. It’s a just-far-enough away destination and the mountains are as gorgeous as it gets. The town of Pagosa Springs is sweet, with friendly cafés, coffee shops, and antique stores. I like to stay in the Springs Resort Hotel at the Springs Resort and Spa post-ski season and take piles of books to read when I’m too wrinkled to cruise the pools. Their names reveal their natures: Waterfall, The Cliff, Lobster Pot, and The Sunset Social Club.
And as for skiing, nearby Wolf Creek is awesome. Last season they opened in early October.
TRIMBLE HOT SPRINGS
Trimble Spa and Natural Hot Springs, has always been part of the town’s lifestyle. And back during the first half of the 20th century, Trimble was a popular dance hall and dude ranch where the likes of Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable once played. Trimble is sought out by the off-the-beaten-track kind of skiers looking for a savings and a quiet place along the way, but not in the way. My kids used to love this one. What kid wouldn’t? There’s an Olympic-sized outdoor heated swimming pool with plenty space for them to free-range, while you retreat to quieter mineral-rich pools. There’s a workout room, snack bar, and a place for small conferences and weddings. The nearby Nordic and alpine ski spot here is Durango Mountain Resort, which used to be called Purgatory, but I think of it as a personal heaven.
MOUNT PRINCETON HOT SPRINGS
Last fall my partner and I packed heartily for a weekend camping trip to the Colorado Rockies and climbed a good way up one of the myriad “fourteeners,” Mt. Princeton in the Collegiate Range. From 12,000 feet, the blue pools of Mt. Princeton Hot Springs below looked like a string of jewels set in green grass, impossibly luxuriant. I was sore and tired: those pools beckoned. The next day, the aspens that burst into bright gold flame against lapis skies looked every bit as lovely from the pools as they did from the peaks. Suffice to say that the camping gear never made it out of the truck.
This remote and beautiful spot is still not far from Buena Vista and Salida. It lies along the Chalk River, and sponsors a cheerful medley that includes everything from hip weddings, family pools, elegant Sunday brunches and upscale adult spa areas. It’s fun to step out of the hot springs into the creek itself and snuggle into the hot spots between rocks. Monarch Mountain Ski Area is right down the road, not to mention lots of Nordic options.
HIPPIE HOT SPRINGS
You don’t have to be a hippie to enjoy the many non-managed hot springs native to the geologically gifted and Rio Grande-rifted Southwest. Try Manby (aka Stagecoach) or Blackrock near Taos. Some hot springs, like Conundrum outside Aspen, are truly fabulous, but big adventuresome treks. I’ve heard of folks getting stuck there, who were perhaps literally saved by the hot water. Two books to check out: Carl Wambach’s Touring Colorado Hot Springs or Matt Bischoff’s Touring New Mexico Hot Springs. Or check at regional Forest Service and BLM offices for natural sites.
Dr. Michele Potter teaches American Studies at UNM Taos and skiing at Taos Ski Valley.
This article appeared in SkiCountry 2013, page 28.