Although a longtime fan of hot tubs, my first experience in a natural hot spring was outside of Taos, New Mexico.
As the sun was setting over the mesa, I climbed for an hour on a narrow, steep, precarious trail down 800 feet into the Rio Grande Gorge that sits west of town. The Rio Grande is so named because of its length, not its width.
To look at its width, you’d think it a stream rather than a river that stretches about 1,800 miles from just east of the Continental Divide in Colorado’s Rio Grande National Forest to southwest of Corpus Christi into the Gulf of Mexico. It is, nonetheless, part of the American heritage and the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
It was dark when I finally got down to the water’s edge. By the light of a full moon and the Hale-Bopp comet (which lit nighttime skies for more than 18 months in 1996-97), I saw three small but steaming pools along the edge of the river. The day before, I’d hiked into the La Junta Canyon to the north where the Red River meets the Rio Grande.
In a mist of sunshine-infused spray I sat on a river-worn boulder that cupped me like a giant hand. The amount of water from the springtime melt off was substantial, and the roar from the force of the two engorged rivers joining was deafening. It was hard to see how this babbling brook in front of me could be that same river.
Chilled by the cooling evening temperatures of the high desert, I wasted no time in getting undressed and submerged in the 105 degree-ish water. I remember thinking life was pretty divine as I looked up at the clearly visible Milky Way in my private comet-crossed canyon.
Since then, I aim for hot springs when planning my trips. And for the record – although some of the undeveloped hot springs I’ve soaked in were boiling with snakes (discovered after the fact) – they are by far my favorite.
Should you be drawn to explore these in the wild yourself, in order to distinguish between the shy but fatally toxic coral snake and the non-toxic Mountain Kingsnake, milk or corn snake look-a-likes, become reacquainted with the child’s rhyme: “Red touching black is a friend of Jack; red touching yellow can kill a fellow.” (Not that it matters much once you are sitting comfortably among them as they wrap around your legs and spin themselves in the length of your hair.)
It should be duly noted that I’ve had the good fortune to stumble upon some truly incredible developed hot springs as well – some in the form of public pools, others hidden behind thick adobe walls at private spas. On a recent trip through four California deserts, for instance, I came across a few that I’d promptly add to my list of favorites.