A Hot Tub in New Mexico Without Towel Service

Black Rock Hot Spring

If you google “Black Rock Hot Spring”, one of the first pictures you’ll be treated to is that of a group of naked hippies covered with mud. That was a checkmark in the “Reasons not to go” column.  But I had never been to, or in, a hot spring before. The very concept of a hot spring was mysterious to me. After all, hot water doesn’t bubble up out of the ground – it comes out of the faucet, when I turn the knob. We were staying in Santa Fe, New Mexico for a week and I had read that there were hot springs in the vicinity; if these things really existed, I wanted to find one. We would just have to take our chances with the hippies.

The Black Rock Hot Spring comes up out of the ground right next to the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. The Rio Grande winds its way through that state from north to south. The course of the river follows what is called the Rio Grande Rift, a seam in the earth’s crust where the two sides are pulling apart. In addition to dictating the course of the river, the fissure has left the earth’s crust thinner there, making it easier for naturally occurring springs to be heated by the earth’s mantle. This is the geologic backstory that put the Black Rock Hot Spring into service.

There are other hot springs in New Mexico. The springs closest to Santa Fe have been commandeered by a resort spa, the Ojo Caliente. Going to a hot spring in the wild and going to a spa are not substitutes for one another. No one would say “I’d like to go to that hot spring in the woods three miles away from the road, but I can’t get off work early enough to hike there, so I’ll just go to the spa instead.” But most tourist websites that list the hot springs in New Mexico don’t discriminate; if there is hot water coming out of the ground, whether or not there is a spa built around it, it’s on the list. This led to me reading the amenities available at Ojo Caliente and smiling at the idea of taking the kids there. The word “relaxation” is used a lot in the descriptions of the spa, often accompanied by a picture of a woman soaking in the water, her hair wrapped in a towel, her face covered with mud, and two cucumber slices on her eyes. Then my mind superimposes a video of two of our kids shrieking and running past the relaxer. Soon, the clumsy one falls and starts wailing, while the other starts crying too, lest she be blamed for the accident. In the final act the spa police arrive to escort us to the exit.

Having laughed off the idea of a spa, the next step was to choose which of the available wild hot springs we would try to find. For the most part the decision was how we wanted to balance accessibility and seclusion. My experience with these kinds of destinations has taught me that each little extra bit of effort yields a big decrease in both the size of the crowd, and how annoying they are. My weakness is that I almost never notice the point of diminishing returns go whizzing past me. One website sang the praises of a hot spring that was secluded, scenic, and comfortable enough to sit in for hours. It also required a seven-mile hike, one way, to get there. That is an excellent example of a diminished return.

In the end, we decided on Black Rock Hot Spring, with its ¼-mile hike from the parking area, because it was recommended by a local rafting guide. Had it not been for her, I might still be pouring over the hot spring internet message boards trying to find a destination with that perfect balance.

The hot spring is located in the US Bureau of Land Management’s Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River Area. To get there we took a paved highway north out of Taos for 10 miles. To a Chicagoan, paved implies civilization: potable water, electricity, Starbucks. There are no unpaved roads in and around Chicago, so my overactive imagination has come to associate unpaved with Somalia, the Dueling Banjos song from the movie “Deliverance”, and smallpox. We turned off the paved highway onto a gravel forest service road. I cursed myself for not getting my yellow fever inoculation ahead of time. But as we meandered along this gravel road towards the hot spring I noticed that the houses looked distinctly upmarket; enough so that by the time we got to the border of the BLM’s land, I was convinced that the brief incursion of our economy rental car had temporarily depressed the local real estate market by a couple percentage points.

Once we hit the BLM’s property the road followed the mini-canyon of the Rio Hondo, a tributary to the Rio Grande. In less than a mile the Rio Hondo emptied into the Rio Grande in a beautiful delta with lots of sand banks that we immediately flagged as perfect for a post-hot spring lunch stop.

We continued driving over a bridge that spanned the Rio Grande. On the other side of the tear in the earth’s crust the road took a sharp left and headed steeply up the opposite bank parallel to the river. At the first switchback there was a small parking area with enough room for four or five cars. There was a sheer drop at the edge of the parking area down to the river. It looked obvious enough to me that anyone could easily misjudge the distance to the edge while trying to back up and turn around, but the lack of a pile of cars at the bottom of the cliff implied otherwise (either that, or a tow truck arrives each morning to drag the cars away).

There are no signs anywhere pointing to the hot spring. However, I was pretty sure this was the place because down at the bottom of the hill, by the bridge over the river, there is a map of the area. On that map someone had taken a magic marker and drawn a little asterisk not far from the cliff parking lot. I don’t know why I knew that the asterisk represented a hot spring, instead of, say, where the rattlesnake nest is, but I knew, deep down, to head for the asterisk.

From the parking lot we started down a path back towards the river. We had a striking view of the Rio Grande’s canyon along the way. Just a couple minutes later the path took us around a huge boulder. And there it was. Never having seen a hot spring before I hadn’t been sure what to expect. After two hours in the car (a few miles of which were on dirt roads!) I had probably set myself up for a bigger spectacle than two shallow pools of clear-gray water. Without knowing exactly why, I was disappointed. Perhaps I was expecting a geyser? A steaming waterfall? At least a naked hippie or two?

I never got to see the source of the spring (because I didn’t look for it), but it couldn’t have been more than a trickle. Wherever it flows from, it fills up one circular, rock-rimmed pool, then dribbles down to a second, rock-rimmed pool. A three-foot-wide berm of rocks separates the lower pool from the Rio Grande. There were two people already sitting in the upper pool, so we set up next to the lower one. Each pool is large enough to hold up to six or eight people, though it might be a little uncomfortable at the higher numbers if you didn’t know each other already.

I put a foot in. The water was hot. I was impressed; there really was such a thing as hot water that comes up out of the ground. The water was only two feet at its deepest point. The bottom of the pool was made of a fine, silty mud which wasn’t uncomfortable to walk on. We each found a smooth rock to sit on. I looked around at the canyon and the river sparking in the sunlight. This isn’t bad, I thought.

As I got more and more comfortable sitting on my rock, I reflected on the often uninhibiting effect that hot water has on people. And it’s not just my sordid imagination; it’s a thread running the length of society’s fabric. If I start a sentence with “I got her into the hot tub and she started to…”. To do what? Sing Nordic fishing songs? No, we all know where that sentence is headed. But I looked around. There was no evidence of misbehavior. The place was completely clean with no trace of litter or graffiti. The couple in the other pool were polite and friendly (later pointing out that our daughter was drinking the water, which is full of those thermophilic bacteria that have caused untold death and destruction in several different Hollywood horror movies). At least at 11 am on a Thursday morning, my fears of exposing the kids to society’s seamy hot tub underbelly were misplaced.

After ten or fifteen minutes I started to get hot. Taking my cue from an article I had read about Russian men who, when they get too hot in the sauna, jump into the lake through a hole in the ice, I crab-walked the three feet over the rocky berm and jumped into the Rio Grande. I did not have to cut through any ice, but the river was still plenty cold to suit my needs. I quickly scampered back to the warmth of the hot spring. I played this little heart-attack inducement game a couple more times. I don’t know why I found it so much fun. Perhaps it was another example of hot water making people temporarily misplace their common sense.

After a time our children began to get bored so we packed up and headed back to the car. Even with the kids dragging their feet the whole way it took less than ten minutes to get back. But in that time the temperature had dropped 15 degrees and the wind had kicked up. As the last seat belt clicked, the first raindrops were falling. I was curious as to what it would feel like to weather a rain storm sitting in the hot spring, but that would have to be an adventure for a different time.

We got out of the parking area without driving the car over the cliff. The rain had upset our plans for a beach picnic at the river delta, so we parked and ate in the car while looking at the two rivers through foggy windows, then drove home.

One of the touted benefits to soaking in a hot spring is what the minerals in the water will do to you. People speak of “rejuvenation” and “feeling energized”. So over the next couple days I was on the lookout for any changes or new abilities I might attribute to the powers of the hot spring. None materialized, and I have since returned the cape and red tights.

 [whohit]Black Rock Hot Spring[/whohit]

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