Simple Joys of an Old School Spa: Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs, New Mexico

Flowing from the earth at 109 degrees, the iron spring at Ojo Caliente bubbles gently beneath my feet. The water’s a ruddy terra cotta color and is said to be good for the blood. I bob around in the rock-lined pool, feeling if not exactly Geritol-ized, at least relaxed. Next comes a dip in the arsenic spring (good for arthritis and skin conditions), a bob in the soda pool (for the digestive system) and lastly a sip from the lithia spring where a century old pump squirts out tumblers of the mood enhancing liquid.

“Does it really work like the drug lithium?” I ask an attendant. “Don’t stop taking your meds, there’s only trace amounts in there,” she says with a smile.

This rough-and-ready complex, an hour’s drive north of Santa Fe, was first built as a private health spa in 1880 by a local investor named Antonio Joseph. Author D.H. Lawrence once stayed here and frontiersman Kit Carson used to frequent the outpost’s general store. In 2000, Sherman and Joyce Scott bought the property.

Joseph was certainly not the first to enjoy a bath in the “hot eye.” Native people probably soaked in these healing waters up to 100,000 years ago. A Tewa tribe Pueblo called Posi Owinge overlooks the springs and is estimated to be “more than 700 years old,” says Martha Yates, a U.S. Forest Service archeologist who led me on a hike through the ancient grounds.

Much is the same as it was in Joseph’s day. The historic hotel, built in 1916, is comfortable, but sparsely furnished and there are no baths or showers in the rooms. All bathing is done in the bathhouse and mineral springs, just as it was 100 years ago. The food, I’m sure, has improved drastically. At the hotel’s superb Artesian Restaurant, for dinner I ordered a delicious smoked applewood tenderloin and a glass of wine (by then, I’d had my fill of lithia water).

I don’t know if it was the water or the wine, but that night I slept like a baby.

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  1. I went to Ojo Caliente 10 years ago and it was wonderful and amazing … having been to other more “exclusive” spas in the interim, I would go back to relax in that rusty warm water in a heartbeat.

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