On frigid winter days with long winter nights, there’s nothing like a soak in a natural hot springs and one of the most historic in the Southwest is at Ojo Caliente, N.M.
Pioneering Hispanic settlers called springs ojos, or eyes, because eyes water or tear up so Ojo Caliente literally translates as “warm eye.” Conquistadors named Ojo Caliente and a variety of historic figures visited the area, including Zebulon Pike in 1807 while under arrest by Spanish authorities.
When Gen. Philip Kearney and his American troops invaded New Mexico in 1846, his lieutenants drew one of the first maps of the area soon to be annexed as U.S. territory. Ojo Caliente appears on the map.
Traders along the Santa Fe Trail between 1820 and 1860 also may have veered west off the trail to enjoy Ojo’s healing waters. Certainly, prehistoric Native Americans speaking the Tewa language soaked in the sulfur-free mineral springs that gush 100,000 gallons daily containing lithia, soda, arsenic and iron. For the Tewa, it was a sacred site known as Posipopi, or the green springs/greenness pool named for the emerald colored algae that grew on adjacent river cobbles.
Two of New Mexico’s first archaeologists explored the nearby pueblos and abandoned terraced gardens. Posi-ouinge, or “village at the place of the green bubbling springs,” was the largest of four nearby pueblos or prehistoric Indian villages studied by Adolph Bandelier and Edgar Hewett. Native village life stayed vibrant until the 15th century, and guests can hike prehistoric access trails on Bureau of Land Management land adjacent to today’s Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa.
I hiked alone above the springs into the chaparral in late afternoon as melting snow began to freeze. With New Mexico’s soft rolling hills blending to the west toward the Chama River and the Jemez Mountains, I saw no one. I could have been in any era for I was alone on ancient paths.
As twilight deepened and I reversed course to return to the springs, I sought the warmth of both mineral waters and human companionship. At Ojo, both have been plentiful for centuries. Though I like “to take the waters” during the day, they are especially inviting at night.
There’s nothing like a long hike and an even longer soak. Boots off. Winter clothing shed. When the stars come out, step quietly among different heated pools. The air gets cold, the water stays warm. Signs read, “Please whisper,” and most folks do. Night lighting at Ojo is especially dramatic, as visitors sit in intimate pools beneath a highlighted 80-foot-tall conglomerate rock cliff. Above, the galaxies swirl. At pool level, steam rises.
I wonder if Kit Carson had a swimming suit? He certainly came to visit.
War parties of Comanches and Utes drove back the initial northern New Mexico Hispanic settlers, vecinos, who came to farm and raise sheep but fought for their lives. Settlements advanced and receded in waves in the 17th and 18th centuries. Because of fear of Indian attack, families settled, abandoned and then re-settled the Ojo Caliente land grant.
Then in 1868, Antonio Joseph, New Mexico territory’s first representative to Congress, built the first bath house. Ojo began to provide overnight lodging, a post office and a general store, where historical ledgers prove Carson purchased supplies.
The thick adobe-walled bathhouse now boasts a Finnish-style sauna, and visitors can schedule a variety of massages. The historic Ojo Caliente has become a modern resort and spa, which is an acronym for the Latin “salas per aquas” or “health through water.”
“It’s great to work here. I meet people from all over the world,” says Victor Jaramillo, a high school teacher who monitors security on the resort’s 1,000 acres.
The current owner, Andrew Scott of Taos, who holds a college degree in natural resources management, seeks to develop yet preserve the rectangle of land that includes the original hot springs and a stretch of the Ojo Caliente River. No pesticides are used on the landscape.
Jaramillo says Scott “is a really good guy to work for. He’s trying to do outreach programs and internships for local high school students,” and yes, “the waters do possess healing powers.”
In 1916, four years after New Mexico became a state, owners built a stucco hotel with a south-facing porch. To make one of the oldest health resorts in the U.S. self-sufficient, the partners constructed a two-story adobe round barn in 1924 as part of a dairy. Cows and horses were in stalls on the bottom with hay stored above.
Staff members planted elaborate vegetable gardens and fruit orchards. The dairy herd is gone, but in 2002, the current owner carefully restored the round adobe barn, which is unique in New Mexico and modeled after a Shaker community barn from Massachusetts.
The wooden floor on the second level is perfect for dances and weddings and locals appreciate that they can host events at the barn. The 100-plus employees at the resort look forward to the annual Christmas party at the barn when music radiates outward from its stout adobe walls.
“As a teacher,” Jaramillo tells me, “it’s important for our students to see the investment and the care being put back into the community. Other small villages are fallen down.”
Indeed, much of northern New Mexico, Taos and adjacent Rio Arriba counties, remain in a cycle of unemployment and poverty. The state’s motto is “the land of enchantment,” but for some multi-generational families, it’s “the land of entrapment.” Ongoing historic preservation projects and tourist dollars can make a difference by bringing new funds and heritage tourism visitors into remote places. All of Ojo’s historic buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
My family stayed in the hotel, soaked in the pools and ate in the restaurant. I hiked the Bosque Trail, Posi Trail and Tewa Loop, which are about two miles each on BLM land and have been constructed and maintained by the New Mexico Conservation Corps and the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.
Ojo is generally full on weekends and though the hotel or small cabins can be pricey, camping is not. Artists and chefs flee Santa Fe, drive north and spend a relaxing weekend soaking, camped by the river.
“For me it’s reasonable. The lodging is affordable in my RV. I can take my two dogs and hike for miles,” says Ricardo Gutierrez, a chef and artist from Santa Fe.
The guest register lists visitors from Chicago, Boston, New York, Albuquerque and even Durango.
Although I would not drink the 104 degree arsenic water, a sign says: “The arsenic spring is believed to be beneficial for relief from arthritis, stomach ulcers and to heal a variety of skin conditions.”
The two cliffside pools at 101 and 103 degrees contain arsenic and iron “considered to be beneficial to the blood and immune system, prevent fatigue and promote healthy skin tone.”
Why not? It worked for the ancient Tewa people.
“The Ojo Caliente grant was the site of a traditional hot springs, sacred to and shared by all the Pueblo Indians in the area and by members of the land grant,” writes historian Malcolm Ebright. “The land grant members still have a key to one of the private springs, the last vestige of the original hot springs, known as Posipopi, the greenness pool.”
At Ojo Caliente, visitors can hike, soak and talk to family and friends in a centuries old Tewa tradition. What better way to spend a winter’s day?
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.