Newly renovated, the oasis of Arizona's Castle Hot Springs has transformed into a luxurious wellness hot spot.
"This is where it all begins," said our driver as we began the 15-mile drive up a windy and rocky dirt road that was more suggestive of an off-roading trail than the entrance to a wellness resort. We were enveloped by jagged mountains and a sea of funny-looking cacti that peered out from the Sonoran Desert in Morristown, Arizona, about an hour north of the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport. There was no sign of civilization. Every few miles, a grim 4x4 would drive past us causing a cloud of dust that flung small rocks against the side of the SUV, so it seemed unlikely that a luxury resort would be tucked away anywhere close.
It seemed like the middle of nowhere. We drove past a private mine, and I caught a few glimpses of the 10,000-acre Lake Pleasant Regional Park — an outdoor playground for watersports enthusiasts — but I couldn't help wondering where these legendary hot springs were going to appear from.
About 20 minutes and several bumps later, we turned a corner and Shangri La finally emerged. A row of towering palm trees stood tall against the rugged 1,100 acres of lush, verdant grounds, a tranquil pond, and 30 stand-alone bungalows. The gates swung open, and we drove down the palm-tree-lined citrus drive. I rolled down my window and stuck my head out to get a whiff of the perfumed air of fresh lemons and orange blossoms. I could hear the relaxing sound of birds chirping as I gazed at butterflies fluttering and ally my senses were starting to slowly awaken.
This was the moment I learned that Castle Hot Springs was more than just a wellness resort. It was utopia. The closer we got to the resort, the farther my daily worries felt. The only thing I was thinking about was what time they'd serve dinner.
I was welcomed with a refreshing fuchsia-colored tea, made with fresh hibiscus grown on the farm. The organic farm spreads across three acres in front of the Lodge, the resort's main building, which houses the check-in desk, Bar 1896, and Harvest, the resort's only restaurant. Before I checked in to my room, I was whisked away for a farm tour with resident Agronomist Ian Beger. A fifth-generation Arizonan, Beger studied agriculture at the University of Arizona and is now the mastermind behind the resort's farm. He also has a personal connection to Castle Hot Springs: His great-great-grandfather, Richard E. Sloan, was the last territorial governor of Arizona and the resort figured into the social milieu way back during his tenure.
"Castle Hot Springs was a big deal in the territory days," Beger said. "It was the wintertime territorial capital of Arizona for a bit. It was pretty big during that time, so my great-great-grandfather frequented here, and they used to spend Christmas here. My great-grandma, we have her on video talking about playing in the spring. My family definitely has a longstanding history her."
The farm is a new addition to the resort. Irrigated from the property's well and event the hot springs water, the lush farm might be unexpected in this remote desert spot, but the dedicated "Flavor Farmers" cultivate and harvest seasonally more than 1,000 varieties of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and florals, including their own tomato varieties. From juicy Cara Cara navel oranges to Badger Flame beets, this fresh bounty would make its way into my freshly squeezed carrot and ginger juice in the morning, the comforting tom ka gai soup at lunch, and every farm-to-fork five-course tasting menu I would have during my stay.
During the tour, Beger plucked a small green leaf from the garden and handed it to me. He took a bite, implying that it was my turn to try, and asked me to guess what it was. To my surprise, the sweet-tasting leaf is what we know as stevia or what I like to call Mother Nature's candy. Beger had an acute awareness of the garden as he paced up and down the beds, pointing out edible succulents and eagerly sharing random gardening tidbits like the fact that coriander seeds originated from cilantro flowers.
It made perfect sense for any quest to begin their wellness journey at the farm, the heart and soul of the resort. "It's grounding to see how things are done on the farm, see where the food you're eating comes from, and taste things in the field," Beger said. "We provide the best quality fruits, vegetables, and herbs to the kitchen, the bar, and ultimately our guests. But on a larger scale, we're a central point in the resort and set the standard for sustainability. We really are trying to drive it to a more grounded place. It's the root of the resort in some ways. Obviously, the springs are why we're all here, but we're trying to elevate everything."
The springs have been the main attraction since the resort originally opened in 1896. Castle Hot Springs was a hideaway for presidents and tycoons, including the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, who frequented the resort for its hot springs, which range from 106 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit and are said to have medicinal properties. But in 1976, a fire broke out and destroyed the main Administration building (now called the Lodge) and caused the iconic resort to fall dormant for about 40 years. In 2014, a husband and wife acquired the resort and spent nearly five years rebuilding and preserving the original infrastructure as much as possible. Like a phoenix, Castle Hot Springs rose from the ashes in 2019 as the remote retreat that's making all the impressive travel hot lists.
Credit not just the setting and the redo but also the all-inclusive, adults-only experience with its slew of wellness classes and outdoor adventures. You can hide yourself away in this exclusive and intimate enclave, or you can be going and going throughout the day. Yoga, meditation, sound baths, hiking, bike riding, mixology, archery, e-bikes, and a custom-built via ferrata with a 200-foot aerial walkway (not for the faint of heart) are just a few of the many adventure-driven and mindfulness activities on offer, many of which are led by Wellness Curator and guru Colleen Inman.
I had spent nearly 24 hours on the property but hadn't yet discovered the historic geothermal waters that I had heard so much about. I decided to wake up early the next day and spend the morning desert soaking. A five-minute walk toward the back of the resort led me to the first and largest of the three springs. A stunning emerald green pool of water with reflections of the soaring palm trees appeared almost like a fortuitous tropical jungle hidden amid an arid desert. Further up, I came across a set of lockers, bathrooms, and other guest amenities. Walking up a few stairs, I passed the second cascading spring. Finally, the third, the most extraordinary, natural spring appeared. It was enclosed with rocks covered in vivid green moss, beautiful striations of black and green hues caused by the minerals over time and the calming sounds of water running.
I was lucky enough to have the hot springs to myself (even though I was told the resort was nearly sold out). I spent the next hour soaking in the warm water surrounded by nothing but nature's beauty. As I took turns dipping in the adjacent springs, it was hard to ignore the history and legends that have passed through and soaked in this same very hot spring. If only these rocks could tell stories...
The healing properties of the mineral-rich springs and the contagious stillness of the mountains were enough to make me overlook the fact that the wellness resort didn't actually have spa facilities. Mother Nature was the restorative space I didn't know I needed. On my last day, I had a Castle Hot Springs signature massage booked in one of the outdoor private cabanas set up alongside the creek where the sounds of nature and flowing water were the soundtrack that instantly made me fall in and out of a deep meditative sleep.
During my stay at Castle Hot Springs, it seemed like time had frozen. For a few lovely days, I was transported into a desert oasis where my mind was as clear as the blue skies and my heart was open to receiving whatever this magical place would teach me. "We aim to find tranquility," Colleen had said during our meditation. And tranquil is exactly how I left Castle Hot Springs.
For more on Castle Hot Springs resort, visit castlehotsprings.com.
From our October 2022 issue.