Chinati Hot Springs: A rugged oasis in Big Bend

February 16, 2015

Pam LeBlanc soaks in the outdoor hot tub at Chinati Hot Springs in Jan. 2015 in West Texas.

Here at Chinati Hot Springs, with my toes splayed out at the end of the longest, deepest private bathtub Iíve ever eased into, the buzz of the city feels a million miles away.

The warm water filling the homemade, cement-walled basin makes me feel so mellow, in fact, that even the mustard-colored walls of the El Presidente suite where Iím soaking donít bother me. Itís bliss.

But fair warning: Donít make the trek to West Texas expecting to find the Four Seasons. The 640-acre "resort" is situated along a twisty creek in the bottom of a rocky canyon. Big cottonwood trees along the banks shade a little oasis held hostage by the prickly, lizard- and tarantula-populated Chihuahuan desert.

Itís beautiful, though, and these soothing waters lured humans to this hard-to-get-to corner of Big Bend National Park for thousands of years before it opened as a resort. Itís easy to see why. Itís quiet in the desert, and no one just happens upon this place. You have to be purposely headed here.

Even that takes some effort. By car, you have two choices ó the gorgeous but mostly unpaved and rugged Pinto Canyon Road from Marfa, or the mostly paved road from Presidio. (We chose the rugged, two-hour route from Marfa and loved every moment. Just be sure you have a high-clearance vehicle and take your time.)

Pulling into the gravel parking lot is like discovering a cool glass of iced tea waiting for you after youíve hiked 20 miles in the heat. A few big trees spread a leafy umbrella over the grounds and the rugged Chinati Mountains set a dramatic backdrop.

Dianna Burbach, who manages the property, showed us to our cabin and gave us the nickel tour. She moved here in 2000 from Fort Worth. "Now thereís no way I could ever go back," she said. "Itís just the quiet atmosphere ó no airplanes, no trains, no cars honking. Itís the total peace and quiet."

Some of the cabins have private baths, others share a bathhouse, and thereís a round outdoor tub that holds five or six folks at once. A cool-water swimming pool is open only during the summer. The cabins all come with heating and AC, plus running water and flushing toilets. Camping is permitted, too.

The Kingston family, which owned the property starting in the 1890s, was the first to rent out rooms here in the 1930s. Then it went through a series of owners, including the famous Marfa artist and art collector Donald Judd.

When Jeff Fort III, the 73-year-old retired CEO of Tyco International, bought the place from Richard Fenker in 2005, only three of the guest rooms were usable. He installed a spacious new community kitchen and spruced things up considerably. For the first time since he bought Chinati Hot Springs, it turned a profit in 2014, he said.

"I always liked the place but thought it was really run down," Fort said by phone after our visit. "The beautiful waters are the main lure ó crystal clear and completely drinkable by Texas state standards. Itís water in the desert, and whenever that happens and itís managed properly, you get an oasis. Thatís what this is."

Fort also owns the adjacent Pinto Canyon Ranch, a 62,000-acre spread that encompasses some of the wildest and wooliest (and also some of the most gorgeous) terrain in Texas. If you take Pinto Canyon Road in, youíll drive right through it.

We also met Rook, the resident cat, a rescue from a shelter in Fort Davis. The stocky but sure-footed gray tabby serves as de facto ambassador of Chinati Hot Springs and, believe it or not, loves to hike. He led us on two excursions during our stay ó one up the ridge across the creek, the other about half a mile down a trickling stream bed full of tumbled rocks. He raises his hackles to warn guests if a mountain lion has been nearby, Burbach told us.

Walk far enough down the creek and youíll find an "art gallery" of painted rocks wedged into the canyon walls by local rock and tile artist Kathleen Griffith.

Bring your own groceries. The nearest resupply is 40 miles away in Presidio. We stocked up in Marfa. Thereís no cell service or televisions, of course. The springs are open year-round, but now and then (like the week before we visited in mid-January), a storm knocks out the power and everything grinds to a halt. Even the toilets cease to flush.

All that seclusion attracts people who like a little solitude. Actor Daniel Day-Lewis and his wife visited while he was in West Texas filming "There Will Be Blood," according to Fort, the owner.

As we cooked our steaks in the community kitchen, we chatted with Kate Johnson, a 43-year-old teacher at Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City. She was midway through a West Texas road trip, drawn here by scenes of Big Bend sheíd seen in the recent movie "Boyhood."

"I love hot springs, and this place came up and looked really cute, really unique," she said.

Her only disappointment? The water, especially the water in the big outdoor tub, wasnít hot enough. Still, she liked the contrast with home.

"Coming from New York, you love and appreciate places like this, where everything slows down, thereís no one behind you waiting for your spot and no one in front of you whose spot you want," she said.




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