Sitting beside the dying embers of the small charcoal grill, I clear my dishes from the picnic table, scrape what’s left of my dinner into a small plastic bag and tie it tight. I shut off my battery-powered lantern to take in remote West Texas’ amazing stars on a crisp February night and immediately see it: my first satellite, whipping across the cobalt sky. “Ohhh,” I sigh in wonder. I’m home.
It wasn’t my first trip to Chinati Hot Springs, a lodge about 50 miles southwest of Marfa in the Chinati Mountains. Flowing from the ground at approximately 110 degrees, the springs contain lithium, arsenic and other minerals that have been said to help relieve arthritis, stomach ulcers and a variety of skin conditions. For centuries, humans have been taking advantage of these restorative waters.
In the morning, I don my polka-dotted swimsuit and trek over to the rock-lined community tub situated in a shady spot between the cabins. This is what I’ve been waiting for. I pull back the protective tarp and gingerly step into the warmth of the 750-gallon spring-fed pool. “Ahhh,” I say as I settle in up to my neck. As the water works its magic, relaxing my muscles and my mind, I soak in the scenery: rugged mountains bathed in the early morning light, the rustle of fallen cottonwood leaves dancing across the ground and the chorus of nearby house finches and white-crowned sparrows.
I am staying in the El Presidente cabin for the next two nights—one of three that features a private tub and the only cabin with the tub indoors. And that is pretty nice in winter, when temperatures can drop to freezing at night. The geothermal water is hot as it flows from the tap, but eventually the cold temperatures win, and the water goes from hot to warm.
In all, there are seven cabins and seven campsites that can comfortably house about 25 people, says Mattie Matthaei, who helps out at Chinati from time to time. A large common kitchen, built by former caretaker David Sines in 2005, features two refrigerators, two stoves, pots, pans and plates and an array of seasonings and dry groceries. There are also two large grills on the kitchen’s porch and picnic tables guests can use to take in the desert wilderness. But bring your own groceries, warn managers Dan Burbach and Diana Hankins. The nearest store is 45 miles away.
So when is the best time to go? That depends on the person. The park is the most lush during the rainy season, September through October. During the warmer months, March through November, the park’s 7,800-gallon cool tub is in operation. Holidays are busier—Thanksgiving is booked from here to eternity, Matthaei says—and folks should call well in advance to book their stay. About 5,000 make the pilgrimage to the park each year.
My last day in Chinati, I hike the one-mile trail that circles the 640-acre park. I could spend the rest of my life exploring West Texas. Lucky for me they encourage exploring at Chinati, just heed Matthaei’s warning: Mind the “No Trespassing” signs.
For more information on Chinati Hot Springs or to book a reservation, call (432) 229-4165 or visit the website.
If You Go …
Stock up on groceries BEFORE you go. There are small grocery stores in Fort Stockton, Alpine and Marfa that certainly would suit your needs, but I suggest hitting up your H-E-B or United and filling up your ice chest. (This will also give you road snacks on your drive.)
Don’t forget weather in West Texas can hit the top and the bottom of the thermometer in one day. Be prepared for all weather extremes.
It’s a jungle out there: Don’t forget lanterns, flashlights, bug spray, hiking boots, sunscreen, hand sanitizer, hats and a first-aid kit.
Like music in your car? Be sure to pack along CDs or your iPod. There’s virtually no radio once you get out west, and unless you’re content to listen to an Ojinaga, Mexico, radio station, you’ll be craving your tunes.
Ashley Clary-Carpenter, field editor