Soaking in the Land of Enchantment

Manby Hot Springs
By Craig Martin
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Manby Hot Springs offers the opportunity to soak in more than just hot water. The springs and the route to them are steeped in a rich natural and human history that begins with volcanoes spewing 100-foot-thick walls of lava and ends, perhaps, with a headless ghost haunting the springs on moonless nights. The trip to the springs guarantees a quality adventure, an interesting hike, and the chance to soak in a large spring while staring up at towering cliffs of stone rising up like the walls of a castle.

The story of Manby Hot Springs is a compressed view of the history of the state of New Mexico. The springs were used by the Pueblo people long before the Spanish sought to exploit its waters for the dream of perpetual youth. After a long, pastoral interlude, the final chapter involves an Anglo newcomer who attempted to create a real estate boom by conning the longtime residents out of their rights to the land.

Manby Hot Springs lies on the banks of the Rio Grande in the river's wild 90-mile gorge. The gorge is a narrow slice in the middle of a mountain-bounded depression called the Rio Grande rift. In the rift zone, the earth's crust is stretched thin, and hot magma lies relatively close to the surface. Fractures in the rock extend down to the magma. Groundwater circulates along the fractures, passing near enough to the magma to be heated and rise to the surface as hot water.

About 20 million years ago, lava pouring from dozens of nearby volcanoes filled the Rio Grande rift zone near Taos. Over the years, the Rio Grande carved a deep canyon through the hardened basalt. Black walls rise up from the river as much as 1,000 feet. Manby Hot Springs lies deep within the gorge in the most dramatic setting for a hot spring in the state.

Two ancient, geometric petroglyphs pecked into basalt boulders along the river demonstrate that the springs have been known for hundreds of years. Pueblo people from Taos or another village marked the location of the spring with their simple and mysterious rock art. Old Taos residents explain that one of the petroglyphs—three concentric circles with a solid dot in the middle—denotes the Pueblo name of the springs, Wa-pu-mee. This long-standing name, roughly translated as"water of long life," brought Spanish explorers to the area in the sixteenth century. The Europeans were searching for the Aztec's famed spring of perpetual youth, which was said to lie many days' journey north of Mexico City—a rather broad geographical range, but in the hopeful eyes of the Conquistadors, the description was a perfect fit for the Rio Grande Gorge. The Spanish found a well-worn trail from the rim of the canyon to the hot springs, and undoubtedly their pulses quickened. Alas, their soak in the water failed to deliver the miracle for which they had come.

For many years, sheepherders and women from Taos and other small communities used the springs for washing clothes or bathing. In the 1890s, Taos merchants Albert Miller and Gerson Gusdorf widened the ancient trail to the springs into a road. They weren't interested in the springs, however, but in a commercial stage route to connect Taos with the nearest railroad station on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad at Tres Piedras. A few yards downstream from the hot springs the merchants built a bridge across the river and cut switchbacks up the west wall of the gorge. They made money not only from stage service but also from collecting tolls for the use of the road and bridge. Eventually, the road brought a visitor who saw the hot springs as his own haven of peace and a potential source of wealth.

Arthur Rochford Manby, the black sheep of a wealthy English family, shipped off to the United States in 1890 to make his own fortune. He drifted into Taos and got involved in several mining schemes that all failed. Turning from mining, Manby saw his opportunity for riches in the convoluted legal battles involving Spanish land grants in northern New Mexico. With little capital, he quietly bought up dozens of small farms on the Antonio Martinez Land Grant; then, on the basis of a legal technicality, he boldly laid claim to the entire 66,000-acre grant.

The western boundary of the grant reached to the Rio Grande, and Manby assumed possession of the hot springs. Around 1906, Manby cleared out the largest pool and built a crude plank hut over it. He later replaced the hut with a fortress-like stone bathhouse. The door sat high on the windowless walls. Inside, Manby built a plank floor and a staircase leading down to the water. When Taos author Mabel Dodge Luhan first visited the bathhouse with her husband, he almost refused to enter the "very dark and sinister" house but came out an hour later feeling "all smoothed out."

Manby retreated to his bath to escape the pressure of his mounting debts. While soaking in his spring, he devised an elaborate scheme for developing the spring into a world-renowned resort. He had the water chemically analyzed and found it high in sodium and radon; he proclaimed the water possessed the power to cure nervousness, rheumatism, and intestinal troubles. Playing off the old Spanish theme of the spring of youth, he intimated that the Spanish were unaware that they had found the miracle spring. Manby pitched his plan for a hotel and private bathing chambers to wealthy easterners whom he lured over the rough road to the springs.

With legal battles still raging over ownership of the land, Manby couldn't scare up any investors to begin construction. After twenty years of scheming, Manby lost all his land holdings to his creditors. It turned out he never held title to the land where the hot springs lie. Bitter and paranoid, the old man hid in his house, coming out only at night to roam the streets of Taos. In July 1929, Manby was found decapitated in his home, his large dog by his side. Whether Manby was murdered or died of natural causes and was later disfigured by his dog has never been determined.

The rugged nature of the Rio Grande Gorge usually makes access to the river an arduous adventure, but the old stagecoach road to Manby Hot Springs is the easiest of all the paths leading into the depths of the gorge. From the parking area on the rim, follow the wide but rocky road that angles into the canyon. The road soon narrows to a trail, offering spectacular views of the gorge and the river along the entire mile to the springs. It will take from twenty to thirty minutes to reach the springs. On the way down, watch for the retaining walls of the stagecoach road both adjacent to the path you are on and across the river as the abandoned road switchbacks up the other side. If you look carefully, you may see bubbles rising from a hot seep in the middle of the river.

The hot springs are just above the east bank of the river. Three rock-lined pools have comfortable sandy bottoms. The main pool, about 2 feet deep, is located against the west wall of Manby's bathhouse. It discharges about 30 gallons per minute and with a 20-foot diameter can hold up to ten bathers. Smaller, cooler pools are located closer to the river. These lower pools are submerged in the river during runoff, which usually lasts from late March to mid-May.

You'll find a variety of users at the springs, including local families, slope-weary skiers, out-of-state visitors, and nude sunbathers. This is one of New Mexico's most pristine hot pools. Please help keep the springs and the historical structures in the area free from trash and damage. Pack out everything you carry in. Do not enter Manby's bathhouse as the walls are unstable. If you spot the nearby petroglyphs, don't touch them: Oils from your hands can damage the fragile desert varnish on the surface of the rocks.

The climb back to the rim on the gentle grades of the old stagecoach road ascends about 400 feet. It's an easy walk for those accustomed to the 6,000-foot elevation, but visitors from sea level should be prepared to take it slow. Also note that air temperatures in the gorge can soar over the century mark in summer. Spring and fall are the best times to enjoy the walk and the hot springs.

Plan on a leisurely half-day trip to visit the springs. Come prepared for more than the soaking. Explore the historic structures, watch for bald eagles soaring through the gorge and mergansers diving for fingerlings, or bring a fishing rod to enjoy some of the fine angling offered by the Rio Grande. You can explore upstream from the springs on a trail that follows the east bank, but the rocky Taos Box downstream is unsuitable for casual hikers.

The eclectic town of Taos offers visitors all the essential services, from groceries to regional specialty restaurants to a microbrewery. The community caters to a wide range of tastes, and everyone can find something pleasing. Nearby Taos Ski Area has a well-deserved reputation for excellent snow. In summer, rafting on the Rio Grande is a popular activity. Hiking or fishing in Carson National Forest and the Wheeler Peak and Latir Wilderness Areas will provide the perfect prelude to a visit to the local hot springs. Camping is available in private campgrounds in Taos and along the Rio Hondo on the road to the ski area.

Whenever you drop in on the thermal waters along the Rio Grande, keep an eye out for Manby's ghost, searching for a bit of peace in the soothing waters of his spring.

Also known as: Stagecoach Hot Spring, Mamby Hot Spring, American Hot Spring.
Location: Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River Recreation Area, northwest of Taos.
Type: A primitive spring on the banks of the Rio Grande.
Services: None. Nearest services are 10 miles away in Taos.
Temperature: 94 to 1000 F.
Discharge: 30 gpm.
Elevation: 6,480 feet.
Hike Rating: Moderate, 1.5 miles round-trip.
Maps: USGS Arroyo Hondo 7.5' quadrangle.

Trailhead Access: From Taos, drive north on US Highway 64 to the intersection with New Mexico Highway 522. Continue straight on New Mexico Highway 522. In 5.3 miles, just before the road begins a long descent, turn left on County Road B007. Continue 2.3 miles on this gravel road, and turn left onto a very rutted dirt road. From this point, a high-clearance vehicle or mountain bike is recommended. Follow the main track, taking care to stay out of driveways along the way. After a half-mile on the rutted track, take the left fork, then the right fork in another 0.8 miles. Reach the parking area on the rim of the Rio Grande Gorge at the unmarked trailhead in another half mile, 1.8 miles from County Road B007. Note that the roads to the trailhead are impassable during wet weather.

© Article copyright Pruett Publishing.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 10 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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