Soaking in the Land of Enchantment

Blackrock Hot Spring
By Craig Martin
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Map of the area around Blackrock Hot Spring
Blackrock Hot Spring

Few of northern New Mexico's bounty of hot springs have escaped the hands of developers and remain in a primitive condition. Blackrock Hot Spring has two characteristics that kept it from development: It has low flow, and it is located on the west bank of the rugged Rio Grande Gorge.

New Mexico is split roughly in half, north to south, by that great rent in the earth's crust, the Rio Grande rift. Tensional forces—somewhat related to the westward movement of the North American plate and its collision with the Pacific plate—are pulling New Mexico apart, creating an elongated, down-dropped block on the surface. Sediments washed down from the surrounding mountain ranges have partially filled the rift, and lava flowing on the surface from hundreds of faults bordering the rift has helped fill it too.

The Rio Grande has sliced a deep canyon through the great piles of lava in the northern portion of the rift zone. Ninety miles long and often almost 1,000 feet deep, the Rio Grande Gorge is a formidable barrier to travel across the northern third of New Mexico. With the major population center in the north located at Taos, over on the east side of the river, for the past thousand years, the west bank of the Rio Grande has remained isolated.

Construction of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad from Colorado to Santa Fe on the plateau high on the west side of the Rio Grande provided plenty of stimulus to find a direct route from Taos to the trains. Two Taos merchants put up the first bridge across the river near Manby Hot Spring in the 1890s, and it wasn't long before a second, competing bridge was built a mile upstream at the mouth of the Rio Hondo.

In 1900, John Dunn of Taos purchased the bridge at the Rio Hondo with money he won at the poker table. It turned out that owning a bridge on the Rio Grande was quite a gamble, too, for the next spring, flood took the bridge with it into the rugged gorge below. Dunn was a tireless man who quickly rebuilt the bridge and then expanded his business interests by starting a stage service running over the bridge from Taos to Sevilleta, a whistle stop on the railroad.

Said to be a fugitive from the Texas Rangers, Dunn was full of brilliant if somewhat shady ideas. He built a small hotel at his bridge and made the crossing an overnight stop on his stage line, an arrangement that forced passengers to pay for food and lodging before continuing to Taos the next morning. With the crossing securely his, Dunn eyed the hot springs a half-mile below, wondering how he could exploit them. He probably took a few guests over the rugged walking trail along the river to the springs, but the low flow of hot water, plus the fact that the springs were frequently covered by the runoff-swollen Rio Grande, kept Dunn from taking further advantage of the spring.

Far from isolated today, Blackrock Hot Spring is New Mexico's most accessible primitive mineral spring. From the parking area at the hairpin turn above Dunn's bridge, a well-developed trail dives from the road and heads downstream. The trail descends quickly to the river, reaching the spring in less than a quarter-mile.

The pool is small, and the volume of hot water is low. The mineral water issues from the base of the thick pile of black lava in a narrow drainage in the wall of the gorge. Boulders that have tumbled down the watercourse have completely covered the spot where the water bubbles up from the surface.

Despite its low volume, the flow from the hidden spring is collected in a deep, round pool about 12 feet in diameter that will comfortably hold five or six bathers. Soft sand has accumulated on the bottom, and there are rock ledges to sit on while enjoying the pool. Don't be deceived by the warm water temperatures in the top few inches of the pool: The deepest part of the pool can be considerably cooler. A lower pool sits at river level and is generally flooded during spring runoff in March, April, and early May. During peak runoff, the river may seep into the upper pool and chill its water to near-frigid.

Because of the beautiful canyon setting and its accessibility, Blackrock Hot Spring receives heavy use. If you are looking for privacy, head somewhere else. Also, thoughtless users have left unsightly trash scattered around the site. The locals are quite protective of this spring. Don't be a part of the problem: Remove all your trash, and visit this spring with a healthy dose of courtesy to other users.

Also known as: Hondo Hot Spring.
Location: Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River Recreation Area, northwest of Taos, west of Arroyo Hondo near the John Dunn Bridge.
Type: A primitive spring on the banks of the Rio Grande.
Services: None. Nearest services are 10 miles away in Taos.
Temperature: 980 F.
Discharge: 0.5 gpm.
Elevation: 6,540 feet.
Hike Rating: Easy, 0.5 miles round-trip.
Maps: USGS Arroyo Hondo 7.5' quadrangle.

Trailhead Access: From the Taos Plaza, go north on US Highway 64. Continue straight onto New Mexico 522 at the traffic signal where US Highway 64 turns left. Six miles past the intersection with US 64, just over a small bridge on the Rio Hondo, turn left onto the paved County Road B005. Drive slowly through the village of Arroyo Hondo. In 1 mile, the pavement ends. Cross another bridge and climb a short hill. Bear right in 0.1 miles and ignore the many side tracks as the main road snakes to the top of the hill before descending into the Rio Hondo Canyon. The road into the canyon is rough but passable by any vehicle. Cross the Rio Grande on John Dunn Bridge and continue 0.2 mile to the first hairpin turn and park off the road. Note that the road in Rio Hondo Canyon can be icy and hazardous in winter, and muddy and dangerous when wet.

© 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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