Discoveries in the Desert
Travel time from:
Austin – 9 hours
Brownsville – 13 hours
Dallas – 11 hours
Houston – 11.5 hours
San Antonio – 8.25 hours
Lubbock – 8 hours
El Paso – 5.25 hours
In Presidio County, life and art are where you find them.
By Dyanne Fry Cortez
Chinati Hot Springs is not on the way to anywhere. To experience this oasis in the Chihuahuan Desert, you have to really want to go there.
There are two ways in: northwest on FM 170 from the border town of Presidio, or south from Marfa over FM 2810 and the ruggedly beautiful Pinto Canyon Road (a high-clearance vehicle is strongly recommended). Today we’re taking the border route. We stop in Presidio for last-chance groceries and follow the Rio Grande upstream. The winter sun sinks behind a Mexican mountain range, putting the highway in shadow before we reach the village of Ruidosa and turn right onto Hot Springs Road.
We’ve called ahead to reserve a campsite, and manager Diana Burbach is waiting to check us in. She gives a quick tour and advises us that a mountain lion was seen on the premises two nights ago.
“We’ve always known there are some around. They don’t usually cause any trouble,” she says. This one was prowling the cottonwood flat that runs alongside Hot Spring Creek when a guest stepped out of his cabin. The big cat “let him know it was there,” Burbach says.
There aren’t many people here tonight. We have the kitchen to ourselves as my husband, Javier, cooks red beans and rice fortified with chunks of German sausage. We eat, wash up and walk down to the bath house, keeping our eyes peeled for lions. After a soak in Tub No. 1, our favorite, we’re not fit for anything but sleep.
We’ve visited Chinati a half-dozen times in the past 15 years. It’s the best place we know to take a break from the world and all its troubles. In this canyon of healing waters, the world seems very far away.
Chinati Hot Springs.
The guest rooms don’t have TVs or telephones. Mobile phones don’t work here — at least, mine doesn’t. Marfa’s public radio station will come in sometimes, but you can’t count on it; there’s a lot of volcanic rock between here and the broadcast tower. Ruidosa, seven miles away, once had a little store, but it’s no longer in operation. Says Dan Burbach, Diana’s spouse and co-manager: “There’s not even a place to buy a Coke.”
The resort dates back to the 1890s. Formerly known as the Kingston Hot Springs, it was run by one family for almost a century. After a change in ownership, it closed to the public for several years and reopened as Chinati Hot Springs in 1997.
On our first visit, I suspect the place was pretty much as the Kingstons left it. There were three hot tubs, two for general use and one with an attached guest room (now called the El Presidente Suite). The funky old faucets worked strictly on gravity feed, and if people happened to open all three at the same time, the third tub might not get any water.
Outdoor hot tub at Chinati Hot Springs.
A few things have changed in the past decade, but the feel of the resort remains the same. The original bath house is still there, with some new plumbing behind the scenes. It still seems stuck in time with its deep tubs, thick rammed-earth walls, skylights for daytime use and soft lighting at night. Two additional guest rooms now have private tubs on fenced patios. There’s an outdoor tub under cottonwood trees and a cool pool that’s filled only in summer.
My favorite addition is the new kitchen and dining hall, built in 2005. I sometimes wonder: Can we really say we’re “camping” at Chinati, when we have the luxury of cooking indoors? The kitchen has two sinks, two refrigerators, two stoves and counter space for several parties to prepare meals at the same time. We don’t even need to pack pots, plates or utensils; it’s all there. The dining area holds an assortment of tables and chairs, with more seating outside, and a pair of barbecue grills on the patio.
Cool-water pool at Chinati Hot Springs.
The shared kitchen serves as a community gathering place, great for sharing stories with other visitors. You never know whom you’ll find out here in the middle of nowhere. On one of our first visits, we waited our turn at Tub No. 1 and found that Austin singer Toni Price was in just ahead of us. We’re told Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall once stayed in the El Presidente Suite.
If I want to be alone and listen to the desert, there’s plenty of space for that, too. After breakfast, I take a hike.
There’s a trail. It starts on a rocky slope at the north end of the property, crosses Hot Spring Creek and climbs a steep bank on the other side. Taking a sharp turn just before a fence with a “No Trespassing” sign, I wind my way through desert scrub at the top of the canyon wall. Looking down from here, I get a panoramic view of the resort on the inside bend of the creek. The Chinati Mountains form a scenic backdrop, topping out at 7,728-foot Chinati Peak. Just for fun, I check my cellphone to see if I can catch a signal at my present altitude. Nothing. I might as well be on the moon.
The trail follows the ridge for a way, heading downstream, and finally descends to the creek bed. From there it’s a short walk over sand and gravel bars back to camp.
Diana Burbach says that if I want to try another hike, straight down the creek about a half-mile, I’ll find an art gallery in the canyon wall. After a dip in the outdoor hot tub and lunch on the patio, I talk Javier into going with me.
I’ve never seen more than a trickle of water in this creek. It’s fed by several springs, both hot and cold. However, as with any watercourse in this part of Texas, there are times when it’s a raging torrent. We see evidence in the tumbled rocks we’re walking over, the undercut banks on sharp curves, the debris caught in the trees and brush that have grown up on the canyon floor. As we head downstream, the walls get closer and higher.
Eventually, we see a utility pole high on the right bank. We look to our left and there is Griffith Gallery, marked with a sign painted on a rock. In fact, there are painted rocks all over the place.
This canyon is not carved in blocks of limestone, like some others in the Big Bend area. Its walls are lumpy, bumpy conglomerations of sand and stone, dotted with cracks and crevices. Rock and tile artist Kathleen Griffith, who owns land on both sides of the creek, has filled those niches with portraits of birds, mammals, frogs, fish and people, all painted on rocks of various sizes and shapes. One large, pointed stone has been transformed into a life-size javelina head. The sly face of a mountain lion lurks under a high ledge.
“I just thought it would be a point of interest,” says Griffith, who also created the new tile mosaic at the gate to Chinati Hot Springs. She notes that the art works are all temporary inserts; no changes have been made to the wall itself. She hopes hikers will enjoy them and leave them there for others to see.
Room interior at Chinati Hot Springs.
Back at camp, the weekend crowd is moving in. We fix a spaghetti dinner, don a few more layers of clothing and sit outside with other guests to drink in the night. The moon is almost full, casting a silver light over the rock-lined paths, the bath house and the cottonwood flat.
By 1 p.m. Saturday, we’re packed and ready to go. We plan to break up the long drive home with a night at Presidio’s Three Palms Inn, situated almost within sight of the International Bridge to Ojinaga, Mexico.
We catch a late lunch at El Patio, on the main street around the corner from the bus station. Javier has the El Patio special: a chile relleno, crispy taco and two beef enchiladas with green sauce spicy enough to make his nose run. I order chicken enchiladas with red sauce. The food is good, and I have to love the décor. Somebody here really admires Don Quixote. His likeness is everywhere: pictures on the walls, figurines on the ice-cream cart and, in one corner of the dining room, a life-size wooden statue of the hapless knight sitting dejectedly on a stump. The backdrop for the statue is a floor-to-ceiling mural of a Spanish country scene, including a windmill with a broken blade.
Proprietor René Franco tells me the statue was the first Don Quixote in the collection. It inspired visiting artist David Mendoza, who painted the mural some 10 years later. Most of the other items were donated by customers and friends.
We’ve had lovely weather for our trip, but morning comes with clouds and a slight chance of snow in the forecast. After plates of huevos rancheros at the Oasis Restaurant next door to our hotel, we hit the road for home.
• Chinati Hot Springs, www.chinatihotsprings.net, 432-229-4165
• Three Palms Inn, 1200 Emma Ave., Presidio, www.threepalmsinn.com, 432-229-3211
• Oasis Restaurant (next door to Three Palms Inn), 432-229-3998
• El Patio Restaurant, 513 O’Reilly St., Presidio, 432-229-4409
See more travel stories on TP&W magazine's Travel page