Bruce F. Barber
The odor of sulfur hung in the air. Crossing the river, we came to a wall of trees marking the end of the road. We had driven 40 miles to experience this place. Now, with our goal but a few steps away, several of our number were already clambering out of their Sandrails to be the first to see the springs.
Thinking back on it, I could hardly believe we had driven through a blinding desert dust storm to reach this peaceful place where leaves hung in quiet abandon as the sun bathed all with its dazzling light. After six long years, I stood again at the edge of Valle Chico’s hot springs.
We had departed San Felipe with eight sandrails, a dunebuggy and a pickup truck: 20 men and women bound for another exciting journey into the desert. Warm as toast, it was a beautifully sunlit morning without a cloud in the sky. Entering Valle Chico, however, we encountered a breeze which, by the time we passed the brahma bull ranch, had become a full-fledged windstorm.
Donning what we could for face masks, we inched our way along until, an hour later, we drove out of the storm in a manner likened to walking from one room to another. In this case, having arrived at the mouth of Agua Caliente Canyon, we had driven behind the protection of a nearby mountain.
Hot Springs Road is not the best in Mexico, nor is it the worst. Rough enough to cause less dedicated desert enthusiasts to retreat prematurely, it is a course littered with running water, loose sand, shifting rocks and crowding boulders. It is not an easy drive but, for anyone wanting to experience the hot springs, worth the effort.
Whereas ranchers drive this road in two-wheel-drive pickup trucks, I prefer the maneuverability of a Volkswagen-powered Sandrail in which I seldom hesitate to enter this or any other passable canyon.
Stopping about a mile into the canyon, we photographed a blooming century plant. Resembling a gigantic asparagus, we saw hummingbirds, hornets, bees and even a little Mexican bat extract their shares of nectar from its brilliant flowers as, flying from flower to flower, they pollinated for next year’s growth.
Photo session completed, we returned to our vehicles to continue our journey along which we witnessed an abundance of ironwood, elephant trees, ocotillo, bursage and a variety of cactus, including cardón, senita, cholla and prickly pear. Whereas grass was everywhere, the most dramatic display was a medley of early spring flowers including desert mallow, sand verbena and evening primrose.
Rarely have I seen the profusion of flowers that blessed the San Felipe Desert following the recent rains. Close inspection revealed not one, two or three varieties of flowers but hundreds of them ranging from giant agave (century plant) to blossoms as small as 1/32-inch in diameter.
Approaching the hot springs, we drove through a thicket of mesquite before diving into the river for our eighth and final crossing. We had inched over boulders, driven along 500 yards of the river’s boiling waters, climbed a difficult bank, and towed one of our number to safety when his engine quit in midstream. Arrival was a pleasant relief.
Six years earlier, my wife and I had walked this same tortuous route with another couple. Standing now where I stood then, I noticed a number of remarkable differences. The ramada was still there but someone had repaired it. The living quarters were new and attractively done.
The hot springs cover a boomerang-shaped area 100 feet long by 20 wide. Located near the living quarters, we saw the dark green grass the upper springs feed before we found the upper springs. The lower springs, four of them (that number can increase or decrease depending upon local seismic activity) were hidden in the trees at the lower end of the boomerang.
Whereas we smelled them before we saw them, we had come to experience these springs, which were bubbling to the surface at the rate of several gallons per minute. Black sand lined the bottom of a stream where, 25 feet downstream, cooling water gave up its sulfur to paint the streambed a pale shade of yellow.
100 yards farther along, I came to the place where the hot water mixed with cold from another stream and envisioned a theoretical tile-lined pool, tourists, and dollars by the thousands.
Although there are several hot springs in Baja Norte, these are the only thermal springs accessible from Valle Chico. There is a hot spring 55 miles south of San Felipe at Puertecitos; there is a hot water well at a Rancho Chinalito (near the south end of Valle Santa Clara). There are hot springs in Palomar, Guadalupe and Carrizo canyons of the Sierra de Juarez (only Guadalupe is developed for public enjoyment), and there are hot springs at Jamau, Agua Caliente and Agua Viva along the road to Ensenada.
Thermal springs originate from sources identified as Meteoric and Volcanic. Meteoric hot springs involve water that fell to earth as rain or snow, penetrated the earth’s crust to depths where it is heated by rocks over which it flows and then rises along well-defined fissures to issue forth as springs. Volcanic springs, which can appear as geysers or hot springs, involve subterranean water arriving at the earth’s surface for the first time. Whereas Valle Chico’s hot springs, and those I mentioned above, are meteoric, you’ll find volcanic springs among those at the geothermal site 20 miles southeast of Mexicali.
Located in rugged mountain terrain, the Valle Chico hot springs are original. That is, previously untouched by man. Sure, there’s a line shack, a ramada and a fence but when I evaluate the scene, I notice every ray of sun, every breath of wind, every drop of water seems to renew this incomparable place. This is home to the puma and the bobcat, to mountain sheep and coyote, to wild pig, gray and kit foxes, raccoons, ringtails, badgers, jackrabbits and desert cottontails.
A lazy, S-shaped streambed, a sandy beach, a grass-covered spa fringed with a verdant growth of trees provided the setting in which we enjoyed our lunch. Now, however, having experienced the springs and, for those who joined me, the petroglyphs 1/2-mile farther west, we found ourselves rested, refreshed and ready to go again.
Picking up and packing up, we started engines, formed a line and retraced the 40 mile road to San Felipe. Although difficult, it had been a rewarding outing and I think of it now with words like “boil, bubble, toil, and trouble” …and the beauty of Baja California.