agua caliente hot mineral spring

Pure Bliss

That aaaaaaah sensation of hot mineral springs made Palm Springs a feel-good destination, and a local tribe is doubling down on that promise with a new spa.

Neal Turnage Current PSL, Health & Wellness, History

agua caliente hot mineral spring
The original bathhouse, circa 1920, was located at the site of the Agua Caliente Hot Mineral Spring.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY AGUA CALIENTE CULTURAL MUSEUM. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

111 East

HERITAGE

“It is the most uncanny experience I have ever had in all my wanderings.” Margaret Butcher, a newly arrived Englishwoman to Coachella Valley in 1923, wrote those words in a letter to her sister back home. She was referring to the hot mineral springs water bath she took in downtown Palm Springs. Recently, the letter resurfaced at the Palm Springs Historical Society. It provided a new take on “the waters” and the bathhouses, an important if not “uncanny” centerpiece of the city’s lore and history.

The hot mineral springs, for thousands of years the provenance of the Agua Caliente (Spanish for “hot water”) Band of Cahuilla Indians, was magical, mysterious, and sacrosanct to the tribe. Located near the present-day intersection of Tahquitz Canyon Way and Indian Canyon Drive, the spring provided water for drinking, bathing, and healing. It was also a place for tribal members to pray and connect to ancestors — a multidimensional life source. That source will impact the lives of a new generation of tribal members and visitors to the area when the tribe reintroduces the waters to the public in the summer of 2020.

Butcher discovered the mineral springs waters in the early 1920s in a shanty bathhouse at the Desert Inn where she had taken a job as a maid. In her letter, she described how inviting she found the structure, the second bathhouse on the site. (The first was built in the late 1800s.) “A grubby tumble down looking shed building. Windows dank with dust, some broken, veiled curtains hanging askew. Door with paint faded out or worn off.”

The disrepair wasn’t the only thing Butcher found unnerving. The mineral springs waters themselves rankled her as they did so many unfamiliar with their powers. She described the smell as “something like rotten cabbage” and asked her dear reader to imagine “wind, thunder, sulphur [sic] swell, boiling, bubbling … water coming from a hole without a bottom.” She also noted that one “never sinks in the water deeper than the base of the heart.” And that the mineral springs bath left one “on springs, so light and straight and springy.” Uncanny? Definitely. And then some.


aguacalientespa

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

How It Works
1

The hot spring waters, which Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians tribal chairman Jeff L. Grubbe describes as “the heart of tribal life for thousands of years,” originate as rain and snow melt.

2

That water travels 1.5 miles into a reservoir beneath the earth’s surface where it is warmed to 160–180 degrees Fahrenheit.

3

Pressure finally pushes the water up through a chimney-like pathway (created by the water itself).

4

The water — now dense with minerals such as magnesium, sodium, calcium, sulfate, and potassium and untouched by other water sources — emerges at a comfortable 105 degrees.

5

The process takes some 12,000 years. Water now bubbling up likely last saw the earth’s surface during the last ice age.

Source: Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians

Singular in Form and Function

It would take a while, but eventually the Agua Caliente tribe, along with scientists, realized that Butcher’s landmark bath was singular in form and function. To be certain, it was not the only hot spring in the Coachella Valley. But it was the only one that was not associated with surface faults or where deep valleys intersected with groundwater. Instead, these waters, the result of rain and snow melt, percolated 800 feet underground; climbed through sand, silt, and gravel; and discharged at the surface void of impurities. More than a few geologists have marveled at how the movement of the water acts as its own purifier and filter, how it blows silt out of the way but leaves permeable sand in place.

agua caliente hot springs

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES

The Spa’s last incarnation, designed in 1960 by architects William Cody, Donald Wexler, Richard Harrison, and Philip Koenig, was razed in 2014 to clear the way for a state-of-the-art spa and cultural museum.

Besides purity, the water’s mineral makeup further distinguishes it. Sodium, magnesium, and calcium combine with other elements, such as potassium, sulfur, and chloride, all of which contribute to overall well-being and relaxation — the reason Butcher felt so “light,” “straight,” and “springy.” “Scientists who’ve been testing the water for approximately 100 years validate that there is no other water like it in the world,” says Kate Anderson, director of public relations for the tribe. (Geologists have made similar statements about a hot spring in Desert Hot Springs also discovered by the Cahuilla Indians and found by pioneer Cabot Yerxa on his land in 1914 along with a nearby cool water spring.) Furthermore, Anderson adds, “carbon dated testing shows that water bubbling up now is 12,000-plus years old — and ancillary testing shows no nuclear elements present, which proves the water saw the earth’s surface prior to the 1950s.”

Stewardship of the precious source and recognition of its healing properties contributed to the necessity of bathhouses. While Butcher had reservations about the second structure, the third one, constructed in the 1930s, was aesthetically more pleasing. In the 1950s, however, a full renovation and revelation occurred. After an all-women tribal council successfully lobbied Congress to approve land leases for 99 years, developers came calling. Soon, “the world’s most beautiful spa” was conceived to capitalize on the uncanny waters. Palm Springs zoomed to the top of the jet set’s glamour destination list.

agua caliente cultural center

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY AGUA CALIENTE BAND OF CAHUIL;A INDIANS

A rendering of the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza in Palm Springs shows the Oasis Trail separating the spa and museum.

Elvis Is in the House

When the Spa Hotel opened in 1963, gone was the rudimentary bathhouse model. In its place, a confection of stunning aesthetics was revealed in a hotel with fine dining that featured a built-in wellness angle. The combined modernistic hotel and bathhouse drew immediate interest thanks to its notable architects: William Cody, Donald Wexler, Richard Harrison, and Philip Koenig. The names and publicity alone ensured the world would know about Palm Springs’ revered mineral springs water source and its new playground where one could froth in a luxurious mod design and “take the waters.” People came from all four corners of the world.

Local resident Burton Spivack served as president of the hotel and bathhouse at its opening and 23 years thereafter. He saw it all. “I had people clamoring to see celebrities,” Spivack recalls. “I told them, ‘Go to the bathhouse on a Saturday afternoon.’” There, among separate men’s and women’s sections as well as  sauna and massage rooms, he ran interference with A-listers. “Col. [Tom] Parker, who managed Elvis, wanted me to keep the bathhouse open after 7 p.m. so Elvis could come have a soak.” The colonel’s visit coincided with a visit by producer Jerry Weintraub, which led to a business deal. “The colonel said no to Jerry’s request for Elvis to tour the country unless Jerry could come up with a million bucks. Jerry came up with the money, and the colonel kept his word. Elvis toured.”


Where to Take the Waters

The Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza opens in summer 2020 in Palm Springs, but you can take the waters now at these spas in Desert Hot Springs:

Miracle Hot Springs
10625 Palm Drive
Desert Hot Springs
760-251-6000
miraclesprings.com
Day spa passes are available to enjoy the mineral waters.

The Spring Resort and Spa
12699 Reposo Way
Desert Hot Springs
760-251-6700
the-spring.com
Enjoy three mineral water pools with a day spa pass.

Two Bunch Palms
67425 Two Bunch Palms Trail
Desert Hot Springs
800-472-4334
twobunchpalms.com
A favorite for its Grotto mineral pool, storied history, and 600-year-old hot spring.


The newfangled attraction eventually ran its course. The democratization of travel in the 1960s and ’70s opened up the skies to people of all socioeconomic classes. When airline deregulation occurred in 1978, the writing was all but on the wall. The ever-fickle tourists and ever-finicky jet set were off to new horizons. The Spa Hotel’s days were numbered. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. While Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians tribal chairman Jeff L. Grubbe acknowledges the significance of the hotel and its midcentury architecture, he says the property never fully represented the tribe, nor was it a fitting symbol of the hot spring. It was time to start from scratch.

palm springs construction

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY AGUA CALIETE CULTURAL MUSEUM

agua caliente band of cahuilla indians

PHOTOGRAPH BY KATE ANDERSON

The Agua Caliente spa’s water collection ring was created in the 1950s during road widening construction.

In With the New

The Spa Hotel fell into disrepair, and the tribe closed it in July 2014 and began planning for the Agua Caliente Cultural Plaza, which broke ground in May 2018 and will include a new spa and a cultural museum. When complete in 2020, it will become one of the largest Native American museums in the country — and once again christen Palm Springs as a mineral springs water bath destination.

agua caliente cultural center spa

PHOTOGRAPH BY KATE ANDERSON

The tribe recently retrofitted the ring to last well into the future.

Located at the site of the spring at the corner of East Tahquitz Canyon Way and South Indian Canyon Drive, the new plaza is, Grubbe says, “where our creation story is based — one of the most important pieces of land we have.” The 5.8-acre facility will encompass a museum, plaza, gardens, walking paths, and a 40,000-square-foot spa and bathhouse.

One guesses Butcher would find this bathhouse much more salubrious than the one she encountered almost 100 years ago. Were she here, she would likely look around and find one as dubious as she was on her first soak. With a twinkle in her eye she’d gently ask, just as she did in her letter to her sister, “Will you come and take a bath? Awfu’ good for rheumatism and kidney trouble ’specially if you drink as well as bathe.”

In the end, the waters transformed Butcher. Seduced by the spell of Palm Springs and fully baptized in the local way, she signed her letter, “Your loving sister and friend, The Desert Rat.”