A Trip to Safford, Arizona and its natural hot springs by Kim Sturmer

Beginning Saturday, February 8, 1997, I embarked upon another hot springs adventure. I had been wanting to go visit the active geothermal area around Safford, Arizona, which is east of Tucson in the Gila River Valley. There are several natural hot springs in this area, most of which are accurately described in Marjorie Gersh-Young's 1995 edition of "Hot Springs and Hot Pools of the Southwest". All of these can be accessed by 2 wheel drive vehicles.

After leaving San Diego and overnighting at the Chaparral Hotel in Tacna, Arizona, east of Yuma, I arrived in the Safford area Sunday and got a very nice $28/night motel room at the Motel Western, and immediately went searching for Watson Wash Hot Well northwest of town. I found the directions to this location quite accurate in the book. This is a newly (1993) reconstructed, above ground, circular stone tub with 101 degree water flowing out of a well casing into the pool. The inflow and outflow rates are very high promoting a natural cleansing effect that maintains clean water. This location has a reputation as a party location, but there were only two local residents, a wayward traveler from Durango, and a dog the day I was there. Because the location is a few hundred yards up a wash off the road, nudity is commonplace. This earns 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday I took about a 40 mile drive to both Eagle Creek and Gillard Hot Springs. These are both described in the aforementioned Hot Springs book, but the directions are not quite concise enough to locate either of the Springs. Even though I didn't locate these, I will attempt to enhance the directions for future explorers among you. After parking at the power plant at the end of the 5.3 mile unmarked Eagle Creek Road north of Morenci (past the huge copper pit and turn left about 200 feet after the cemetery on the left), walk to the left (south) past the farmhouse and look for Hot Springs Canyon on your RIGHT after about a mile of hiking down the dirt road adjacent to Eagle Creek. Do not hike the side canyon on the left side of this main canyon like I mistakenly did, it has a
very small cold spring. The best suggestion I can make is stop at the BLM offices in Safford and pick up the appropriate USGS quad sheets and/or forest service maps which show this spring and Gillard. Nudity is acceptable in this area, even though the springs are owned by Phelps-Dodge, who run the nearby open pit copper mine.

The directions for Gillard Hot Springs in the Hot Springs book are again slightly incorrect. After turning off Highway 191 (formerly Highway 666) onto the Backcountry Byway/Old Safford Road, proceed down this road about 3.5 miles, not 2.1 miles as indicated in the Hot Springs book, then turn right at the BLM sign marked "Gillard Hot Springs". Then go about a mile to a three way dirt intersection, take the middle fork for 0.3 mile and park on the right adjacent to the wash on your left. Walk down the wash until you come to a closed gate. Use the pedestrian access and continue down the wash to the Gila River. Please don't hike alone in this area, because there are
several mountain lions that live near the springs. Although they have a plentiful food supply, you never know. The springs are located to the right of the end of the wash. Nudity is acceptable due to the remote location and BLM land.

Tuesday I got an early start and drove down a 25 mile well graded dirt road to Hot Well Dunes Recreation area. This area is predominantly a mid desert sand dune environment on BLM land. The two hot springs are located within the small camping area. The springs have undergone a historic metamorphosis and are now what I would consider semi-developed. 105 degree water flows out of an artesian well into the two fenced cement soaking tubs. The first tub is 104 degrees and the second furthermost tub is 101 degrees. When I arrived, I noticed that one tub was definitely for nude use while the other was for users more comfortable in bathing suits. The campground host was a nice BLM senior volunteer who stated that even though permissible nudity is not advertised, it is acceptable. So I soaked au naturel for at least 4 hours and enjoyed the conversation and ambiance of fellow soakers(only a few) from all walks of life. Extremely nice place, Highly recommended. 5 Stars.

Late Tuesday, I decided to try the small stonework hot springs soaking pool at Roper Lake State Park south of Safford. Although I didn't have high expectations, I was pleasantly surprised. Although there supposedly is a $4.00 day use fee, no rangers were at the entrance so I drove right in and found the spring at the south end of the park. The sign clearly states bathing suits are required, however, when the sun went down it was mutually agreed upon with the other 3 soakers that clothing optional would be OK. No rangers ever checked on us, even though the soaking pool is open until 10:00 PM. This location earns high points for cleanliness and availability of nearby camping, but slightly lower score for bathing suits required policy. Overall, 3 1/2 stars.

Wednesday I found Buena Vista Hot Well. Unfortunately, this is essentially a horizontal well head of 130 degree water that drops off directly into an irrigation canal. I suppose it would be possible to sit in the irrigation canal near the hot water flow, but the canal looked pesticide laden. This site is also directly across from a house, and overall, not really worth the visit. One star.

Thursday, I visited the last natural hot spring in the Safford area known as Thatcher Hot Well. Located 1.2 miles north of the town of Thatcher on First Avenue (unmarked, turn right at the Union 76 station off of US 70 westbound), this is a delightful large sandy bottomed soaking pool which receives its hot water from a large vertical well head with a very high flow rate. The temperature of the pool varied depending on the proximity to the wellhead, but generally ranged from 98-110 degrees. There were only two locals here. The site has lots of room for more soakers. It is maintained and kept clean by the Town of Thatcher. Nudity appears to be the norm.
4 stars.

There are several "developed" hot springs resorts in this area. Several of the people I met truly enjoyed the "Essence of Tranquillity" south of Safford. Typical activities there include massage, reflexology and numerous soaking tubs. Policy is clothing optional.

Friday, upon returning to San Diego, I stopped at the Highline South Hot Well at the corner of Interstate 8 and Van Der Linden exit. Two large soaking pools and a hot shower emanating from a pressurized pipe flow out of an adjacent artesian well. The temperature of the larger pool is about 106 degrees and the smaller shallower pool is about 102 degrees. The height of the hot shower can be adjusted by manually turning the pipe. The flow rate is sufficiently slow that a good scrubbing of the pools is required every week to remove the algae. Volunteers usually do this every Tuesday. This site is frequented mostly by seniors who stay in the primitive BLM RV campground across the street. Because of this and the proximity to the highway, bathing suits are advisable during the day and early evening. Later in the evening, however, nudity is more common.

About myself: I have been a natural hot springs aficionado for the last 15 years. I have visited virtually all the natural hot springs in California, Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico. -- Kim Sturmer