This is no everyday soothing soak. It’s no ordinary relaxing bath. The water bubbles out of the ground at an ahhh-inducing 110 degrees Fahrenheit, flowing at a sprightly 160 gallons per minute. Pumped a quarter-mile down the mountain, it’s treated with a blast of ultraviolet light to further purify Mother Nature’s own high standards for clean geothermal spring water, and then it flows through private bathing cabanas at Hot Springs Resort & Spa, built just a river-stone’s-throw from Spring Creek and the French Broad River.
The spring water is naturally carbonated, so it opens up pores in the skin. It has an elevated dose of magnesium, lauded for healthful benefits. And it’s low in sulfur, so it smells as clean as the mountain air.
Soaking in the water, which is pumped through a jetted hot tub in a private cabana that very nearly perches over a mountain brook, is very good living. My wife, Julie, would agree — but at the moment, I’m not sure if I could rouse her from her deep trance.
Hot Springs has been a way station for the weary since long before the town incorporated in 1889 — and the cozy cabanas at Hot Springs Resort continue to be a haven for travelers and hikers along the Appalachian Trail. Photography courtesy of HOT SPRINGS RESORT & SPA
Taking to healing waters is a centuries-old tradition the world over, a pursuit with its own body of knowledge and customs. It’s known as “balneology,” the scientific study of therapeutic bathing, and Hot Springs Resort is, indeed, part of the Balneology Association of North America, an industry trade group with members from California and New Mexico to, well, the hollers of Southern Appalachia.
And that’s why Julie and I are here: To further our understanding of this ancient and revered practice. To explore the history of one of North Carolina’s most renowned and historic mineral baths. To take part in a somewhat unscientific — OK, entirely unscientific — study of therapeutic bathing.
For the weekend, at least, we are dedicated balneologists. In fact, I try throughout our visit to Hot Springs to get Julie to call me “Professor.” But, uh, never mind.
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The historic, 100-acre Hot Springs Resort & Spa lies just across the railroad tracks from the tiny downtown of Hot Springs, where the Appalachian Trail runs down the main drag, Lance Avenue, deep in a mountain cleft some 35 miles northwest of Asheville. In the early 1830s, the enormous Warm Springs (or Patton) Hotel was built, setting the stage for a century-long tenure of lavish lifestyles punctuated with natural disasters.
In the 1830s, James Washington Patton constructed a grand hotel, designing the porch with 13 columns meant to represent the original colonies. Photography courtesy of BUNCOMBE COUNTY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, PACK MEMORIAL PUBLIC LIBRARY, ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
After the Warm Springs Hotel burned in 1884, it was replaced with an even more extravagant resort. The 200-room Mountain Park Hotel boasted one of the first golf courses in North Carolina. Guests reclined in nine-foot-long marble pools and had access to bowling alleys, tennis courts, and riding stables. A typical therapeutic stay lasted 21 days. The famous and the wealthy flocked to Mountain Park — O. Henry spent his 1907 honeymoon there. When it burned in 1920, it was replaced with yet another spa resort, the Hot Springs Inn.
And there, according to local lore, is where fate took its most modern turn in regard to the future of the famed resort. In the 1950s, according to Heather Hicks, the resort’s general manager, a local young man who was increasingly intrigued with the geology of mineral springs was turned away at the front desk of the Hot Springs Inn. Humiliated and angry, he swore that he would return one day to buy the resort and turn it into a place that welcomed everyone, no matter their social or financial standing. His name was Gene Hicks (a distant cousin to Heather). And in 1990, after making a small fortune in aviation, he did exactly what he’d said he was going to do.
The Patton Hotel burned in 1884, making way for the even grander Mountain Park Hotel, a playground for the rich and famous until 1920. Photography courtesy of BUNCOMBE COUNTY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, PACK MEMORIAL PUBLIC LIBRARY, ASHEVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA
Today, Hot Springs Resort & Spa reflects Gene Hicks’s philosophy. Fire and floods have swept away most traces of the elite resorts of yore. Now, a gorgeous campground lies alongside the French Broad River, and a wide array of lodgings is scattered through the nearby woods, from small, simple cabins to luxurious townhome suites and private homes with their own mineral-water baths. And all are welcome, whether you show up in muddy hiking boots or a Rolls-Royce.
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During our weekend visit, Julie and I bunked in a cozy wooden cabin in the resort’s riverside campground. On Saturday, we packed a trail lunch and took a long morning hike to Lover’s Leap, a soaring rock promontory with stunning views of the French Broad River and Bluff Mountain. Afterward, we walked into town. The resort is located within a few hundred yards of the winsome little Hot Springs business district, where we did a bit of pre-shopping reconnaissance, trading our riverside views for people-watching along the bustling few blocks of restaurants, shops, and general stores.
All of which culminated in our late afternoon mineral-water bath reservation. While some suite and large home lodgings come with their own private tubs, most visitors schedule a mineral-bath experience at one of 16 outdoor tubs along the French Broad River and Spring Creek.
Hot Springs Resort offers a range of accommodations, from camping sites to suites and vacation rentals to cabins. photograph by Tim Robison
The bath experiences run from $50 an hour to the $300 range, and — in keeping with Gene Hicks’s philosophy of public access — there are mineral-water baths tailored for everyone from families seeking a fun afternoon with the kids to hikers soothing trail-worn muscles to couples interested in seclusion and privacy. The baths are astoundingly popular. Some 70,000 guests take a dip in the resort’s tubs each year. And the pandemic has put a premium on healthy outdoor recreation. Reservations can sell out weeks in advance.
I’ll be honest. When it came to the therapeutic and restorative properties of a mineral-water bath, I was somewhat skeptical. Even Julie had second thoughts when we saw that our slot was 90 minutes long. “I can’t do anything for an hour and a half straight,” she joked. We figured we’d be in and out in 30 minutes, tops.
Our premium-level tub was set in a raised platform, and the cabana included a private bath and shower. There was a gas firepit, as well as comfy chaise lounges and a sofa that looked — and felt — like they’d been lifted from a high-end cruise ship. There was a wine cooler by the tub and luxurious robes hanging nearby. “I didn’t expect this,” Julie said with a contented sigh.
“The Oak” is one of the many cabins offered. photograph by Tim Robison
Spring Creek gurgled by, not 10 feet from the cabana, and the late afternoon sun bejeweled the brook with sparkling highlights. We soaked. We lounged. We drank wine. We repeated.
And five minutes before our hour and a half was up, the resort staff gently knocked on the cabana door to let us know the sand was running out of the glass.
“What? Huh?” I said, so relaxed that single-syllable words were all I could form.
“Now? Really?” Julie protested.
I can’t say what was in the Hot Springs water that seemed to calm my nerves and lower my heart rate. But I’m totally open to trying it again. Just to fact-check my research. And maybe even a third time, if needed. Rocket science may be permanently out of my reach, but I think a new career as a traveling balneologist just might be my next calling.