Hot Spots

A 30-mile stretch of road in New Mexico winds its way through a stunning volcanic landscape—one that makes for a steamy and relaxing escape.

July 2011

I didn’t come here for a geology lesson. Steeping in Giggling Springs, on the banks of the Jemez River in northern New Mexico, churning hot water kneads my skin and drains my brain. Soon the only thought I can articulate is “this feels nice,” and I find that I’m not terribly curious about the subterranean plumbing that makes this spring so soothingly hot. My husband, however, is much more interested.

“It’s pretty cool that we’re soaking in a volcano,” Ben says. I nod, entranced by the beams of sunlight weaving through the nearby willow trees. We’re not really inside the volcano, of course—more like on the flanks of it, at a privately run bathing facility reminiscent of a backyard hot tub—but I’m too relaxed to insist on the clarification. His next comment, however, pierces my reverie: “We’d be so hosed if it erupted right now.”

Which, of course, the volcano could do. Dormant volcanoes don’t always give fair warning when they’re about to blow. Just last year, Indonesia’s Mount Sinabung displaced 30,000 people when it exploded after 410 years of quietude. New Mexico’s Valles Caldera, which heats the water Ben and I are enjoying, hasn’t erupted in 50,000 years. During that eruption, Valles Caldera spewed out six times as much magma as Oregon’s famous Mt. Mazama (which birthed Crater Lake), and blanketed the earth for miles with several feet of ash. Geologists estimate we’ve got another 45,000 years before Giggling Springs becomes a risky place to soak. Then again, volcanoes set their own schedules.