An Oasis in the Desert

Historic Castle Hot Springs has made its grand comeback
By Sherry Jackson
In the early 1900s, Castle Hot Springs, located north of Phoenix, was a luxury retreat in the desert southwest. An oasis nestled up against the towering Bradshaw mountains where the rich and famous would come to play. Families like the Vanderbilts, Roosevelts and Kennedys and western writer Zane Grey were all guests.
In the 1940s, the property served as a military rehabilitation center where future president John F. Kennedy spent three months recovering from wounds. But the resort started losing its allure in the 1960s and was closed to the public after a fire in 1976 took out the Palm House, one of the resort’s prominent buildings.
The property went through a revolving door of new owners over the years. Owners pictured the resort with several different uses such as a high-end spa, a conference center and boutique hotel. But the remote location presented added challenges – and costs – and plans fell through until the property was purchased in 2014 by local business owners Mike and Cindy Watts. The 1,110-acre, high-end resort recently made its grand re-debut.
“We want this to be a very unique, different place,” says Steven Sampson, director of sales and marketing for Westroc Hospitality, the company managing the property. Westroc also manages the Sanctuary at Camelback Mountain, Hotel Valley Ho and Mountain Shadows resorts. Sampson says the effort is a “legacy” for the Watts and Castle Hot Springs has an emotional attachment for Westroc’s owner, Russell “Rusty” Lyon, Jr.
“The new owners are committed to restoring it to its grandeur,” Sampson says.
The main attraction, a hot spring bubbling up from deep undergroung, cascades from the mountain into several pools and streams on the property. Yavapai and Apache Indians used the springs for medicinal purposes and in the 1880s the property served as a sanitarium, touting the springs’ health benefits. Guests would travel via stagecoach, or later train, to take in the healing waters.
A 4-foot deep, natural swimming hole with crystal clear water sits at the base of the springs and is a short walk up from the main lodge. Twelve bungalows on the property are also connected to the hot springs with water pumped into an outdoor private tub in each unit. The 9-foot deep, 125,000-gallon swimming pool, once the largest in Arizona before Big Surf came along, gets its water from the springs as well.
With more than 500 palm trees onsite, many over 100 years old, the resort provides a shady haven against the Arizona sun. Peace and tranquility are the mantra here. There is no traffic or ambient city noise and the night sky is full of twinkling stars. Castle Hot Springs is meant to be a wellness retreat to detox and disconnect. Limited cell service and no televisions allow guests to digitally detox from the world, Sampson says.
The renovation wasn’t without its setbacks. With an initial planned opening this fall, a late July monsoon flooded the entire canyon as a 5-foot high wall of water rushed down the mountain slopes, flooding the main road and halting renovations for a few months. A second target date of New Year’s Eve 2018 had also been set, but Sampson says the team decided it would rather delay a couple more months to make sure everything is up to par.
“You only get one chance to make a good first impression,” he says.
But now, those renovations are winding down as the opening date approaches. Castle Hot Springs has 12 bungalows with an indoor/outdoor fireplace and private outdoor soaking tub; 17 Sky View Cabins, each with its own telescope and skylight for stargazing and private outdoor soaking tub; four rooms above the lodge house/reception area and one restored, historic cottage, where Rockefeller once stayed, offering three bedrooms and two baths. A new Stone House serves as a chapel and has separate spaces for executive meetings or social events.
Another piece of history at the resort: Arizona’s first telephone, installed by territorial governor Nathan Oakes Murphy in the late 1890s, has also been restored, and guests can make calls from the rotary dial located in the lodge’s bar.
The journey to the resort is part of the charm and challenge. Take I-17 to Highway 74 toward Lake Pleasant. That’s where things get a little tricky. After turning on Castle Hot Springs Road, the road is only paved for about 4 miles. The remaining 7 miles is a dusty, dirt road that traverses washes, with an occasional wild burro spotting.
But Sampson says they’ll accommodate guests with either personal car service from the airport, specific directions and instructions if guests are driving themselves, or, the resort also has a helipad and its own helicopters. Castle Hot Springs will only be open seasonally, October to May. To assist employees with the remoteness of the resort, an “employee village” will allow some personnel to live on-site.
The resort’s culinary offerings are on par or exceed any other high-end resort. Breakfast, lunch and dinner will be harvested from the large organic garden and greenhouse located just outside the restaurant. Ian Beger, the resort’s agronomist, and Executive Chef Christopher Brugman, most recently from Mountain Shadows, have created recipes from the over 150 varieties of rare organic fruits and vegetables grown on-site. There’s an outdoor pizza oven, smoker and grill.
The resort has partnered with local Helio Basin Brewing Company to brew its own beer. Castle Hot Springs takes its natural spring water to the brewery, where they brew a Castle Hot Springs Lithium Lager. Future resort plans include converting an original barn and stables into an on-site craft brewery later this year.
The resort works with guests to provide experiential activities and custom-tailored excursions geared to their interests. Horseback riding, ATV rides, yoga on the great lawn, astronomy lectures, photography workshops and culinary demonstrations are just some of the offerings being considered. A wellness village, with massage cabanas, offers on-site spa services.
Rates begin at $1,200 a night for a Sky View Cabin and $1,600 a night for a spring bungalow. The price is per couple and includes all meals and gratuities and is definitely geared toward a “very affluent” crowd. Kids aren’t allowed, and it’s not exactly kid-friendly, anyway.
Sampson expects the private and remote location to be a draw to celebrity clientele looking to get away. “It’s a bucket list destination for some,” he says.” It will be a zen, tranquil resort for all.”