As many as 100 natural springs dot the walls of the Río Grande Gorge as it slices through Taos County. The vast majority are of the cool-water variety — groundwater flowing from the west that flows out on the steep sides of the gorge.
There is, however, a small cluster of springs with temperatures in the 90 to 100 degree F range that emerge at river’s edge between the John Dunn and Río Grande Gorge bridges. Hydrogeologists pin their origins to deep geothermal aquifers rising through vertical fractures caused by a nearby fault.
It is here that we find the ancient, infamous and invigorating Manby Hot Springs.
A cluster of three pools sits on the river’s eastern edge. Modern-day naturalists must drive five bumpy miles on Tune Drive to a parking area, and hike down a half-mile of old stagecoach grade to reach the springs. There, they can soak to their hearts content — clothed or au natural — while watching the one of the West’s grandest rivers flow by.
If that weren’t enough, add in the long and sometime sordid history of Manby Hot Springs, and you’ve got a true New Mexico adventure.
As Craig Martin writes in "Enchanted Waters: A Guide to New Mexico’s Hot Springs," “The story of Manby Hot Springs is a compressed view of the history of the state of New Mexico. The springs were used by the Pueblo people long before the Spanish sought to exploit its waters for the dream of perpetual youth. After a long, pastoral interlude, the final chapter involves an Anglo newcomer who attempted to create a real estate boom by conning the longtime residents out of their rights to the land.”
A pair of concentric-circle petroglyphs, said to signify the Pueblo name Wa-pu-mee, loosely translated “water of long life,” dates centuries of human use. Spanish colonial history tells us that Wa-pu-mee was among many candidates for the apocryphal Aztec fountain of eternal youth. The men and women of Taos were said to use the springs for washing and bathing.
When the Chili Line railroad punched up onto the western edge of the Taos Plateau in the 1880s, the springs became one of Taos’ first tourist attractions. The train brought out-of-town lookie-loos to the area. They could catch the narrow-gauge train in Antonito, Colo., and be in Tres Piedras in about two hours. Or, they rode six hours from Santa Fe.
There, they could disembark and, for a charge, board a stagecoach for the trip across the Río Grande and into Taos.
The first Taosenos to exploit this situation were merchants Albert Miller and Gerson Gusdorf, according to Martin’s book. They built a bridge just downstream of the hot springs and cut a road up onto the plateau. They charged tourists and locals alike for crossing their bridge but showed little interest in the springs.
One such traveler was Arthur Manby, an British ne’er-do-well who had come West in 1890 to make his fortune. After much chicanery and underhanded dealings, Manby claimed the 66,000-acre Antonio Martínez Land Grant as his own — including the hot springs at the western extreme of the grant lands.
By the early 1900s, Manby’s problems in town grew and, according to Frank Waters’ biography of Manby, "To Possess the Land," he escaped more and more to the solitude of the hot springs.
“Next to the Martínez Grant, Manby loved the hot springs named after him,” Waters wrote. “Perhaps he loved the springs more; for if the grant was in reality only a nebulous domain, a projection of his imperialistic dream of empire, there was nothing nebulous about the hot springs.”
As he soaked in the warm waters around 1922, Manby’s conniving mind conjured up another scheme: A world-class tourist resort known as the Lost Springs of the Aztec, with luxury hotel and the hot springs.
“Should it develop, these springs are the long lost springs of the Aztecs, and the fact coupled with history seems to indicate that such a belief is well founded, then these springs … should ultimately develop into one of the world’s greatest resorts,” Manby proselytized in a prospectus sent to potential investors.
No money was forthcoming, and Manby died of beheading among mysterious circumstances in 1929.
The hot springs remain today, attracting tourists, locals and an occasional boater to rejuvenate in the mineral-rich waters. Visitors keep the rock walls intact and generally leave the place clean and welcoming.
As for Manby’s legacy, all that remains are the ruins of an old bathhouse, traces of stagecoach roads and, if you believe in such things, the ghost a headless, angry and destitute Englishman lurking about.