We tiptoed through the icy night air, then quickly submerged ourselves chin deep in the steaming mineral bath. Moonlight and stars illuminated the ocotillo and creosote in the desert around us. In the distance, we could see the silhouette of mountain peaks.
Our outdoor soak session wasn't taking place at a stylish, pricey spa. Instead, we had decided to detox from the stresses of the urban holiday scene by exploring the folksy hot springs of Safford, in southeastern Arizona.
Safford's locale in a broad valley below the craggy Pinaleño Mountains makes it hot-springs central, says geologist Ray Harris of the Arizona Geological Survey. "The area is like a bath- tub, where the layering of sediments created artesian aquifers," he says. "Hot water from down deep comes up to the surface through faults and wells."
Our first soak stop was at Hot Well Dunes Recreation Area outside Safford. Here two open-air tubs are filled with artesian water averaging 106° and offer views of the surrounding sand dunes, where off-road vehicles often buzz on weekends.
Five miles south of Safford, Roper Lake State Park, the site of our nocturnal visit, has a rock-lined outdoor hot tub set at the base of a mesa. The park also features bird-watching, scenic nature trails, and a swimmable lake that's stocked with trout and bass.
Back in Safford, Kachina Mineral Springs Spa has six tubs in a homespun setting, plus a treatment menu that includes massages and sweat wraps. Nearby, Essence of Tranquility has a New Age vibe, six themed outdoor tubs, and treatments that range from ear coning to body scrubs.
Despite all our mineral bathing, we took the water's supposed curative properties with a grain of salt. But the hot water did feel good. Soaked and relaxed, we were ready to head back into the whirl of the holidays.
Safford is about 175 miles southeast of Phoenix via U.S. 60 and U.S. 70. For lodging and camping details, contact Graham County Chamber of Commerce (www.graham-chamber.com or 888/837-1841).
Essence of Tranquility. 8–6 Tue–Sat, extended hours available; tub soak $5 per person per hour, treatments from $25. 6074 Lebanon Loop; 877/895-6810.
Hot Well Dunes Recreation Area. Open daily; $3 per vehicle. On Haekel Rd., 35 miles southeast of Safford; 928/348-4400.
Kachina Mineral Springs Spa. 9–5 Thu–Sat or by appointment; tub soak $10 per person, treatments from $15. 1155 W. Cactus Rd.; 928/428-7212.
Roper Lake State Park. 6 a.m.–10 p.m. daily; $5 per vehicle. 101 E. Roper Lake Rd.; 928/428-6760.
Branding Iron Steakhouse & Lounge. Ridgetop restaurant with views of Mt. Graham serves prime rib and steaks. $$; $1 tacos Mon evenings, dinner Tue–Sat. 2344 N. Branding Iron Lane; 928/428-7427.
El Charro Restaurant. Try the chalaca, a fried masa bowl filled with a chili-like stew. $; lunch and dinner Mon–Sat. 601 Main St.; 928/428-4134.