Trek Southwest - Hiking and Camping the Desert Southwest

Hiking at Ojo Caliente, New Mexico

in New Mexico

New Mexico is filled with mineral hot springs and the man-made spas that have cropped up around them. The best known of these is Ojo Caliente.

Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort and Spa has been a destination for travelers, honeymooners, and those seeking rejuvenation and healing in its mineral waters for almost 150 years. It’s an ideal place to get away for a weekend and soak your cares away.

Although most people come to Ojo Caliente just for the spa, there are other adventures to be had in this little desert oasis: a network of hiking trails spider-webs out from two trailheads located on the spa’s property.

Ojo Caliente lies about 50 miles south of the Colorado state border, right off Interstate 285, so it’s easy to get to from the north or south. From Albuquerque, you’ll drive Interstate 25 up to Santa Fe, then get onto 285, which will take you through Española. At La Chuachia, make sure you take the right fork to stay on 285 instead of continuing straight onto 84.

The spa property, which consists of 1,100 acres that run up against Bureau of Land Management and National Forest land, has five distinct hiking/mountain biking trails. Each one provides a different archaeological or historical highlight, and each is worth exploring. You can pick up a detailed trail map at the front desk of the spa that explains the significance of each trail. Or, you can download a PDF of the map and trail guide on the spa’s website, here.

Ojo Caliente Trail Map

On my visit to Ojo Caliente in the first week of October, I hiked the P’osi Pueblo Ruins trail and the Joseph Mica Mines trail.

The P’osi trail is a 1-mile loop, and the Mica Mines trail is a 4-miles round-trip out-and-back trail. Both are almost completely flat, and both are very easy hikes — doing the two back-to-back makes your trip a solid 5 miles. You’ll want a hat and sunscreen for any of these trails, as there’s no shade to speak of. Also, bring plenty of water, and perhaps your allergy meds if you’re prone to attacks — there’s lots of dust in the air here. Welcome to New Mexico.

The trailhead for the P’osi Pueblo Ruins trail lies just west of the spa’s main building. At the trailhead, you’ll see some picnic tables and a sign with a trail map and regulations for the area.

Posi Recreation Area

You can find the other trailhead (that leads to the Bosque River loop, the Adobe Round Barn trail, the Joseph Mica Mine trail and an unnamed loop trail) just a bit north of the main building, right by the RV parking area.

Note: There are no prohibitions listed for dogs on the hiking trails, so feel free to bring your furry friend. But keeping your dog on a leash may be a good idea: there are rattlesnakes and prickly cholla cactus around here.

The P’osi trail loops around an area called P’osi-ouinge (po-see-o-wing-gay), where the ancient Tewa people lived from the 1300s to the 1500s, when the Spanish invaded. The Tewa people moved from P’osi-ouinge when an epidemic struck, and many of them now live in the town of Oke-onwi, frequently called by its Spanish name, San Juan.

From the trailhead, you’ll hike west about ⅛ mile. There’s a little bit of climbing on a small, rocky escarpment, but it’s nothing strenuous. Soon you’ll hit a two-way fork with a signpost: to the right (north) you can hop onto a connector trail that leads to the Joseph Mica Mines trail, and the P’osi trail continues to the left (south). Take the left turn and you’ll be hiking parallel to a dry riverbed for another ⅛ mile.

You’ll hike up a little incline and then hit a wooden gate: this is where you enter BLM land. Once you enter the gate, you’ll find a little metal box containing a clipboard and pen. This is the BLM’s high-tech method of keeping track of the visitors to the P’osi Recreation Area.

This is also where the trail becomes a (½ mile) loop, so you can take either the right or left path at the fork. If you take the right, you’ll see low, scrub-covered hills to your right. This area is high desert: lots of cholla cactus and juniper scrub, and lots and lots of dust.

Cholla Blooms

To see the P’osi ruins, you’ll have to look down. The trail is littered with fragments of ancient pottery created by the Tewa people, many of which still show black-and-white patterns. Previous hikers — and perhaps rangers — have helpfully gathered many of these fragments together in little circles. This little bit of interventionism is all well and good, but please refrain from taking fragments out of the area. P’osi-ouinge is a special place for the Tewa people, and the BLM could fine you for taking archaeological artifacts from the area.

archaological artifacts

Once you round to the east side of the loop, you’ll see the spa buildings and the interstate on your right side, down the hill. Eventually you’ll see the river running parallel to you as well, and some wind-whipped aspen trees.

If you hike back the way you came and arrive at the first fork in the path, you can continue north onto that short connector path to the Joseph Mica Mine trail, as I did. The connector path runs parallel to that same sandy riverbed for almost a ½ mile until it T-bones into the Mica Mine trail. You’ll see a signpost here indicating that Joseph’s mine is to the left (west), and the spa to the right (east). Turn left toward the hills.

trail

This trail is wide, flat, and mostly straight. Motor vehicles are allowed on this trail, but I didn’t see any when I visited.

From the fork it’s 1.5 miles to the mines. The trail is fairly uneventful for the first half mile, after which you’ll start crossing more dry riverbeds that sparkle with mica dust. These riverbeds are old washes from the mines that used to cover this area, so you’ll start seeing more mica — and bigger chunks of it — as you get closer to the mines. It’s nearly impossible to photograph the stuff in the daylight, but it glitters blindingly bright.

After about a mile, the trail will curve to the right (north). Here you’ll start seeing buckets of mica littering the ground, looking like big fish scales. Another half a mile, and you’ll see the old mines off to your left. It’s easy to miss them as there’s no trail marker, so just keep your eyes peeled.

There will be three small caves in a row a little ways up the hillside. The two to the right are shallow and mostly mica-less, but the one on the left is the motherlode. You’ll have to do some more scrambling up the rocky slope to get inside the caves, but it’s entirely worth it.

I was surprised to find that this cave was still filled with mica, all glittering brilliantly. It forms in thin, tight sheets, all compacted together into the rock face. It’s breathtaking.

mica

If you fancy yourself a geologist, this hike is a must. I couldn’t identify some of the other minerals in the cave, but somebody with more knowledge of the subject would likely enjoy it even more.

Thick slabs of mica were traditionally used by the Puebloan people of this area as windows in their adobe homes — it’s not totally transparent, but it lets light through. Today, mica has a lot of modern commercial uses: it’s used in drywall and roofing, as well as in many electronic appliances.

Touring New Mexico Hot SpringsDon’t limit your hot springs soak just to Ojo Caliente. Plan a trip to visit thirty five of New Mexico’s best hot springs with the Falcon Guide’s Series “Touring New Mexico Hot Springs.” From primitive pools in the backcountry to luxurious spas right next to civilization.
Once you’ve had your fill of the mine, you can slide back down the escarpment and hike back the way you came. This time you can skip the connector trail going back to the P’osi trailhead — just continue down the Joseph Mica Mine trail until it spits you into the RV parking lot at the back of the spa. From here, just walk a few hundred yards south down the paved path and back to the main spa building, where you can ease your weary legs by taking a soak in the public mineral pools.
The Waters

There are four different mineral springs at the Ojo Caliente Spa: lithia, iron, soda, and arsenic. Each mineral has different alleged healing properties, and there’s a separate pool for each spring in the resort, as well as a mild-temperature swimming pool and a mud bath. If you’re visiting in the colder months, keep in mind that only the soda pool and the saunas are indoors — as well as the private tubs, which you have to reserve in advance.

A day pass will cost you $34 — a steep fee compared to many of the other hot springs spas in the state, but it’s entirely worth it. My favorite is the iron pool — you can see (and feel!) the little mineral bubbles floating up from the pebble floor.

Altogether, Ojo Caliente offers plenty of options for the adventurous soul: there’s beautiful nature and history to be found on the hiking trails, and a relaxing finish to the day in the mineral springs. The cherry on top is driving home with the windows down, to dry off the natural way.

robinbabbGuest post by Robin Babb. Robin is a freelance writer and editor living in Albuquerque. She spends a lot of time roadtripping across the Land of Enchantment and hiking in the Sandias. You can get in touch with her through her website, robinbabb.net.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Patty Kent February 10, 2019 at 4:33 pm

Many thanks for the fine description of the trails and the mine. I live so close to it all and have never done them! It’ll be on my list now.

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