“Chthonic” isn’t an adjective that pops into my head very often, but it’s the word that came to mind the first time I entered the geothermal caves at Indian Hot Springs. As I stepped into the underground geothermal baths, I suddenly understood why some religious traditions house their deities underground instead of elevating them to a heaven in the sky.
Sulfuric steam rose from the bathing pools in the women’s cave. Nude bathers languished on marble benches beside the pools, their skin beaded with perspiration. Carved out of Colorado’s Santa Fe Mountain, the cave extends into a series of narrow tunnels. Later I would learn that one of these tunnels is used for private mud bathing by adventurous women who want to explore the recesses of the caves. At the back of the women’s cave is an alcove that connects with the men’s cave, but this passageway is used only for maintenance, and the baths are segregated by gender for privacy. Bathing suits were once prohibited; now nude bathing is optional. Temperatures in the deep walk-in tubs range from 104 to 112 degrees Fahrenheit/40 to 44 degrees Celsius.
I believe that every soaking addict has a peak experience that introduces him or her to the joys of bathing in hot water. For me, that epiphany occurred in the geothermal caves at Indian Hot Springs. The intense humidity of the air inside the caves seemed to squeeze the toxins – both environmental and emotional – from my body. The rough, rust-colored stone walls with their powdery yellow mineral deposits were like the walls of an underground womb. After a stressful series of night shifts at the nursing home where I worked at the time, a night at the caves would ease the tension from my tired muscles and soothe my frayed spirit.
The geothermal caves in Idaho springs originated in the 1850s, when miners who were tunneling into the mountain in search of gold inadvertently struck hot water. The springs themselves were sacred to the Ute and Arapahoe tribes who lived in this region, and the name “Idaho” comes from an Arapahoe word meaning “gem of the mountains.” Today, these mountains encircle the Indian Hot Springs Resort, where guests as diverse as Walt Whitman, Sarah Bernhardt, Billy the Kid and Franklin D. Roosevelt came to take the waters. The geothermal swimming pool is enclosed by a glass dome and surrounded by tropical plants that thrive in this rarified setting.
The resort offers a full menu of spa treatments, from mud baths and massages to body wraps and facials. But spa services at Indian Hot Springs are a relatively new phenomenon. For people with physical and psychic injuries of all kinds, visiting the geothermal caves at Idaho Springs is a pilgrimage. Once a week, once a month or once a year, people go to Indian Springs seeking relief for arthritic joints, aching muscles or swollen tissues. These pilgrims are part of a long tradition that includes President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a strong advocate of hydrotherapy who visited the caves in search of a cure for his paralytic illness. During my own soaking sessions in the caves, I met one woman who soaked in the sulfur-rich waters to relieve the pain of advanced rheumatoid arthritis, and another who integrated balneotherapy into her recovery from a car accident that shattered multiple bones.
In the caves, the search for healing overwhelms self-consciousness about nudity. Women with flawless bodies toned by yoga, rock-climbing or aerobics soak in the therapeutic atmosphere along with women whose limbs are weakened or contorted by injury or disease. Thin or heavy, young or old, these bodies absorb the healing heat and soak in waters rich with minerals. Calcium, fluoride, iron, magnesium, selenium, sulfate and zinc make up a brew that promotes tissue regeneration, detoxifies the cells and restores peace to the spirit. Located in Clear Creek County, Indian Springs Resort is 32 miles west of Denver on Highway I-70.
Cahill, Rick. Colorado Hot Springs Guide. Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1986.