By Joanna Dodder Nellans
Nestled at the southern tip of the Bradshaw Mountains amidst towering saguaros and jagged sunburned rocks, a true Sonoran Shangri-La once existed.
It was the winter home of Gilded Age titan families including the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, who spent their mornings on horseback with local ranching families such as the Champies before relaxing in the natural hot springs or playing a round at Arizona’s first golf course.
After a four-decade hiatus, marked by numerous unsuccessful efforts at restoration following fires and the ravages of time, this desert Shangri-La is back.
Arizonans Mike and Cindy Watts revived the Castle Hot Springs resort to its true glory last year after pouring tens of millions of dollars into this beloved historic Yavapai County property.
“I started following the property in the mid ’70s and became fascinated with its history and beautiful natural surrounding,” Mike Watts related. “After the fire in 1976 and subsequent owners…we developed our own ideas on how to bring this treasure back to life so that it could once again be shared with others around the world. We take this responsibility very seriously for preserving both the history and the natural beauty of Castle Hot Springs.”
The legendary site retains its grandeur, with modern twists. The main lodge, Stone House (now a chapel and meeting space), historic family cottage, pools, stone walls, gardens and pathways lined with palm and citrus trees were restored from the rubble and look much like the resort of yesteryear, while the new bungalows and cabins fit right in. Horseback rides remain a popular pastime, but a via ferrata rock climbing course, paddleboard yoga, pickleball and spa cabanas have replaced the golf course and bowling alley. Lighter touches including outdoor hot tubs at each bungalow and cabin, on-site farm-to-table gourmet meals, and signature drinks on the Bar 1896 terrace would exude exclusivity during any era.
A mining and railroad entrepreneur from Prescott named Frank Murphy created Arizona’s first luxury resort at these isolated hot springs that undoubtedly have been a draw for humans since prehistoric times. The steaming waters paint the canyon walls with hues of red, orange and yellow as 200,000 gallons per day pours out of the cliff into three cascading pools, then flows down past the cottages to the pond, main pool and gardens.
Murphy built railroad tracks from Prescott to his Congress Mine and within two years after his 1896 purchase of the hot springs, he extended the railway a bit farther south so the rich folks of the day could ride the railroad in comfort most of the way to the springs.
The short last leg up a rocky road was pretty rough, and it still is today. But it truly sets the stage for the startling sight of Arizona’s Shangri-La at the end, so we wouldn’t have it any other way.