By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newsmedia
Nestled away deep in the hills northwest of Lake Pleasant, hot springs have provided sustainable and vibrant life for centuries.
As the country expanded west in the last 150 years, the area proved to be a paradise for visitors — a luxury resort downhill from the springs served as a destination for presidents like Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge and John F. Kennedy.
But after more than 40 years of locked gates and multiple attempts at revitalization, the Castle Hot Springs resort will finally reopen to the public in the fall, with amenities fit for kings and queens.
Owners Mike and Cindy Watts bought the 210-acre property in 2014, with plans to return the land to its previous glory. The resort will be managed by Westroc Hospitality, owners and operators of the Sanctuary Camelback Mountain Resort & Spa, Hotel Valley Ho and the recently revitalized Mountain Shadows resort in Paradise Valley.
“We are working feverishly to complete all construction,” Mr. Watts said. “Cindy and I are truly delighted to have the responsibility of bringing this project back to life and sharing it with so many people.”
Castle Hot Springs is located in the southern foothills of the Bradshaw Mountains, with views of Lake Pleasant to the east. The palm tree-lined entrance to the property is a royal welcome to those who make it to the end of the off-kilter, dirt road journey to the resort. Despite the difficulty in accessing the property, one of the draws is its isolation, a quality that sets it on a spiritual plane that has amazed past visitors and was considered medicinal by the Native Americans before them. The resort is built around an age-old hot springs estimated to flow from a 10,000-foot-deep cistern that produces up to 300,000 gallons of pure 120-degree mineral water per day.
But getting to this high desert pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is no small feat. The road to the resort starts north on Castle Hot Springs Road off Carefree Highway (Arizona State Rt 74), at the south entrance of Lake Pleasant Regional Park. Then it is a five mile cruise on a paved road before hitting a seven-mile dirt road that eventually ends at the resort. It is a 25 minute trek across 13 miles, best traversed with four-wheel drive.
Steven Sampson, director of national sales for Westroc Hospitality, said transportation from Carefree Highway to the resort can be problematic especially when storms can transform the dirt road passage into impassable rubble, but there are options — including transportation by helicopter — to make sure visitors make it to their final destination.
“The inaccessibility following storms will be challenging, but we will be providing transportation in rugged, all-terrain vehicles and will also have access to helicopter transportation,” he said. “Our offices are at the Scottsdale Airport and we have connections with many of the pilots there. Mike Watts, himself, is a helicopter pilot.”
The Castle Hot Springs property has seen a number of owners who have tried to revitalize the area in the last 40 years with no success. Mr. Watts, who founded Arizona-based Sunstate Equipment Co., has followed the resort for longer than that. So when the property went up for auction in 2014, he bought it for $1.95 million after a $500,000 opening bid.
“It makes sense for Mike Watts to own it. He is a very smart guy and very philanthropic. He and his wife are committed to Arizona,” Mr. Sampson said.
Now, as far as permitting goes, the project is ready to go.
David Williams, assistant director of Yavapai County Development Services, said under new ownership the Yavapai Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Castle Hot Springs’ Planned Area Development extension for two additional years in 2015, allowing the project to move forward with renovation and revitalization.
“Our Building Safety Division has been very active with inspections, so the work is active and ongoing from our point of view,” Mr. Williams said. “Currently, we have been issuing numerous permits for the entire projects, but some notable permits include the remodeling of the Kennedy House, historic pool, caretakers quarters, lake as well as several new cottages.”
The all-inclusive resort will include 32 luxury accommodations, 15 of them featuring hot springs in-suite tubs and many amenities to be offered consistent with the historic resort in its heyday.
The resort team is creating a concept that lets the land do the giving, providing resources fit for small town. A 4,000-square-foot-farm is being planted and will yield more than 150 varieties of fruits and vegetables for the resort restaurant, which will be designed by James Beard award-winning chef Chuck Wiley. The restaurant will provide three meals a day with indoor and outdoor seating.
Additionally, the Castle Hot Springs Brewery is scheduled to open in 2018, featuring a variety of beers and ales produced from the pure mineral waters.
Products produced on the farm and brewery will also be available throughout the state.
The resort is expected to be open from September to June.
Helming the day-to-day operations are Terry and Maureen Bauer, a married couple of 25 years who will live on the property year-round.
He, a 25-year veteran of the Chicago Police Department, will be in charge of operations, including security, and she, a hospitality industry mainstay with 14 years experience, will oversee concierge, housekeeping, front desk and other areas.
Ms. Bauer said they are living on the property long-term, making it their home and reaching out to the surrounding community to create solid relationships to ensure the best experience for guests.
She said it has been serendipitous to have an opportunity to be part of such an innovative and detailed project.
“We plan on being up here a long time and are looking forward to a good adventure,” Ms. Bauer said. “When I saw this place, it was unbelievable, and felt so much at home. It’s really a once in a lifetime experience.”
Castle Hot Springs opened in the late 1890s as Arizona’s first resort hotel and became the frequent retreat for affluent families like the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Wrigleys. Presidents, including Coolidge, Hoover and Wilson vacationed at the property throughout the early 1900s, and it served as a rehabilitation hospital for wounded World War II veterans — John F. Kennedy recovered at Castle Hot Springs from January to April 1945.
Arizona Historian Jim Turner said the hot springs was probably the first and foremost health spa in Arizona, and the springs or the warm weather worked their wonders on the 28-year-old Mr. Kennedy. He received a back injury at Harvard that kept him out of the Army, but managed to get into the Navy. Mr. Turner said Mr. Kennedy re-injured his back when a Japanese destroyer rammed the PT 109 patrol boat he was on in August 1942. The future president rehabbed at the resort, however he was soon bored with the remote location, Mr. Turner said.
“So, he tried the famous Arizona Biltmore, but found it too proper, and eventually he settled into a little family owned spot known as the Camelback Inn,” Mr. Turner said. “He was staying there when he first heard about President Franklin Roosevelt’s death on Aug. 12, 1945.”
The Arizona historian said he is delighted to hear Castle Hot Springs is reopening, and that some of that U.S. Presidential history will be preserved.
He said before Palm Springs was established, Arizona was the prime location for winter visitors and added that hot springs have been a prime destination since Roman times. Mr. Turner said the timing is right with tourism improving after the Great Recession. Add to that, with all the new attention to health and spiritual revitalization, Arizona has a beautiful hot springs for both mental- and physical-health seekers, he said.
“The early resorts chose their locations well, and it speaks well that so many presidents and other elite found this to be a perfect spot,” Mr. Turner said. “If Castle Hot Springs was perfect then, it will be even more so now when it reopens with all the modern amenities.”
Julie Brooks, executive director of the Wickenburg Chamber of Commerce, said the return of Castle Hot Springs is a call back to a time when the area was known worldwide for its dude ranches, and vacationers traveled miles and miles to experience the Arizona climate, its history and beautiful properties.
Ms. Brooks, a fifth generation native and 30-year resident of Wickenburg, said the area at one time had 12-13 dude ranches. The chamber, then known as the Round Up Club, is nearly 90 years old and partnered with all the resort properties back then, including Castle Hot Springs. Ms. Brooks said she’s excited to welcome the resort back to the chamber.
“Many early hospitality resorts wanted the east coast visitor to come and enjoy the West. So our chamber worked with other chambers and a variety of different media, out-of-state and in-state, to bring people here,” she said.
“The individual resorts would join together and entice visitors to come by train to Arizona. It was an early way of getting people to visit Arizona, way before there was an office of tourism.”
The 4,000 square-foot-farm at the Castle Hot Springs resort will provide fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs to the resort’s restaurant. Here are some details.
Cultivators: Ian Beger and David Bullock of Scottsdale-based Brother Nature Farms
Yield: The garden and greenhouse will produce more than 150 varieties of produce, including selections of kale, carrots, beets, and beans, as well as 30 varieties of heirloom tomatoes. A blend of these tomatoes will be used to create a bottled Castle Hot Springs Bloody Mary mix in the future
Director: Award-winning chef Charles Wiley
Water: The farm will be irrigated directly from the mineral spring water on the property.