Hot spring in your step

For a pittance at most, Joshua Stein soaks his way across the steaming state of New Mexico.

The natural beauty of New Mexico isn't hard to find. Everywhere one turns, there it is: in the white-capped peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the taupes and siennas of the sprawling mesas, the brilliant sunsets. But this doesn't mean there isn't natural beauty worth hiking for as well.

Geothermal hot springs are worth the trek. I set off with my wife and my spry 59-year-old mother into the pine woods of the Santa Fe National Forest in search of the San Antonio hot springs. A blanket of snow crunches underfoot. The idea of jumping into a pool of water in the frigid winter air suddenly seems like madness.

It doesn't have to be this way - New Mexico has high-end spas. At one of the newest, the Encantado near Santa Fe, we could have soaked for $US975 ($1400) a night. But we want to go to hot springs without being handed chilled towels by waiters wearing forced smiles. Luckily there are hundreds of natural springs across the state that are either free or cost a pittance.

For two hours we follow the San Antonio Creek snaking through the Jemez Mountains. Then we come to a fork at a small car park. We follow a trail downhill, cross a footbridge and clamber up the mountain on the other side to find three cascading pools. The top pool, closest to the source, is the largest and hottest. With our cheeks rosy and our fingers numb, we change into our bathing suits - nudity is prohibited - and wade in. It takes my breath away. Not just the heat and weightlessness of immersion but the view. On the far side of the valley, cliffs of multi-hued limestone rise from lush green firs.

For native Americans, the land surrounding hot springs was considered sacred and common ground: rival clans could come and soak in peace as long as they left their weapons at home. More than 200 years later, hot springs are still fertile meeting places. We meet John, a bearded yogi living out of his van, at the Spence hot springs. A short, steep hike from Route 25, Spence is small but popular and in my book, the most beautiful spring in the state. A good deal of partying used to go on here - some of it involving the forbidden nudity - before the US Forest Service clamped down.

Though nearby Albuquerque and Santa Fe have good food options, from roadside taquerias to high-end restaurants, try a bar called The Owl in San Antonio. It's home to the green-chilli cheeseburger, which comes slathered in spicy green chilli and American cheese. If you're based in Albuquerque, be sure to make a stop at the Veracruz restaurant, Los Equipajes. Veracruz cuisine, unlike most Mexican food, is largely fish-based and the huachinango a la Veracruzana (grilled snapper fillet) is not to be missed.

New Mexico, as with the rest of America's west, used to be criss-crossed with railroads serving mining outposts. The mines and railroads are long gone but they've left small towns in their place. Even these boast hot springs. Las Vegas in northern New Mexico used to be a hub for uranium mining. Its roadside hot springs are immaculately maintained, yet not fussy at all.

On the banks of the Gallinas River, overlooked by the beautiful Burnham and Root-designed medieval castle, the Montezuma hot springs comprise three groupings of pools. At 59 degrees, the top pool is the hottest. It takes 10 minutes of gradual dipping before I can ease myself in up to my shoulders. It's so deep you can't touch the bottom but there's a ledge.

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South of Albuquerque is Truth or Consequences, originally called Hot Springs but when the host of a popular 1950s game show called Truth Or Consequences promised to broadcast an episode in the first town that changed its name to the show's title, Hot Springs was no longer.

This ramshackle town has an unlikely number of thermal baths. Retro motels offer hot springs that flow from an underground cistern and by far the most scenic is the Riverbend Hot Springs, a colourful old motel at the end of Austin Street. Its three pools sit on the banks of the Rio Grande, looking out over Turtleback Mountain. Riverbend has some of the best water around. It's high in sodium, calcium, magnesium and strontium - and is damn hot. The pool closest to the source tops 108 degrees, though by the time the waters feed into the lower pools, it has cooled. I ease into the hottest. Muscle knots melt away.

Around the corner, the 80-year-old La Paloma Hot Springs and Spa bathhouse has four terrifically austere, gravel-filled pools, each in a private room for a more introspective soaking experience. You can soak by the half-hour ($US6) or hour ($US10).

In a week's worth of soaking across the state, we spend just $US50 - and wear out a pair of hiking shoes. It doesn't get much better.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Several major airlines fly to Los Angeles where there are connecting flights to Santa Fe with bus or car hire on to San Antonio and Albuquerque. See newmexico.org and santafe.org.

Soaking there

Casas De Suenos, Albuquerque, see casasdesuenos.com; La Paloma Hot Springs and Spa, Truth or Consequences, see lapalomahotspringsandspa.com; Hotel St Francis, Santa Fe, see hotelstfrancis.com; Riverbend Hot Springs, Truth or Consequences, see riverbendhotsprings.com.

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