Palm Springs conjures many images in the popular imagination: California oasis, Old Hollywood hide-out, golf and tennis hot spot, midcentury modern pilgrimage site. But long before Richard Neutra’s airy, glassy Kaufmann House or John Lautner’s concrete-domed Elrod House, there was Welwood Murray’s rickety wooden bathhouse.
That two-room shack, built over a hot spring in the late 1880s, was one of the first tourist attractions in the Coachella Valley — newly accessible by railroad to people with tuberculosis and other ailments who were seeking relief in the desert air and mineral water.
Mr. Murray, a Scottish rancher and entrepreneur, had secured a lease for his bathhouse from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. But as the “Agua Caliente” in their name would suggest, that hot water was too important to their identity to leave in anyone else’s hands for long, and in the early 1900s, control reverted to the tribe.
“The hot mineral spring is essentially our heart and soul,” said Reid Milanovich, who has served as the tribal chairman since April 2022. “We’ve been using these waters for generations for purposes of both spiritual healing and physical healing.”
The tradition of sharing the spring with visitors has also spanned generations: The tribe ran a succession of bathhouses, then opened the Spa Resort Hotel on the site in 1963. When this multimillion-dollar, 131-room Modernist complex debuted, it became the place to take the local waters. Indeed, it was the only place, because it retained exclusive access to the Agua Caliente spring, the sole option in town. So when everything in the complex except the casino closed in 2014, anyone hoping for a warm mineral soak in Palm Springs was stuck on dry land.
The tribe had determined that the 1950s-era water collection system needed enough repair to require the spa’s demolition — a catalyst for rethinking the entire site. “We’re talking about one of the most important sections of the reservation,” Mr. Milanovich said. “We had to make sure it would be protected for future generations.” The best way to do so, tribal members and leaders concluded, was to create experiences that were educational and celebratory of Cahuilla heritage.
After nearly a decade of work on the site, and one of the most significant Indigenous archaeological recoveries in the country — thousands of artifacts unearthed; thousands of years added to the local historical record — the new Spa at Séc-he opened on April 4. And by late 2023, a neighboring museum will delve into the excavation as well as the tribe’s history, culture, language and more.
Though right in the heart of Palm Springs, Séc-he (pronounced SEH-hee, or SEH-khee) is only one of numerous spring-fed spas in the region. About 10 miles away, the town of Desert Hot Springs — with its own famed aquifers and soaking sites — is bubbling back to life after declaring bankruptcy in 2001 and narrowly avoiding a repeat in 2013. Since becoming the first place in Southern California to legalize large-scale medical-marijuana cultivation in 2014, however, the community is rebounding, new retreats are opening and old favorites are expanding.
Here’s a guide to total immersion in Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs.
This 73,000-square-foot site translates from Cahuilla to “the sound of boiling water.” Still sonorous, if not boiling, as it bubbles at 104 degrees through the spa’s signature soaking tubs, the spring makes for deeply soothing audio. So do several other water features, from the fountain in the reception area to the waterfall wall in the indoor tranquillity garden.
A day pass ($145) gets you a 15-minute soak in one of the 22 private indoor baths, where the mineral-rich water not only feels sublime — especially if you have the jets turned on — but also does a remarkable job of softening and coaxing dead cells from your skin. (The tubs are drained and cleaned between each use.) And if you haven’t had enough of the spring water when your 15 minutes are up, you can continue your soak in a zero-edge mineral pool outside, where you’ll also find a waterfall pool, mist-cooled cabanas and outsize daybeds.
The outdoor pools are included in the day pass, as are aromatherapy showers, salt caves, steam and sauna spaces, and for the extra ambitious, fitness equipment. All these also come free with any spa treatment — one standout being the 90-minute Quartz and Poultice Massage ($325), with crushed quartz that is meant to evoke warm desert sand.
The most venerable of the Desert Hot Springs retreats, Two Bunch Palms has served as an Al Capone hide-out (or so the story goes) and a Hollywood backdrop (in the 1992 Robert Altman film “The Player”). At 70 acres, the oasis is sprawling — its titular palms dominating a landscape so lush that aquatic turtles and birds seem as common as spa-goers. (Rest assured: Humans and animals take the waters in separate spaces.)
Over the course of the pandemic, the property added a vast new spring-fed soaking area, where the latest tubs — all generally between 100 and 104 degrees — are meant to supplement the beloved old Grotto. A large, communal, spring-fed pool surrounded by Edenic greenery and smaller soaking tubs, the Grotto has a warm cascade that doubles as a head, neck and shoulder massage. For an official treatment, however, you’ll need to visit the spa, where the 90-minute TBP Double Body Scrub, $245, is hard to beat. (Imagine a salt scrub followed by a cornmeal scrub and a soak in sage-infused warm mineral water.) There’s also an ever-expanding menu of classes, with a schedule of 60 to 70 options a week, from classics like yoga to novelties like natural fragrance-making.
For anyone who prefers to keep things private, each of four new Grove Villa Suites comes with its own spring-fed teak tub (as well as a fire pit, a patio space and extra-large rooms). But whichever lodgings, classes and spa treatments you choose, one thing is nonnegotiable if you see it on the menu: the sticky toffee cake with locally sourced dates. Rooms from $265.
A similarly lush but much more intimate option, the Good House seems like your friend’s secret hacienda. You can’t help but feel like part of the family at this recently renovated seven-room hideaway with a communal dining table, where the chef serves up vegetable-forward specialties. And are those pets frolicking in the yard? Yes, and feel free to bring your own.
While an in-progress expansion into a neighboring lot will more or less double the resort’s footprint over the coming year, the scale will stay small — welcome news for fans of the Good House’s cozy ambience. (Not that anyone’s going to complain about having more space for massages and facials, which are already on offer in a small spa.)
Then again, you could easily spend your entire time in the 94-degree pool and 104-degree hot tub — each tucked into lush greenery, ringed by sunshine-yellow chaise longues and illuminated by twinkle lights at night. You don’t have to stay overnight to enjoy the facilities, though: You can choose from a range of options, from a $40 Soak Pass (two hours) to a $210 Chill Pass Deluxe (daylong soaking privileges and a 30-minute massage, a 30-minute facial and a stellar mocktail). Rooms from $250.
Though it just opened in February, the Onsen Hotel and Spa harks back to the region’s midcentury heyday, thanks to decades-old architectural bones, a supersaturated 1950s palette and nightly happy hours. So for anyone seeking those Technicolor desert vibes, here you go. “Think Lucy and Ricky’s weekend pad,” said the general manager, John Hopp.
Options for relaxation at this oasis — whose name is Japanese for “hot spring” — include a spring-fed 98-degree pool and a 102-degree hot tub, spa treatments that use the eco-friendly Osea line, yoga mats in every room and a mountain panorama that practically insists on serenity. Rooms from $143.
Recently purchased and overhauled, Azure Palm Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa Oasis is home to a supersize outdoor mineral pool (86-90 degrees), in-suite soaking tubs (106 degrees but adjustable with a cold faucet), a Himalayan salt room and various saunas. Even so, the new Oasis — a sprawling wellness garden — is probably the hardest part to leave. Forming its own informal circuit, it contains a spring-fed, pebble-bottomed reflexology walk; a self-filling warm bucket shower; and a series of 100- to 104-degree soaking tubs, each sufficiently cloistered that hummingbirds may be your only interlopers.
This summer, the resort plans to introduce Midnight at the Oasis events, in which overnight guests will get late-night access to the pools. Later this year, there will also be private cabana tubs — bookable for the day with accompanying fire pits and hammocks. The indoor spa has one of the most extensive menus in the area — the 60-minute Foot and Scalp Ritual ($145) being the ultimate top-off to the reflexology walks and bucket showers. Day passes, which include access to the resort pool, indoor-outdoor spas, sauna, cafe and yoga studio, from $56. Rooms from $169.
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