By Miriam Raftery
June 4, 2014 (Jacumba Hot Springs)—Slipping away to the high desert community of Jacumba Hot Springs proves a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of city life.
Not too long ago, Jacumba nearly became a ghost town after a resort hotel from the ‘20s burned down and Interstate 8 was built, drawing traffic away from Old Highway 80 through the heart of Jacumba. But then a revitalization committee petitioned the state to take back the town's historic name -- Jacumba Hot Springs. Since then, these movers and shakers have infused new life into a town named by the Kumeyaay Native Americans who once camped here in the winter months: Jacum—a place of healing waters.
Now celebrating its centennial year, the town recently hosted the Healing Waters & Arts Festival--a successful event for the community and guests alike.
This unique event affords opportunities to savor soothing soaks in famed mineral waters at the Jacumba Hot Springs Spa & Resort and enjoy home-grown live music from Native American flutes to folk, rock and blues.
The festival also invites visitors to indulge in shopping for hand-made crafts from local vendors, and tour the mysterious and intriguing Chinese Castle perched on a rocky knoll overlooking the community.
“We are all pleased at how the festival turned out,” organizer Danielle Cook said. An estimated 400 visitors attended. “All our businesses had record sales,” she reported, adding that the community also raised over $10,000 in corporate sponsorships, and brought in additional funds through tours and prize drawings. “Best of all, we met our Centennial goals of attracting more and different kinds of positive publicity about our community and by attracting festival goers who had never been to Jacumba before.”
As an added bonus, Cook reveals, Jacumbans now have a new neighbor. “We even picked up another community member as a festival goer saw the for rent sign on a property—and liked it so much she returned to rent it! Her name is Judy; she is an artist and moves in next week.”
Cook and others here, including Dave and Helen Landman (photo, right), new owners of downtown Jacumba and the spa/resort, have visions of Jacumba Hot Springs becoming a cozier version of Taos, New Mexico – a haven for artists, musicians and those seeing spiritual nourishment among the rocky crags and healing waters of Jacumba.
During the festival, I couldn’t resist picking up some lavender soap and a gemstone necklace with entwined copper and silver. Other booths carried tie-dyed clothing, beads, glittering jewels, Mexican dolls, knives with elaborately carved hilts, crystals, and much more.
A gallery has opened in town and several town residents recently acquired metal sculptures by Ricardo Breceda, whose whimsical sculptures surprise and delight visitors to the Anza Borrego Desert—including a towering rattlesnake sculpture outside the community center and library. The choice of subject matter reflects the character of the community – tough and resilient, rising to strike when opportunity comes calling.
A Chinese dragon sculpture by Breceda stands guard outside the Chinese Castle, which is being lovingly restored by Cherry Diefenbach, a Pine Valley writer and historian.
The effort has been a labor of love for Diefenbach and her husband, Andy. They offered tours and tall tales of the home’s past. (Tunnel to Mexico? Gambling den?) Built by a man with a Far East trading company in Los Angeles, the home and its history remain largely shrouded in mystery.
The Diefenbachs have added stained glass windows made by the owner, restored stone steps, cherry red paint on the exterior, furnishings and Asian accessories as well as restoring “Bobcat Manor”, an outbuilding complete with photos of a bobcat family that made its home in an outcropping of boulders outside the home’s bedroom window.
The site has morteros, or Indian grindstones, an outdoor oven, and a rocky exterior throne where Cherry plops down and declares herself “Queen of the castle.” A rooftop deck affords commanding views of the town and immediately south, the border fence and Mexico beyond.
Some lucky visitors came home with drawing prizes ranging from a patchwork quilt to an arched stained glass window, as well as an array of generously appointed gift baskets and other special items.
No visit here would be complete without a stay at the Jacumba Hot Springs Resort.
After a satisfying barbecue dinner and live music on the pool deck, it was time for a soothing soak in the mineral spa crowned by a skylight that opens to view the stars twinkling high above, bright spangles against a pitch-dark sky in this desert oasis.
Part of the fun is the people you meet; while soaking in the spa's hot bubbling waters, I chatted with a jewelry designer, a soldier, a motorcycle-riding couple, and other interesting guests. One vouched for the massage services described as "divine"; the spa also has a cedar-lined sauna and two swimming pools fed by the hot springs.
One hint: take off your jewelry before hopping in the spa, since the sulfur darkens silver jewelry—not to worry, however! It wears off in a few days, or jewelry cleaner can restore it to sparkling luster. This little trick of nature providing visual proof of the amazing chemical reactions these mineral waters create – as my aching joints could feel as the tension melted blissfully away.
From the spa, it’s an easy walk to an old railway depot for a morning or evening stroll, as well as to Lake Jacumba, a birdwatcher’s haven amid rushes and reeds, though the water level is low this time of year.
As twilight melts into nightfall, and the sky transforms from vermillion to periwinkle to a silent midnight blue, the mountains silhouetted above a warm red glow. The air, too, is warm and rejuvenating, inviting one to stay and linger here a while.
If you go, I also recommend a side trip to the Desert View Tower and Boulder Park just a few miles east on I-8, a roadside tourist destination built by the 1900s road-building crew. Today, you can shop for a quirky collection of souvenirs (from onyx horse head bookends to candy with embedded scorpions) put a player piano roll in an old-time piano, scramble through caves or just enjoy views from a telescope high atop the tower looking all the way east to the Salton Sea. The proprietor, Ben, is always good for some stories and has a fine array of historical books on the area.
Up next, Jacumba Hot Springs aims to host more events this fall, including a Centennial celebration and a special holiday event centered around a community park.
I look forward to returning for another respite from reality at this laid-back, friendly community in the high desert country of San Diego’s East County.