At Camp Hot Wells, people go for a soak and end up making friends at the bar’s foot baths. Photo courtesy Camp Hot Wells.

On a rainy day in March, I drive to the Southside of San Antonio to Hot Wells of Bexar County park. As I tour the ruins of the former Hot Wells Hotel and Resort, which operated between 1901 and 1918, sustained damage from multiple fires, and reopened as a public park in 2019, I see the faint signage of yesteryear on the sandstone brick walls. “High Diving Strictly Prohibited,” hand lettered by a skilled sign painter in a former century, is now barely legible. At both the ”Ladies Pool” and the “Gents Pool,” white subway tile remains.

Camp Hot Wells

Address:
5423 Hot Wells Blvd.
Phone: 210-922-1927
Hours: Open daily noon to 8 p.m.
Website: camphotwells.com
Soak Prices: A one-hour soak for one guest in the Clawfoot Suite is $75; two guests/two tubs is $100. A one-hour soak in the cedar tub for two is $100. A group soak or private party for 10 for two hours is $300.

Palm trees and canna lilies that dot the property surrounding the cordoned ruins help me imagine this place as a vibrant yet tranquil resort. Though I’m just 5 miles south of downtown, it feels like I’ve already left my hometown of San Antonio. Birdsong and raindrops are the only sounds I hear, with the occasional siren reminding me I haven’t left the city limits at all.

Adjacent to the park, the newly opened Camp Hot Wells beckons with its bar, picnic tables, and mellow, mostly instrumental playlist. Above the bar’s cement structure, a red neon sign blazes “Hot Water.” Rather than barstools, this bar boasts communal foot-soaking baths. “We’ve found that patrons are meeting new friends at the bar’s foot baths,” says Angela Martinez, who helped launch the Camp Hot Wells concept. “This is all an experiment, but what’s really valuable to us so far is that people are making new friends around the water.”

Until this year, the public hasn’t had access to the sulfuric waters on the property since 1918. (A new well had to be drilled after the previous one was capped, a condition for the park’s reopening.) Just behind the bar, there’s a garden available for event rentals, as well as private outdoor soaking suites outfitted with clawfoot and cedar barrel tubs filled with hot sulfuric water with purported healing properties that guests can book for soaks via the Camp Hot Wells website. You must be a member, which simply requires creating a profile and signing a health waver. There’s no membership fee.

San Antonio arts patron and developer James Lifshutz bought the property back in the ’90s, hoping to one day restore the soaking baths. Sharing the vision to let others experience these waters again was San Antonio artist, glassblower, and Flight Gallery owner Justin Parr, who has lived in a shipping container home and studio on the wooded property since 2012. Together, Lifshutz and Parr began developing plans to reopen the formerly capped well.

The Clawfoot Suite offers soaks in tubs once owned by San Antonio architect O’Neil Ford. Photo courtesy Camp Hot Wells.

With a new well in place, Parr got a new job title. “I’m like the creative director/visual director, in charge of the vibe and the feel that you get when you’re here,” he says. That includes curating the beer, wine, seltzer, and nonalcoholic beverage list and planning a modern Texas bathhouse that captures the history of the original resort by incorporating found objects Parr has collected during walks on the property over the last decade.

“I’m in love with this property and I’ve always loved Hot Wells before I even came to live here,” Parr says. “It was always my prerogative that anything I could find some kind of use for later—I’ve kind of been pulling these things aside to integrate into the design at Camp Hot Wells.”

Parr made the garden fountain using some of his own glass work, as well as “concretions and conglomerates” he found in the San Antonio River bordering the property, and tiles from the original bathhouses. The wooden bar and the furniture in the soaking suites were crafted by three San Antonio woodworkers—Leo Barrios, Raygun Johns, and Kevin Baker—using reclaimed cross timbers from the original resort and hotel.

A winding path with small gardens on the left and right leads to the entrance, where horizontal wooden fencing hides the interior. A fountain made of slabs and rocks is in the foreground.

The exterior of Camp Hot Wells invites guests into a private sanctuary just 5 miles for downtown. Photo courtesy Camp Hot Wells.

The private garden and soaking tubs are an oasis bringing nature, art, and design together in a way famed San Antonio architect O’Neil Ford, known among design buffs as the Godfather of Texas Modern Architecture, might appreciate. Ford designed the Tower of the Americas at Hemisfair in downtown San Antonio, which ushered in a new era as the city hosted the World’s Fair in 1968. The Little Chapel in the Woods at Texas Women’s University in Denton and Murchison Tower at Trinity University in San Antonio are also Ford designs. Perhaps a nod to Ford, clawfoot soaking tubs reclaimed from Ford’s property Willow Way just across the San Antonio River are now available at Camp Hot Wells for the public to book for a private soak.

And that’s what’s led me to San Antonio on this dark March day: A private one-hour retreat in a cedar tub in an outdoor suite outfitted with a hammock and outdoor shower for rinsing off before my eventual transition back to reality. During that hour, the familiar pains of sleeping on my side melted away, as well as a bit of general stress.

I soaked in the cedar tub and swung in the hammock. A monarch butterfly and a cardinal couple both stopped by, but otherwise the space was devoid of even another human voice. Though I’m unsure of the veracity of health claims about soaking in 112-degree water, I did feel unburdened, lighter, less tense but also thirsty as I bellied up to the bar under that neon “Hot Water” sign.

The June 2024 cover of Texas Highways: Treasures from the Coast

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