Thirty miles from where I-70 announces the end of its cross-country journey westward lies the quiet town of Monroe, Utah. This rural community has the not-very-distinct characteristic of looking like any other sleepy, yet still effortlessly picturesque, mountain locale.
Descending the off-ramp and taking the time to look beyond the nondescript dwellings and weather-worn streets, one may be fortunate enough to stumble upon a geological wonder that’s been fueling a passionate vision for decades. It goes by the name of Mystic Hot Springs.
This story can be told in part by a flat tire and a collection of bathtubs scattered purposefully across a hillside.
Beauty in imperfection
It’s early afternoon and I’ve been driving all morning. As I crack the window for some fresh air, I notice the first signs of spring beginning to emerge. The snow-capped mountains rising gently above Monroe are surrendering to the sun. Soon, the gentle white will hold strong only in the darkest shadows and highest peaks. There’s a slight warmth in the air as I make my way down one final dead-end street, kill the engine, and come to a stop outside of Mystic Hot Springs.
I step out of my van and into what feels like an outdoor art classroom with projects here and there in various stages of completion. There are some rusty, hollowed out vehicles, pioneer themed cabins in various stages of renovation, a large in-ground pool that’s fallen into disrepair, and a worn metal sign reading “Hot Springs,” with a single arrow pointing up a crumbly set of concrete stairs.
It’s got a weathered and experienced feel, leaning on a Japanese aesthetic I’ll later come to understand is wabi-sabi—a worldview that celebrates the beauty in transience and imperfection. It’s a philosophy that Mystic Hot Springs owner “Mystic Mike” Ginsburg will tell me is—in harmony with permaculture, self-awareness, and mindfulness—what drives his life and his vision here.
After checking in at the main office, I drive one block back down the gravel entrance road and step into my home for the evening. Mystic Hot Springs has a campground and cabins for guests to stay in, but I’ve opted to spend the night in “the Nature Bus,” choosing to dive fully into the chilled-out vibe that seems to leak from everywhere around here.
Hippie buses and bathtubs
The Nature Bus is one of six school buses that Mike has transformed into far-out abodes. The buses award overnighters with messages of love and inspiration, written in sharpie on the walls and ceilings. One message highlights the inherent tug-of-war between stability and wanderlust, declaring, “My heart swings back and forth between the need for routine and the urge to run.”
Another encourages guests to lean into the growth that can come through travel: “A mind stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions. Travel. Learn. Grow.”
Back in the 1800s, long before hordes of VW bus owners set off on adventures of self-discovery, this geothermally rich destination was already bringing the heat. Guests from all over the valley and beyond would travel by horse and buggy to dance and soak all through the night. Earlier still, nomadic bands from the Ute, Shoshone, and Paiute tribes would make use of the warm grounds near the springs, setting up their camps here as they passed through.
The bathtubs were some of the first additions Mike made when he acquired the property in 1996—but they’re still relatively new, considering that the hot springs first formed out of geologic events dating back millennia.
The unique reddish-brown travertine mounds that can be seen throughout the hot springs, most notably around the tubs, are the results of minerals that have built up after being deposited inch by inch via the constant flow of water.
Water comes out of the ground at a piping hot 168 degrees Fahrenheit and a rate of 200 gallons per minute. The water eventually cools as it works it way through a network of channels and cascades into the pools and tubs. The minerals carried in this water—calcium carbonate, magnesium, and iron among them—are celebrated for their healing and relaxation properties, all part of the draw that’s been enticing visitors for centuries.
A serendipitous flat tire
As I settle into one of the unoccupied tubs and revel in the magic for myself, I’m struck by the unconventional beauty of the place. The travertine-covered tubs, rusted railings, and brown-mineral-hued water may appear unsightly at first, but there’s always been a subtle beauty in the things that aren’t supposed to be, and it’s easy to see it here.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one who’s digging what Mike has dubbed “the best hippie hot springs in the west.”
Heather Zywicki, who’s taken up residence in the tub next to mine, is visiting from Colorado. Mystic Hot Springs is just one stop on a weeklong mother-daughter road trip. She describes her visit with wide-eyed enthusiasm. “I’ve never been to a hot spring before,” she says. “I feel like this place is full of magic and connection that you don’t get to experience that often.”
Of course, none of this stuff would be possible without the passionate dedication of the man who’s been the caretaker of this living installation for the past 23 years.
After suffering a day full of bus trouble that began with a flat tire on his way back from the last of the Grateful Dead shows in Vegas, Mystic Mike ended up here and discovered, quite serendipitously, that the place was for sale. He risked everything he had to make the down payment. A decision he now says he couldn’t imagine not making.
A soak and a show
A self-described Deadhead, Mike has managed to keep his passion for music alive, even long after parking the bus he used to follow the Grateful Dead around in. Since its inception, Mystic Hot Springs has played host to more than 1,200 shows with headliners like Rusted Root, STS9, and Acoustic Syndicate—concerts that give patrons the unique opportunity of a soak and a show. Mike has catalogued hundreds of these intimate performances on his YouTube channel and averages three to four calls a day from bands who wish to take the stage next.
The reason so many bands want to come through, he says, is convenience. “We’re halfway between Denver and Los Angeles. I don’t pay a whole lot but I pick up the off-nights, make a home cooked meal, and they get to soak in the springs.” Mystic Hot Springs already has about 50 shows scheduled this year.
Twenty-three years in business is a long time by most standards—but Mike, ever the creator, has his eye on the future. “I’m at this place I’ve been working toward all this time. It took me 10 years to get where I thought I’d be in three,” he says. “It feels like I’m going through the middle part of an hourglass where all the stuff’s coming down to this one moment, and then it’s going to blow up into this next step, this next phase.”
The next phase, he shares, includes adding greenhouses that mock climates from around the world, and adding more lodging with private soaking areas. He also hopes to develop more community and sustainability practices, serving as a model for others in those areas while furthering his art.
For Mike, Mystic Hot Springs has been an obvious labor of love, his groovy contribution to the world that he views as an instrument for good. Some don’t always see it that way, but, as far as Mike’s concerned, that’s just fine.
“It’s like this living crystal that’s evolving and growing. It’s relevant, it’s happening right now. To be a part of that is just so very special.”
“It can certainly challenge people’s norms,” he acknowledges. “But it’s not up to me to decide how someone should experience it. When I get a [bad] review, I’ll go soaking for a minute and look at just one little inch of the minerals building up along the side of the tub, and my mind is just mesmerized. It’s like this living crystal that’s evolving and growing. It’s relevant, it’s happening right now. To be a part of that is just so very special.”
Reflecting on my own experience and not quite ready to let it go entirely, I cue up a familiar playlist and turn down the gravel road that leads back to the highway. As the Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” begins to pour from my speakers, I stop again to contemplate places like Monroe and Mystic Hot Springs.
“Once in a while you get shown the light,” the Dead proclaims, “in the strangest of places if you look at it right.”
It’s amazing what you can find when you have the courage to look.
If you go
Mystic Hot Springs is located at 475 E 100 N in Monroe, Utah. Spas are open 24 hours and a soaking pass is $15 (or free with accommodations).