The odd history of a little-known Death Valley hot springs

We had been driving nearly an hour along the Old Spanish Trail Highway in the vast, undeveloped desert that straddles Nevada and Southern California when the sun started setting and the wind picked up. Tumbleweeds cartwheeled across the road and periodically destabilized our rental car. There were no signs of civilization, but according to Google Maps, we were five minutes from our destination.

“What’s this place we’re going to, again?” my partner asked.

“Delight’s Hot Springs Resort,” I said. “It had great reviews on Booking.com.”


In truth, I hadn’t read the reviews. I booked this remote and little-known resort because of a crazy story on its website, that of the founder Elias Delight.

With a bad case of arthritis in his later years, Delight left Los Angeles in the 1950s and headed to “the middle of the barren desert to die,” the website explains. He ventured into the far reaches of the Mojave, where for thousands of years the Shoshone and Paiute tribes roamed until they were forcefully removed by mining operations in the 1800s.

Delight soaked his body in the warm natural baths he found there, the story continues, and after a month he was well enough to explore the surrounding desert. He discovered hundreds of warm springs and decided to start a health spa.

“I’ve learned that a man can take what he has, no matter how little, and make from it what he wants. Death Valley brought life to me — and I brought life to Death Valley!” Delight reportedly said in 1955.

A decorative spring in front of the office at Delight’s Hot Springs Resort.

Ashley Harrell

Here’s where the story gets weirder.

Delight wanted to buy the land, but soon learned that it had been set aside for veteran homesteading and could only be purchased with Civil War scrip, a substitute currency given to soldiers. Nearly all of that currency had been lost or put on display in museums, but as it happened, Delight’s grandfather was a Civil War veteran and had the old coupons framed in his Nebraska home.

Delight’s grandfather had $2,000 of scrip, which was exactly the amount needed to buy the land, the resort website claims: “Transformed from a penniless cripple to a vibrant and productive man, Elias built a small desert empire.”

It was getting dark as we rolled into Tecopa, population 150, which is named in honor of the Paiute leader who defended the land from white intruders but also convinced his tribe to refrain from attacking travelers on the Old Spanish Trail.

Strong gusts brutalized the date palms as we cruised past the town post office, an abandoned laundromat and an assortment of campgrounds, trailers, motels and breweries. The last turn off Tecopa Hot Springs Road was for Delight’s “empire,” a collection of trailers, rustic hotel rooms, and indoor and outdoor thermal pools surrounding a main office.

A caretaker with dreadlocks greeted me with a smile and took me on a tour of the property. Although her name is Sarah, everybody calls her “the Wandering Jeepsy” she said, handing me a business card. That’s because she goes on adventures in her white Wrangler and documents them for thousands of fans on YouTube and Instagram.

This caretaker at Delight's Hot Springs Resort was a guest for seven years before she took a job there.

This caretaker at Delight’s Hot Springs Resort was a guest for seven years before she took a job there.

Ashley Harrell

She showed me into one of four clothing-optional bathhouses, the resort’s small private rooms guarded by a Roman statue that was apparently rejected by Caesar’s Palace. The rooms are adorned in desert murals and equipped with showers (which none of the accommodations offer), and the water is kept between 102 and 104 degrees, Sarah said. The fourth room — which is roofless and offers a striking view of the starry night sky — is open all night.

Next she showed me the new outdoor pool (96 degrees) and four satellite hot tubs (102 to 104 degrees), which are also open all night. There are a few rock gardens and sitting areas around the property where people often relax and take in the nearby Nopah mountains, but in this kind of wind that might be less fun, she said.

I asked Sarah how she ended up here.

“I used to live in Vegas, and I had been coming here for seven years as a customer,” she said. “This is my first season working.” She had been coming all those years to soak herself in these particular hot springs, which she does for each day for 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes at night.

This pool and its four satellite hot tubs are relatively new at Delight's Hot Springs.

This pool and its four satellite hot tubs are relatively new at Delight’s Hot Springs.

Ashley Harrell

Fed directly by hot mineral springs 438 feet underground, the pools contain a variety of minerals that some believe have healing properties. “Everyone has their own beliefs of the water,” said Sarah, who is 44 but looks 25. “It definitely works.”

After the tour, my partner and I threw our stuff down in our austere and rustic quarters, grabbed towels and hurried through the wind back to the bath houses. Three were occupied, but the fourth was all ours. 

We took unnecessarily frigid showers (there was hot water we didn’t notice) then descended the stairway into the deep, rectangular bath, melting into the water. After a day of hiking and the strange drive through the desert, the soak could not have felt more soothing.

For dinner, we headed down the street to the BBQ restaurant Tecopa Brewing Company, which we were told was under the same ownership as Delight’s. The brisket and pulled pork were especially tasty, further raising my curiosity about who was running the place.

Supposedly the statues at Delight's Hot Springs were discarded from Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. 

Supposedly the statues at Delight’s Hot Springs were discarded from Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. 

Ashley Harrell

Inquiries led to Westley McNeal, who has lived in Tecopa for the last 20 years. McNeal’s parents bought it in 2001, he said, from a man named Charlie Delight. He wasn’t sure about the relationship between that man and the original owner, but said that pretty much everyone who has been involved with Delight’s — guests, staff members, owners — swears by the water.

“People really don’t believe me, but I saw a guy one time, his daughters brought him out. He had been in a wheelchair for like 14 years,” McNeal said. “They were here for like 60 days. And that guy was walking when he left.”

For the duration of our stay, we only saw a few other people. But according to guest Peter Geoghan, who had been coming here from upstate New York for the last 23 years, the place has become more popular since the pandemic began.

He talked about another point of interest in the town — a mud hole — and said he usually hikes in Death Valley when he visits. But like the rest of the people who come to this small, isolated, barren enclave, he too was there for the water. 

Did he believe it could magically heal people?

“I have no idea,” Geoghan said. “I just like it.” 




https://www.sfgate.com/california-parks/article/odd-history-of-Death-Valley-hot-springs-16822260.php