Castle Hot Springs Resort in Arizona

The restored Castle Hot Springs Resort in Arizona is the subject of a documentary by a Scottsdale filmmaker.

Kristin Atwell Ford knows Castle Hot Springs Resort well. 

Not only is Arizona’s first luxury resort a place of deep history in Arizona, it touches her family as well. 

“My mother (Sherri Chessen of ‘Romper Room’) was one of the first owners of the resort after ASU sold it in the 1980s. The resort was definitely aged at that point,” said Ford, who runs Quantum Leap Productions in Scottsdale.  

“It wasn’t in the full glory it is now. The Palm House, the main hotel, had burned down. It brought my family together because we would go out there and swim, hike, play tennis, sing on the porch and play guitars. My sister got married there.”

A Scottsdale resident, Ford recalls the resort’s history in her 37-minute documentary “Castle Hot Springs: Oasis of Time,” which won the 2020 Rocky Mountain Emmy Award for Best Historical Documentary. It is now available on Apple TV and Amazon. 

During the research phase of her documentary, she learned other families have multigenerational connections to Castle Hot Springs, including Mike and Cindy Watts, who restored the resort to its grandeur. They reopened the Morristown resort in 2018. 

“There are places that echo through the years and places that hold our memory and imagination,” Ford said. “For me, and Arizonans and people around the world, Castle Hot Springs is one of those places. To see it come back after such utter loss – it was lost to the elements for the 46 years it was closed – shows good things can happen.

“For those of us who were involved with the resort in its fallow period, it’s a miracle to see it come back to life. To me, personally, it’s like seeing my grandmother come back to life. It’s a place of deep nourishment and meaning. The job that the Watts family has done with it is exceptional. It feels the same.”

Ford was born in Arizona to Chessen and Arcadia High School history teacher Bob Finkbine. She grew up performing in theaters and writing.

“He would take us backpacking and river running,” she said. “My parents were polar opposites. He was lost in the world outside in the wilderness and my mom was into the theater, which is a world of artifice.”

Her love of nature is echoed in the documentary, which tells the story of “taking the waters,” as the indigenous people of the land favored the area’s hot, therapeutic waters. 

As settlers came to the Arizona Territory, mining magnate Frank Murphy and his brother, Territorial Gov. Nathan Oakes Murphy, saw the seeds of a new economy born of water, sunshine and leisure travel drive the region toward statehood. 

The documentary features drone work by Bill Davis, director of photography, and narration by veteran Hollywood actor, Peter Coyote. 

The film has a lively soundtrack by Dolan Ellis, Arizona’s official state balladeer, and Pearl Django.

Featured in the documentary is Cecil B. DeMille who filmed his first movie, “The Squaw Man,” in 1931 in the area. 

“It’s a horribly racist title at this point,” Ford adds. “He recognized this was a cinematic location. The winter of 1901, 1902, (American painter) Maxfield Parrish stayed at Castle Hot Springs for two reasons—he had TB and was seeking a mineral cure for his respiratory ailments.

“Mineral cures were popular at the turn of the century for respiratory ailments. The Castle Hot Springs landscape is the blue skies he’s been known for. He discovered all that in Arizona.” 

Olaf Wieghorst, painter of the American west, was inspired by the area as well. 

Ford said there are plenty of reasons for making the documentary. Primarily, it’s because Castle Hot Springs played a significant role in the state’s development. 

“When you look at Castle Hot Springs, it’s a microcosm of the history of the state,” she said. 

“The area was opened up when gold was discovered, the prospectors and then the settlers. The area had a lot of ranching; the men who originally developed the resort into a luxury property. It really established the tourism economy that’s been so crucial to our state.” 

Ford admits she didn’t fully appreciate the experiences she had at Castle Hot Springs when she was younger. 

“We had it when I was in high school,” she said. “I wish we had it in college. I would have perceived it a little differently. I would have realized earlier how special it was.

“My memories there are just about the feeling of wonder.”

She felt the same way when she returned to film the documentary, for which she interviewed Steven Talley, whose parents owned the resort in the 1970s. They were also behind the Arizona Biltmore and the aerospace engineering firm Talley Industries. On Dec. 11, 1976, a fire destroyed the historical Palm House. Chessen purchased Castle Hot Springs in 1982. 

“He talks about rounding the corner and seeing the palm trees and the main lodge with its yellow siding and red roof,” she recalls. 

“Certain places hold happy memories. Castle Hot Springs heightens the senses. There’s the wonder of water gushing out of the ground in the desert. When you immerse yourself in that water, it changes you. You’re more relaxed and energized. All of your senses are enlightened now that they have this amazing farm garden program.”

She’s pleased she was awarded for sharing her feelings about Castle Hot Springs. 

“It’s such an honor to win the Rocky Mountain Emmy Award,” she said. “It’s the only award in TV judged by our peers. It’s always a special award to win.”