If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

Getting in hot water

Hot springs of the old West


“So, I’m a cowboy.”

I gazed at my companion in the hot pool at Alvord Hot Springs. He shrugged. I’d asked what brought him to this ultra-remote spot in southeast Oregon, a salt-scrub desert slope at the eastern foot of Steens Mountain overlooking a vast salt flat worthy of a Howard Hawks panorama.

“Really. I work at the ranch,” he added. “Nothing like a hot mineral soak after a day wrestling with horses and cattle. Well, ATVs too.”

“The ranch,” is Alvord Ranch, a famous eastern Oregon redoubt on whose land the hot springs bubble up. It’s a throwback place in an old-school landscape, and its hot springs epitomize the old-school value of these geothermal wonders that sprinkle the mountains and valleys of the West. The cowboy-soak in Alvord Hot Springs dates back more than a century, so 21st century visitors are percolating in history.

Including me. I get down this way (two days drive from western Washington) once a year for summer volunteer work. I’m no cowboy, but pulling old barbed wire fence on a wildlife refuge in the Oregon outback sure puts me in a cowboy frame of mind.

I explain my mission to my real-cowboy compadre, and he laughs. “Funny, I was just out yesterday fixing up old barbed wire on the ranch.”

We two ease back in the 105-degree mineral water and agree that it’s a great place for peaceful coexistence, whether you are fencing cattle in or out of a piece of land.

It’s the same as it ever was at hot springs throughout the west, whose importance dates back millennia among Native peoples who would agree to set aside enmities around the hot mineral springs that they all used for easing sore joints and healing bodily ailments. They also bathed in the bigger ones, minus a handy bottle of Dr. Bronner’s peppermint soap.

Later, Euro-American pioneers adopted the same approach. Hot springs were a community resource, and Sunday after church was often wash day – women first for a couple hours, then men later, followed by a community picnic. I have actually met old ranchers who remember this from their childhood.

Time marches on, and hot springs today run the gamut from five-star deluxe resorts (there’s one in Arizona that charges an eye-watering $2,125 a night per couple) to obscure warmish puddles clasped amid tree roots on remote riverbanks. You can camp at some hot springs, rent cabins at others, take part in sacred moonlight chants at others (really), sink in hot mud up to your neck in others, or hike a half day to wilderness springs storied in trekker legend.

Public land hot springs tend to offer hand-built rock pools, and maybe local do-gooders have hauled in a few sacks of cement to spiff things up. Commercial ones are usually, in some sense, the American version of those European spas where visitors come for wellness vacations, and who may be enjoying the very same waters that Roman soldiers did two millennia ago.

But while Europeans take their spas seriously – thermes, they are usually called – the American attitude toward hot springs is often a querulous skepticism that is a weird cousin to the widespread disdain for eating insects. Hot water? In the wild? I’ll just take a nap over here, thanks.

Fine. More space for me.

Private hot springs can be, well, colorful. Oregon’s Breitenbush, in the Cascades east of Salem, is a throwback with clapboard-and-log buildings scattered about like an old mining camp. It’s off-grid, of course, calls itself a sanctuary, is clothing optional, and an early ’70s New Age communal atmosphere drifts around like mist in the woods. I promise someone will be wearing a tie-dye wrap dress … at least until they shed it to climb into a soaking pool. A delightful place for time travel, in other words.

Up in British Columbia, Fairmont Hot Springs is a family resort with mid-level luxury lodging, a golf course, an RV park and vast swimming pools of mineral water. Across the Canadian Rockies a few hours, at Radium Hot Springs, you can decide for yourself whether low-level radioactive material is sufficiently healthful that you might survive the apocalypse and straighten out your golf swing.

I’ve enjoyed my days at these commercial resorts, but I prefer the quirky, remote springs that may require a little work and tend to have not a soul in sight.

Way out on the B.C. coast, on a remote island, is a hot spring that trickles down to the ocean, so bathers can alternate hot mineral water with waves of cold seawater, all in one perch.

Not far from Lakeview, Oregon, is a spring that gushes from the ground at 120 degrees, much too hot for an instant soak. Locals have hauled in an old cast-iron clawfoot tub that you fill with the hot water hose, and then wait for it to cool.

In the heart of Washington’s Cascades Mountains, a 4.5-mile hike leads to Goldmyer Hot Spring, which yields 111-degree water that visitors can enjoy in a small cave, or outdoor in pools. Like so many such places now, irresponsible overuse forced caretakers to establish a daily visitor limit and reservations are required … just to illustrate how Americans have abused something long revered by most of the world’s people.

The same is true back at Alvord Ranch, where the formerly drive-up-and-soak hot springs have been transformed into a small visitor attraction, with campsites, tiny cabins, an office and a daily fee. Long-time visitors grouse about all that, but having on-site supervision has quelled the rowdy misbehavior.

This is just 40 miles as the crow flies (but three hours by car) from my favorite hot spring of all, a simple heart shaped pool tucked into a mountain meadow at the verge between aspen foothills and sagebrush high desert. It’s about 21/2 feet deep, 105 degrees with a mud/rock bottom and mild sulfurous odor, surrounded by low ridges in every direction. Only once in 25 years have I shared the pool with strangers, and they were very hip hot spring zealots from Nevada, which is the western heartland of mineral springs.

Here, occasional mule deer stroll by, oblivious to a half-submerged human. The sagebrush breeze whisks past like a song. In the evening, at dusk, nighthawks ply the sky. The evening star rises over the ridge like a distant diamond.

Where is this magical place?

I cannot say. I was long ago sworn to secrecy by the old desert trekker who showed it to me … emphasis on show.

“I won’t tell you,” he explained. “But I’ll show you, as long as you keep the same pact into the future with other people as long as you live.”

One of the finest bargains I ever made.    X

Eric Lucas lives on a small farm on San Juan Island, where he grows organic hay, beans, corn, squash and apples. His affection for hot water led him to import a soaking tub from Spain for his farmhouse.