If you were a miner back in the 1880s, how did you get really clean? You planned a trip to the closest hot springs.
Hot spring trips have long been a traditional pastime in the BC-Washington-Oregon region, says Jeff Birkby, author of Touring Washington and Oregon Hot Springs, a history-rich guidebook to hot springs in the Pacific Northwest. Hot springs are formed when ground and rain water sinks below the Earth’s surface, then heats in volcanic pots deep below the surface. The mineral-infused water springs back out once it’s at a boiling point, then cools in pools.
“Hot springs were social centers,” Birkby says of olden-days hot spring spots. The hotter the springs ran, the more popular they became in winter. Posh ladies booked a room for a week or more to shake the chill and recover from a host of maladies. And back in pre-plumbing days, hot springs (whether in a resort, in a simple a-frame building or on undeveloped property) were the only clean-up spot available to miners.
Unfortunately, few of the grand resorts still stand today. Most (constructed of wood) burned to the ground long ago. However, families looking to enjoy the magical heat of warming waters find plenty of places to soak their bones.
And with an extra-cold winter approaching, you may want to reserve your getaway now.
Hot spring resorts
For families, an established resort offers the most amenities and secure surroundings. Differing pool temps mean that you can get your extra-hot tub experience while the kids enjoy cooler pools.
In Washington State, Bonneville Hot Springs Resort provides a family-friendly atmosphere and spa treatments. It’s located about 40 minutes east of Portland, Oregon. If you continue east along the Washington side, Carson Hot Springs is a historic property — but a little ragged around the edges.
Near the Seattle area, Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort is Birkby’s pick. The resort, nestled in the Olympic National Park, offers a retreat for all ages and waters between 94-104 F. “Sol Duc has really nice campground,” Birkby says, “It’s great for kids, great waterfall, cabins and a restaurant.” However, Sol Duc closes on October 23 and reopens in May 6, 2011; the nearest year-round hot springs is Harrison Hot Springs, located about three hours north in British Columbia.
Oregonians can try central Oregon’s Kah-nee-tah Resort, just over Mt. Hood (about two hours from Portland). “There are a lot of wonderful kid-friendly pools,” Birkby says, such as one with bear statues spouting mouthfuls of water.
The new-agey Breitenbush Hot Springs is two hours southeast from Portland, and offers vegetarian meals in a forest setting. Birkby says it’s a fine resort if you don’t mind the clothing-optional tubs, and as long as parents check out the workshops going on. Don’t bring kids when there’s a couples-only weekend retreat.
And finally, Belknap Hot Springs, Lodge and Gardens offers day-use passes and overnight stays (lodge rooms, RV, cabins or tent sites). There are several affordable options at this central Oregon resort, where rooms range from $65-$250 in dreary November.
Undeveloped hot springs
Of course, there’s also the age-old tradition of jumping into a “wild” hot springs – the kind that bubble up in the midst of a forest, clearing or rocky scrub. These undeveloped hot springs, whether on public or private land, don’t come with a lifeguard or resort atmosphere. In exchange, the only price paid is the day-use pass. There aren’t mobs of tourists in these springs, often only known to locals.
Families can ease into the Cougar Hot Springs at Terwilliger, which offers a changing area and an alcohol-free atmosphere.
At Terwilliger — and most undeveloped hot springs — there’s an interesting dilemma: “Birthday suit or bathing suit?” Most established hot spring resorts in the Pacific Northwest ask everyone to keep their clothes on, with the exception of Breitenbush. But in undeveloped hot springs, you’ll often find a liberal, back-to-nature attitude toward clothing. What’s the expectation? First one in the pool sets the standard, says Birkby. If you arrive and everyone’s in a bathing suit, that’s the dress code (for now). However, it’s unlikely that anyone would look askew at someone wishing to wear a suit (particularly if it’s your kid).
Undeveloped springs can attract car theft. Just don’t leave valuables in sight. If you’ve gone hiking or camping, you already know this. At some hot springs, there may be drug or alcohol use; read up on the springs via online sites like Hot Springs of Oregon or in Birkby’s book and make sure you’re comfortable with the scene.
Family considerations at hot springs
“At any major resort, the big pools are comfortable, but the smaller, hotter indoor pools I’d be cautious about,” Birkby says. A comfortable zone is around 100 to 104, but anything over 104 feels too toasty, he adds. Ask at check-in for the pool temps and stay aware, particularly with younger children under age 12. Keep a cool head – don’t let anyone in your party submerge in hot springs water.
Parents of young children should also ask about the swim-diaper scene. Some resorts required children to be toilet-trained and do not allow swim dipes, ever.
And finally, in undeveloped hot springs, bring flip-flops or aquasox (to protect against jagged rocks), never let the kids drink unchlorinated natural hot springs water (blech) and stay close to children, as the water can be murky.
But your feet will finally feel warm.