Is there anything more magical and inviting than a misty, secluded hot spring on a cold winter day? Maybe, but I haven’t discovered it yet. An uncrowded thermal pool is my happy place. Too bad I live on the wrong side of the country for serious adventures in warm, bubbly waters. Perhaps I can live vicariously through you?
What are Hot Springs?
Hot springs are formed when water, heated deep underground, bubbles up to form pools on the earth’s surface. Many of these pools are privately owned and have been turned into luxurious spas, swimming pools, and tourist traps. Plenty of others can be found on public land, and exist in their wild, primitive state. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know where my affinity lies…
Many secret hot springs can be found throughout the United States, but not all of them are perfect for bathing. When spring water comes in contact with magma in volcanic areas, hot springs may be hot enough to boil. These pools are obviously not safe for bathing. Most wild hot springs are found in the western half of the United States, much to my dismay.
What Makes a Perfectly Inviting Hot Spring Pool?
I’m sure the characteristics will be different for everyone, but just so we’re on the same page, I’ll tell you what we look for:
- Seclusion. We’ve been to several hot springs resorts and they’re fun, but not exactly relaxing. We look for secret hot springs off the beaten path.
- Easy to get to. The farther you have to walk, the more secluded you’ll find yourself. Sounds awesome, but we tend to visit hot springs that are less than two miles from the trailhead, mainly because we just can’t wait to get there.
- Hot, but not too hot. What’s the perfect temperature for bathing outside when the snow is flying? I’d say that 104℉ to 110℉ degrees is just about perfect, but we’ll take what we can get. Waters this warm will raise your core body temperature and aren’t suitable for pregnant women.
- Clean. The sad truth is that even secret hot springs have been loved to death. Soaking among trash is no fun, even if the water is perfect. Please respect your wild lands and practice Leave No Trace principles.
Tips for Enjoying Secret USA Hot Springs in the Winter
- Dress in layers. There’s a good chance you that all sorts of temperature extremes will make appearances on this adventure. Be prepared.
- The hotter the water, the quicker the soak. It may be tempting to while away the afternoon in that sizzlin’ pool, but soaking for too long in really hot temperatures isn’t good for you, plus it will make you all drowsy and you won’t want to trek back to your car.
- Don’t forget extra water for drinking. It will be easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re hydrated if you’re surrounded by water. Don’t forget to drink up — before, during, and after your soak. And while we’re on the topic, I should mention that alcoholic beverages don’t mix very well with hot springs, or hiking for that matter.
- Skip the cotton and invest in a pack towel. This huge towel from REI can hold up to eight times its weight and wrings out almost completely dry. Plus it weighs in at only 6.4 ounces.
Secret Hot Springs in the United States
Okay, so they aren’t really a secret, but these hot springs are really quiet, not too far from the trailhead, and warm enough to relax in on a chilly winter day. The downside is that virtually all of the primitive hot springs in the United States are found west of the Mississippi River. Have I mentioned that yet? If you live in Vermont, like me, or anywhere in the eastern half of the country, you really have to plan ahead. Secret hot springs road trip anyone? Here are the best wild hot springs across the United States – for total winter bliss.
Spence Hot Springs – Jemez Canyon, New Mexico
Located in the Santa Fe National Forest, an easy hike leads to Spence Hot Springs, with spectacular views and 100℉ thermal waters. These hot springs are a popular destination on weekends, especially in the summer. Since you’ve got winter on your side, you shouldn’t have a problem with crowds. Make your trek in the early morning and you’re practically guaranteed solitude. The Spence Hot Spring pool is pretty small, with room for five to ten people. For more information, check out the Santa Fe National Forest website.
Where it Stay: Your best bet is to camp in the Santa Fe National Forest near the springs. There are a few campgrounds near Spence Hot Springs, including Vista Linda Campground, which is very clean, only $10 per night, and suitable for large RVs. The closest town is Jemez Springs, NM, where you’ll find sparse lodging opportunities. The nearest hotel is the Comfort Inn, 23 miles away in Los Alamos.
Keough Hot Spring – Eastern Sierras – Bishop, California
The coolest part about Keough Hot Springs is that you can have a pretty laid-back resort experience for a fee or you can experience the primitive tubs for free. Normally I wouldn’t even mention the Keough Hot Springs Resort, but it’s pretty awesome for a commercial facility. They maintain several outdoor pools, a campground, and a couple of tent cabins and “modular retreats,” otherwise known as mobile homes. The place is pretty quiet in the winter, and it caters to families so it’s really clean and quiet.
Now for a walk on the wild side. Just below the Keough Hot Springs Resort are a few rustic soaking pools. They’re right off the road, so little or no hiking is required. These pools overlook the high desert and are mostly clean and uncrowded, especially in the winter. Nudity is common among soakers, but people seem to be really respectful of this special place. To get there, take Keough Hot Springs Road and head toward the resort, then turn right on the second dirt road. After you cross the stream, the hot springs will be on your left. No camping at the springs, but there are lots of camping nearby in the national forest.
Where to stay: You can certainly stay right on site at Keough’s Hot Springs, which offers private rooms and campsites. Nearby Bishop has many hotels available, including hostels, roadside motels, and luxurious resorts. The closest camping is in the Big Pine Area of Inyo National Forest, but many of these are closed in the winter.
Deer Creek (Bigelow) Hot Springs – Central Cascades, Oregon
Deer Creek Hot Springs is a little pool that sits right next to the McKenzie River in the Central Cascades of Oregon. With room for just four people, it’s imperative that you hit this one up in the early or late hours of the day. It closes after sunset to keep things from getting rowdy. The pool is a lovely 103℉ in the summer months. In the winter, it can be much colder because it mixes with the nearby river water. For more information and directions to these luscious hot springs check out the Oregon Discovery.
Where to stay: You will find more camping opportunities than lodging near Bigelow Hot Hot Springs, with many private and national forest campgrounds nearby. For lodging, we recommend the Horse Creek Lodge & Outfitters, which has nice cabins for rent with full kitchens, and Wi-Fi.
Bonneville Hot Springs, Boise National Forest, Lowman, Idaho
Idaho is one huge mecca of geothermal activity, with more than 130 hot springs to choose from for your indulgence. If you’re planning the ultimate hot springs road trip, Idaho is the place to be, but if you can only choose one pool, choose Bonneville Hot Springs.
Bonneville Hot Springs can be found at the end of an easy ¼ mile hike. You may need snowshoes, but that just makes it more fun. There are several pools here for soaking, and even a soak shack with a bathtub and piped-in water. There’s a great little campground open in the spring through fall, but visiting when the campground is open makes for more crowded soaking. Head out in January and you’ll be rewarded with sandy-bottomed pools all to yourself. For directions to Bonneville Hot Springs, head over the the Boise National Forest website.
Where to stay: Campgrounds will be closed around Bonneville Hot Springs during the winter months. The town of Lowman is about 19 miles away, and there are a few lodging opportunities available year-round. The Sourdough Lodge is located along the scenic Idaho highway 21 and has a small restaurant on site.
Ready to take the plunge? I want to hear all about your favorite United States hot spring experiences. I’ll be totally jealous of course, but it will just light the fire for more adventures!
Need some more USA hot springs inspiration? Check out these books (click on the link for more info):
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