22 Mar Soaking the Day Away
Oregon hot springs offer respite and relaxation.
From dramatic coastline and ancient rainforests, to fertile farmland to the commanding waterfall-laden Cascade Mountains, to arid juniper-covered prairies and canyonlands, Oregon’s dramatic landscape is home to varied and seemingly endless natural splendor. One way to experience this wonder in an interactive, tangible way is through our state’s hot springs. The opportunity to sit, relax and have your stress washed away and your soul replenished in one of these inspiring natural settings is special—and a quintessentially Oregon experience.
Hot springs, much like waterfalls, aren’t found just anywhere. But like cascades, hot springs can be a byproduct of a region rich with geothermal or volcanic activity. Essentially, hot springs occur when water makes its way deep enough into cracks and fissures to get heated by the Earth’s hotter inner temperatures. The amount of heat and pressure the water encounters will determine how hot and how quickly it returns to the surface. Because we live in a land with a ton of geothermal activity, we have our fair share of these anomalies. They dot the Oregon landscape: the state is home to roughly 50 developed—and countless undeveloped—springs.
Hot springs can be unimproved, located on the banks of lakes or rivers, requiring would-be soakers to divert just the right amount of freshwater for temperature control into impromptu rock spas. A number of these are known only to locals—generational secrets, closely guarded by families or groups of friends. Some are semi-improved, offering a bit of structural support or even partial shelter. Others are downright luxurious—places where the springs have been diverted into stone pools or wood tubs with a perfect soaking temperature, sheltered from the elements and on the grounds of resorts.
Similarly, there is no typical hot springs enthusiast. It’s an eclectic group, to be sure, including avid hikers and outdoor lovers, nudists, homeopaths, hippies, spiritualists, and nature nuts of all ages. Most everybody loves a good soak. Oregon offers prime examples of hot springs in settings that range from desert to deep forest.
Ancient artesian hot mineral springs. How’s that sound? To be considered a mineral springs, the water must contain a reading of 400 parts/million of total dissolved solids, such as sulphur—which gives some hot springs their characteristic smell. All you really need to know is that mineral hot springs espouse the added benefits of increased blood circulation, reduced stress-pain relief and better skin, all a result of the minerals and the hot water. Summer Lake Hot Springs offers these benefits along with some intriguing history.
Situated in the Great Basin region, the area that Summer Lake hot springs occupies carries some historical and cultural gravitas. Native tribes first inhabited this spot some 14,000 years ago, and there are still some petroglyphs in the surrounding area that tell the story. Indigenous tribes referred to the waters as “Medicine Springs,” and this was a place of peace between tribes. The timber-frame corrugated-metal structure that is home to the bathhouse was constructed in 1928, and still provides visitors shelter over a concrete pool. Outside, you’ll find a trio of stone soaking pools.
From Bend – Drive 32 miles south on Highway 97. Turn left on Highway 31 and continue for 92 miles. Summer Lake Hot Springs is on the left side of the road at mile marker 92.
Located in the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge, the Hart Mountain hot springs are a little more on the rustic side of the street. According to legend, the semi-improved hot springs got a little push towards semi-improved status when a local rancher inserted a stick of dynamite into the earth where he noticed water bubbling up. Later on, a concrete pool top and stone walls were added as a partial wind block.
The surrounding area is quite scenic, sporting unimpeded views of the rolling, grassy hills of Hart Mountain. The Refuge also serves as home to a number of prime hiking trails, camping locations and an additional unimproved hot spring near by, perfectly suitable for soaking if you don’t mind a little mud. Both springs are technically open year round, though winter travel can be dicey.
From Bend – Drive to Hart Mountain Hot Springs Campground. Make a slight right onto Hot Springs Campground Road. Drive 2.4 miles and follow a turnout on the right to the hot springs.
As close to unimproved as you’re going to get without stumbling upon a well kept secret, the hot springs on the eastern shore of Paulina Lake fall into the realm of mystery. Subject to seasonality, water levels and impromptu improvements made by those that visited the springs before you, the Paulina Lake hot springs are similar to the proverbial Forrest Gump box of chocolates. If you bring a shovel you can do the digging and designing yourself. That being stated, there are established soaking pools on the beach that may or may not require you to add cold water from the lake.
Located within the Newberry National Volcanic Monument, Paulina Lake has all the additional recreational trappings you could hope for. Think fishing, boating, camping and the truly unique Big Obsidian Flow, with the hot springs at Paulina Lake as the cherry on top of a crazy good Central Oregon outdoors sundae.
From Bend – Take 97 south and make a left onto Paulina Lake Road and drive to the Paulina Lake Campground. The springs are on the far shore, 2.75 miles along the Paulina Lake-Shore Loop Trail.
If you think you would prefer your hot springs experience in more luxurious environs, a trip to Breitenbush might be in order. Technically part of a conference center, Breitenbush boasts a full compliment of lodging options, spa treatments and well-being programs. These are springs with weekend getaway or vacation potential written all over them.
The hot springs themselves come in a few different offerings that include meadow pools lined with river rocks and hot tubs that bubble with varying temperatures. Reservations are required and rates depend on a number of factors, so call or give their website a thorough once over before you go.
From Bend – Take 97 North to 20 West. Take 20 West to 22 West, and make a right on Breitenbush Road to the hot springs.
The mineral hot springs at the Belknap Lodge and Gardens are yet another very much improved affair. The lower and upper pools of Belknap are, in fact, pools: large, concrete swimming pools filled with hot mineral water diverted from a nearby source.
Located on the McKenzie River, Belknap is a hot springs that decided to bubble up in a prime location for outdoor lovers. The lodge offers everything from tent camping to private cabins. They are open year round, and, just like Breitenbush, reservations are required, though day-soakers can drop in.
From Bend – Take 97 North to 20 West. Take 20 West to 126 East and make a right on Belknap Springs Road.
Set into rocky cliffs high above the Umpqua River, the Umpqua Hot Springs are a collection of improved pools with a view. Another clothing-optional affair, the handful of soaking pools here offer little in the way of privacy, and there is a lot going on in the general vicinity. A trailhead and campground sit just around the corner. And many of the area’s headlining waterfalls, including Toketee, are just a couple of miles away.
There will potentially be a lot of people in the area…but with very good reason. This place is magic. Across the river from the hot springs is Columnar Falls, an ethereal cascade comprised of a spring that emerges at the top of a columnar basalt wall. The water flows 25 feet down the rock face, hits the ground, and then vanishes back into the earth from whence it came!
From Bend – Take 97 South to 138 West. From 138 West turn right onto Toketee-Rigdon Road. Continue onto N Umpqua Road. Turn right onto FR 3401 and drive to hot springs trailhead.
Similar to a number of other natural resources that we value here, hot springs are something that many folks living elsewhere have only dreamt of enjoying. But you live in Oregon. You’re accustomed to living your dreams. Hot springs are a privilege that every red-blooded resident of the Beaver State should have some level of understanding or appreciation for. If you’ve never been to one, you owe it to yourself to do a little exploring and find out what you’ve been missing.