There are two kinds of people: those who enjoy soaking in their own and others’ grime in hot tubs, and those who don’t. I love a hot shower, but baths – chlorinated or bubbled or otherwise – just aren’t my thing. But give me a hike, a set of hand-scrawled instructions, and an outdoor puddle that smells faintly of sulfur, and I’ll happily soak for hours.
The Northwest is loaded with beautiful, non-commercial hot springs. Jerry Johnson Hot Springs, right off Highway 12 in North-Central Idaho, spoils first-time soakers with its easy accessibility and plethora of variable-temperature pools. Across the highway and just down the road, Weir Creek Hot Springs offers a more intimate setting for those willing to hike the ¾ mile of mildly rugged trail.
Searching for hot springs in farther locations, we traveled both southeast and southwest and found a few hot springs in Central Idaho and Central Oregon that met most of our requirements: secluded soaks at the end of a nice walk in a natural environment. Several or all of these could be turned into stops along your own hot springs road trip.
McCredie Hot Springs was the least remote of our discoveries, right off Highway 58 in the Willamette National Forest, closer to Eugene than Bend. There are soaking pools on both sides of the roadside creek, but the south-side springs are bigger and hotter. The fellow soaker who was apparently in the midst of a vision quest (you encounter a lot of this sort of thing at natural hot springs) added a lot of interest and information about the area. There are two large main pools, one hot and the other hotter, each about three feet deep and 15 feet in diameter. The hotter pool also features mud that is rumored to be a deep cleanser. At the very least, it brings out the primal in some visitors.
Wall Creek Meditation Pool is about 10 miles north of Oakridge, Oregon, off a couple of logging roads. Everything about the area is soft: the packed dirt and needle path, the ferns and giant trees on the walk in, the gurgle of Wall Creek all along the 1/3-mile trail. The fun of natural hot springs is largely the anticipation of what you’ll find around the bend: Will it be a knee-deep puddle of stagnant slime? Or will it be a lush Garden of Eden? The faint sulfur smell alerted us that we were close, and we came around the bend to a large pool and series of smaller ones that were the perfect temperature – we guessed upper 90s. The slightly silty largest pool is about three feet at its deepest, and about 12 feet in diameter.
But it was farther east at Goldbug Hot Springs where we found our Garden of Eden, 20 miles south of Salmon, Idaho. It’s also where the hike made us earn the soak: The trail is 1.85 miles up a high-desert canyon, with a steady incline and 1,000-foot elevation gain. You know you’re getting close to the pools, not because of any sulfur smell, but because of the rising steam that becomes more visible as you approach, especially if you visit in the fall or winter. After the steepest and rockiest pitch, you round the bend and suddenly encounter a whole series of pools and waterfalls of various temperatures, heights and depths. Elsewhere, natural hot springs can feature their share of slime, but the hot-tub-sized pools at Goldbug have smooth or clean gravel bottoms. Once you’ve settled down into one of them, there’s nothing to look at but the sweeping canyon below.
Natural Hot Springs Cautions
Non-commercial hot springs tend to attract colorful types who never met a “clothing optional” sign they didn’t take to heart. (Our motel host in Salmon warned us about “those dirty hippies,” and we knew we were in the right place.) So go prepared to encounter and celebrate nature (flora, fauna, and anthro) as you soak in its hot tubs. //