By Laura Newcomer on August 12, 2021 in Travel
What better way to relax and loosen tight muscles during a road trip than to dip into a pool of warm, mineral-rich water heated by the earth’s geothermic processes?
Approximately half of U.S. states boast thermal springs, and they’re especially common in Western states. Many hot springs remain undeveloped. These hidden pools offer an immersive, outdoorsy experience for adventure seekers and nature lovers.
Before you set out for a soak, let's look at the etiquette for visiting hot springs — especially free pools on public land. Then, we'll highlight some of the best undeveloped hot springs in the U.S. so you can plan your trip accordingly!
Tips for Visiting Thermal Pools
Hot springs obtain their signature hot temperatures from geothermal heat, or heat that arises from within the earth. This heat raises the temperature of rocks inside the earth. When water comes into contact with these rocks, it heats up. If this water circulates to the surface of the earth and into a natural or human-made pool, then it creates a delightful spot for soaking.
Hot springs can be developed, meaning water collects in human-made containers such as tubs or pools, or undeveloped, meaning it collects in natural catchments such as rocks. In either case, thermal pools offer benefits including stress relief, increased circulation, relief from aches and pains, and a possible detoxifying effect. These benefits vary depending on the mineral and chemical composition of the specific spring in question.
Thermal pools and their surrounding areas are sensitive ecosystems. Many hot springs exist on public land, which requires particular etiquette. Before you venture to any hot spring, take note of these important tips.
- Do your research
As you set your sights on a hot spring, research its history, location, rules, and site-specific etiquette. Many thermal pools are culturally significant to Indigenous communities, so it’s important to be respectful. You can only access some hot springs at certain times of the year, so you’ll need to time your trip accordingly. Some hot springs are clothing-optional, while others are more family-friendly. Some sites charge fees and require reservations, while others are free to use and operate on a first-come, first-served basis. By doing your research ahead of time, you'll be less likely to encounter unpleasant surprises.
- Plan for the weather
The weather can affect every aspect of a hot springs adventure, from getting there to the actual soak. Some access roads close during rain or snow, and some locales don’t maintain roads during the winter. Many hot springs necessitate a hike in, and you don't want to get caught in a storm when you're far from the car — at least not without proper gear! Plan for the weather to help ensure you have a safe, enjoyable experience.
- Make (and follow) a packing list
Plan a packing list for your hot springs outing so you don’t forget any essentials.
- Bring a map and compass to remote areas
As mentioned, bring along a map and compass whenever you set out for a remote hot spring. Backcountry conditions can change rapidly, and it's easy to get lost. Plus, many thermal pools don't have cell phone service. A map and compass will help you navigate your way back to safety. Make sure you know how to use these tools before you set out on the trail!
- Stay on public lands
Many public lands are adjacent to private property, and in some cases private property may be nestled into public lands. Stay on the trail and respect private as well as public land. For instance, don’t pick flowers, and if you pass through any gates on your way to the springs, close them behind you.
- Follow parking guidelines
Sure, it stinks to pull up to a trailhead to discover the lot is full. Nevertheless, follow the parking guidelines. Don't park on roads (unless it's allowed), and don't park on the side of the road because you may damage sensitive flora. By adhering to parking guidelines, you'll ensure the trailhead remains open so you (and others!) can come back another time. Once you're parked appropriately, take valuables with you, and lock your car to protect against theft.
- Check the water's temperature
Remember that thermometer we recommended earlier? Here's where it comes in handy. As their name implies, some hot springs get seriously hot. Before taking a plunge, use a thermometer to make sure the temperature is safe for your body. It should not exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Once you've determined that the water is safe, submerge yourself gradually so your body can acclimate. Take a break from soaking every 10 to 15 minutes to make sure you don't overheat.
- Keep it quiet
Hot springs are a source of relaxation for many people. Be considerate and keep your volume down, so other visitors can obtain the relaxation they crave. Staying quiet also respects nearby wildlife, who can be stressed by shouting or loud music.
- Don't bring soap or shampoo
Hot springs are sensitive ecosystems made of a delicate balance of minerals and naturally occurring chemicals. Shampoo, soaps, and other body products can throw off the balance and damage these systems. Avoid using shampoo and soap in pools, and limit the products on your body when you arrive for a soak. On a related note, don't pee in the pools! Do your business several hundred feet from the springs so you don't contaminate them.
- Pack out everything you bring in
The cardinal rule of any outdoor adventure? Leave the place better than you found it. Don't pack any glass containers since it's easy for them to break and cause a safety hazard for wildlife and other visitors. If you camp near the springs, set up camp at least 500 feet away so your bodily waste doesn't contaminate the pools. Follow Leave No Trace principles, pack out all your trash and belongings (so you don't feed leftovers to wildlife), and consider picking up any trash that you find along the trail. When we chip in to preserve natural spaces, we make these places better for wildlife as well as current and future visitors.
Natural Hot Springs to Visit
Looking to soothe achy muscles or wander off the beaten path during your road trip? Check out any of these spectacular hot springs, which offer rejuvenating soaks and stunning views to weary travelers of all stripes.
- Arizona Hot Springs, Arizona
Many people know Arizona for the Grand Canyon and popular cities such as Phoenix and Sedona. Fewer people realize Arizona is home to numerous hot springs. One of the best is Arizona Hot Springs, located in Lake Mead National Recreation Area on Arizona's border with Nevada. The spring originates from a slot canyon and fills several stone pools not far from the river. You can access these pools via a challenging loop trail. The area is closed in summer due to dangerously high temperatures, so it's best to visit from October through February.
- Bagby Hot Springs, Oregon
Oregon’s most popular hot spring, Bagby Hot Springs is in the beautiful Mount Hood National Forest. To access the springs, savor the 1.5-mile stroll beneath old-growth trees. Once you've arrived, you can choose from three soaking areas. A Private Deck offers five private rooms for peaceful soaking. The Public Deck offers three hollowed-out log tubs. Located a short distance away from the other two decks, the Upper Deck fits approximately eight people. Camping is available at the trailhead or a quarter-mile hike from the pools. Note that no one maintains the road during the winter, so it may be unpassable.
- Boiling River, Montana
Yellowstone National Park is full of many wonders, including a small geothermal river appropriately dubbed Boiling River. This small river meets up with the Gardner River inside the park, which creates a natural mixture of hot and cool water contained within small stone pools. You can access the soaking area via a mellow, half-mile hike along the picturesque Gardner River. It’s generally open year-round except during springtime flooding. Be aware that Gardner River’s current can be swift and use caution when near the water.
- Hart Mountain Hot Springs, Oregon
Determined travelers will find the effort that it takes to reach Hart Mountain Hot Springs well worth it. Located in central Oregon and a multi-hour drive from any major city, these hot springs nestle into a high desert plateau in the Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge. The main developed rock-and-concrete pool fits approximately six people, and it hovers between 100 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit. A short walk away, a second undeveloped soaking pool is a bit warmer and offers even better views. Note that access may be impossible in winter, and the summer months bring tons of mosquitos. Spring or fall are probably the best times to visit.
- Olympic Hot Springs, Washington
Lush Olympic National Park is home to the natural pools of Olympic Hot Springs. Accessed via an approximately 2.5-mile hike in a wilderness area in the Elwha Valley, the pools are near the trail and slightly farther afield. Temps can range as high as 118 degrees, and the pools are not monitored or maintained — so soak at your own risk. After a long day of exploring the park, a hot soak could be just what the body ordered. The road to the Boulder Creek Trailhead is sometimes closed, so check road conditions before setting out.
- Spencer Hot Springs, Nevada
Panoramic views, pleasant water temperatures, and the occasional wild burro sighting await visitors to Nevada's Spencer Hot Springs year-round. Located in central Nevada, the natural-fed Spencer Hot Springs consists of four bathing spots on public land. Three of those spots are human made from metal cattle troughs; one of the three is cooler than the others and isn't always accessible. The fourth soaking area is more natural. The local area also boasts many hikes and historic sites. Camping is available on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Strawberry Park Hot Springs, Colorado
After a day of hiking or skiing in nearby Steamboat Springs, the Strawberry Park Hot Springs offer just what tired muscles need. Located in the beautiful Routt National Forest, these rejuvenating thermal pools offer a rustic setting, frequent wildlife sightings, and mountain views. Visitors can choose to hike in for the day or spend the night on-site in a tent, rustic cabin, or renovated train caboose. Note that children are not allowed after dark, and don't be shocked if you come upon nude bathers.
Hot springs are natural wonders you can find across the country. Warm, natural pools make for a fantastic stop during a road trip, as they can loosen stiff muscles, break up the monotony of a long drive, and introduce you to beautiful hikes, scenic views, and exciting wildlife sightings.
Before heading to any hot spring, familiarize yourself with Leave No Trace principles and other etiquette guidelines. Leave these pools even better than you found them so everyone can enjoy them for years to come.