Hike Through Old Growth Forests to Undeveloped "Club Mud"

Jun 17, 2011 | Updated Aug 17, 2011

Used to be if you wanted to soak in a natural hot springs, you either had to stumble onto one (not an impossibility, since there are 1,661 in the United States alone), figure out how to decipher geographical survey maps, or fight the crowds at the springs that had been commercially developed. Now, thanks to the internet and a spate of books overflowing with lists and directions to these little-known hot springs, it's quite doable to plan a whole hiking vacation around remote hot springs in wilderness areas. And if you're going to hike and soak, you might as well do it with a stand of the Pacific Northwest's old-growth trees cheering you on.

Not only do you get an invigorating hike, but after several hours on the trail, you can shed the boots, the pack, and maybe even the clothes and settle into an oh-so-relaxing gift straight from Mother Nature herself. No kids playing "Marco Polo," no teenyboppers comparing tan lines, no concession stands trying to sell you an all-beef patty. Hit it right and you'll have the primitive springs, the ancient trees, and the views all to yourself.

These natural, outdoor, noncommercial soaking pools are improvised, often kept "in working order" by volunteers who hike there periodically to make sure the wooden marker is still there or to pick up the empty beer bottles that some thoughtless soaker might have left. The springs are often creatively rigged to collect the flow of water and to maintain a proper temperature.

The bible for hot springs hiking trips in Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and British Columbia is Evie Litton's Hiking Hot Springs in the Pacific Northwest, which lists 140 undeveloped sites. Litton, who broke free from her job as a technical illustrator in 1983, traveled around in a camperized van to research this book, which has detailed maps, hiking descriptions, difficulty ratings, trail lengths, and information on access and restrictions.

In Washington, there are hot springs on the Olympic Peninsula, in the Cascade Mountains, and near the Columbia Gorge. Idaho has dozens and dozens of them. And in southeast Oregon on the Owyhee River is the most spectacular of all, a hundred-yard chasm in the desert spilling hot water into a stream and falling down into the Owyhee. Here are just a couple of hike-hot spring combos to get you started:

Bagby Hot Springs
. You'll follow a creek most of the way on this mile-and-a-half hike through old-growth Douglas fir and cedar, located in the Mount Hood National Forest, 70 miles southeast of Portland. The remote springs, although clearly marked on most maps of the Mount Hood Forest, has been improved by a volunteer group that calls itself the Friends of Bagby Hot Springs. There's an open air "bathhouse" with a round six-foot cedar tub and three log tubs made from hollowed-out cedar trees, as well as an enclosed private row with five "bathhouses," each with its own hollowed-out tree tub. All you do is remove the wooden plug and the tubs quickly fill. You can regulate the temperature by adding buckets of cool water. Although Native Americans used this springs for centuries, it was first "discovered" by Robert Bagby, a miner from Amity, Oregon, in 1881. To find the trailhead, take State Route 224 south from Estacada. You'll see a sign for Bagby, where you turn onto Forest Service Road 63. Take that road to Forest Road 70 and drive 6 miles to the trailhead parking lot. The hike getting to the springs, although relatively easy except in the springtime when the trail can get slippery and muddy, is one of the prettiest in northern Oregon, passing through rain forests, past waterfalls, and next to lots of moss-covered logs. Although the Friends of Bagby accepts donations in a collection box at the entrance, the springs are totally free. There are several Forest Service campgrounds nearby. Clackamas River Ranger District, 503-630-6861.

Olympic Hot Springs
. High above the Elhwa River Valley in Olympic National Park, this remote cluster of steaming springs and pools is sandwiched between a forest of fir and hemlock and the rushing rapids of Boulder Creek. There are seven places to soak, including one that's next to a small waterfall. Although the Northwest Native Americans had a legend about the springs being bitter hot tears of some battling schools of fish, it's actually geothermal water that bubbles up at around 105 degrees, perfect for soaking. The hike is about 2.5 miles, a beautiful, winding trek through a river canyon and bordered with breathtaking mountains and forests. In the early 1900s, Olympic Hot Springs was a resort, and it even had a swimming pool and little cabins. But weather and neglect and washouts closed the roads, and eventually it disappeared from maps and park rangers quit promoting it. There's nothing left of the old resort, but the springs continue to bubble out of the rocks. To get to the trailhead, take U.S. Highway 101 {east? west?} from Port Angeles about 10 miles to Elwha River Road. Turn left and follow the road for 9 miles until you can't drive any farther.

Stanley Hot Springs. East of Lewiston, Idaho, in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, this springs, a chain of hot pools, requires an 11-mile round-trip hike. Although the trail through islands of Douglas fir, pine, and cedar is well maintained, there is one point where you need to ford a river. You'll know you've reached the hot springs when 120-degree water steams out of a canyon bank, getting cooler as it flows into descending pools. Each pool is lined with logs, and the temperature can be fine-tuned by shifting rocks to admit more or less cold water to the mix. There are spacious campsites tucked into the nearby woods. One word of caution: The moose also find the springs inviting, and they get first choice of pools. The trailhead for the springs is the Wilderness Gateway Campground off U.S. Highway 12 (milepost 122). Go past Loops A and B to the Trail 211 parking area.