The first rule of hot springs is that, duh, the water can be hot. I knew this, yet my feet are lit with spectacular pain as I stand in the shallows of Austin Hot Springs in Central Oregon. Seconds earlier I’d been happily reclining in water that soothed the aches from my muscles, bobbing me to the surface above barely slimy river rocks. But an idle step close to shore put my feet in screamingly hot water and I stood immobile and dumbfounded. It hurt.
This stretch of Central Oregon is dotted with springs warmed by geothermal heat that then, thanks to geologic faults, shoot to the surface before it cools. Minerals like silica and sulfate also catch a ride, unscientifically believed to have restorative powers, and hardly any springs here emit a choking sulfur smell.
Austin Hot Springs is one of the least-established hot spots in the area, boasting no official recognition or parking lot, just a few cars parked in a ditch between the highway and the Clackamas River. There are no tubs where the hot water bubbles to the riverbank; river rocks have been halfheartedly piled to keep the hot water from dispersing into the cold current. If pioneers on the Oregon Trail stumbled upon this spring, they probably soaked (and suffered) the exact same way.
The second rule of hot springs is that yes, people get naked. Chalk it up to the free-love vibe of the hot springs scene, exemplified by Breitenbush Hot Springs, both posh and unapologetically hippie. At the resort’s seven pools, bathing suits are allowed but rare for soakers, from infants to the elderly. The unspoken guidelines, here and everywhere, are that you don’t stare and you don clothes for all activities that aren’t soaking.
The central Breitenbush lodge has the steep roof and shingled walls of a national park inn, but it holds a dining room dishing vegetarian fare and a library with shelves marked “Dreams” and “Imbalance, Healing.” Cabins fill for group retreats and workshops centered on yoga, shamanic cosmology, or tantric massage. Individuals can rent them or call ahead to reserve a day pass, drawn by the thick cloud of serenity that hangs over Buddhist prayer flags and the lawn littered with communal hula hoops. Squint your eyes and it’s 1969 up in this joint; just don’t squint too much in the tubs, where you’ll look like a creeper.
The third rule is that unlike the sleazy shenanigans you associate with, say, the human soup of a hotel hot tub, nature is primary in hot springs. It’s more than a mile’s hike to Bagby Hot Springs, 65 miles southeast of Portland, on a neat gravel path embraced by thick primordial forest. Here in the mossy forest compound, PVC-pipe plumbing to shared soaking tubs is rudimentary at best and broken at worst. But in another bathhouse, hand-hollowed cedar-log tubs with wooden drain stoppers and spigots are bath fixtures as imagined by Sasquatch.
There’s a similar trek out to Terwilliger Hot Springs about three hours south of Bagby, where hot water cascades through a series of four rock pools. Despite the hike in, it’s known for its raucous party scene—because nature also includes human nature.
A final rule for hot springs: Not every one has to be a fairyland. Some are spendy (Breitenbush’s sliding scale tops out at $30 for a day pass) and some are not ($5 for Bagby, no charge for the broiling at Austin). But each must be judged on its own merits, like the decidedly unhip Belknap Hot Springs Resort south of Detroit, Oregon, with its RV camping and required clothing. But it’s the only area springs that boasts hotel rooms, a snack bar, and deck chairs; civilization has its place.
But back to the first rule. A few seconds of Austin’s scalding water left my feet feeling like they’d suffered bad equatorial sunburn. The rusty, overgrown signs nearby aren’t kidding: “Some temperatures near boiling (200°).” Such heat is rare at other spots with admission prices and monitoring, but a good guideline: Whenever you start to identify with or resemble lobsters in a cook pot—for heaven’s sakes, get out of the water.