The Love and Madness of Hot Springs in the West
Both the world-weary and stoked-on-life congregate at these wild outposts—all seeking the same euphoric joy, communality, and escapism
The East Coast may have many things—Pat’s cheesesteaks, Lady Liberty, the Appalachian Trail—but one thing it mostly lacks are hot springs, which is unfortunate, worthy of pity even, because lounging in a natural spring in your birthday suit, in the middle of the wilderness, in subzero temperatures, is one of life’s finest and most surprising joys.
The fact that clean, perfectly warm water slithers its way up from the dark morass of lava, crust, and bedrock thousands of feet below and into the western daylight is nothing short of miraculous. Hence the belief that such waters have healing properties. And they do, but not in the ways you might think.
Many studies have heralded the mental health benefits of submerging yourself in cold water, which scientists say creates a defense response that releases the stress hormone cortisol from the body and pumps endorphins, the happy hormone, to the brain. I believe the inverse is just as effective (and much more pleasant)—that warm water sprouting from the bowels of the earth and slicking every millimeter of your body accelerates the feeling of being alive, a feeling, no doubt, resulting from dilated blood vessels, increased blood flow, and the benefit this “flush” has on our nervous system and other systems of the body.
To hot springs we pilgrimage for a lot of reasons. A first date. A post-hike soak. To stargaze. Or to people-watch, because hot springs attract a certain breed of character. Two weeks ago, at a popular local pool near my hometown of Carbondale, Colorado, 30 feet off a busy road and in plain sight was a man buck naked, inverted in a headstand, his legs spread in a yoga pose. What were the responses of most folks? “Well, of course.” “Good for him.” “Brave soul.”
On road trips, a four-hour detour is nothing if it means visiting a good spring. If a road trip is an endurance event marked by open skies, marathon drives up mountain passes, and long stretches of deserted highways with screaming kids in the back seat, hot springs are the aid stations. They personalize the land and act as ecological memories we can take with us. Of each one I’ve been to, I remember the shape of the pools, the color of the water, the smell of the sulfur, the wet moss growing on the surrounding stones, and, of course, the people.
Hot springs are equal parts cultural and natural phenomenons of the western landscape and, as such, we need to appreciate and protect their fragile existence.
Growing up in Baltimore, I was unaware—dare I say ignorant—of the phenomenon of the hot spring. There are very few back east and even fewer in the Midwest. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has five natural hot springs registered in Arkansas, two in South Dakota, a sprinkling of some on the border of West Virginia and Virginia, and only two farther north. Georgia has several, but they are more warm springs, with the hottest just 88 degrees.
The vast majority are in the West. They surface at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains and bubble up all the way to California’s Golden Coast. Hot springs materialize for a variety of reasons, but in general, the youthfulness of the Rockies is the cause, with lingering heat and geothermal activity just below the surface. They often appear in the most unpredictable places, forming in isolated river bends, gurgling out of talus fields in the alpine wilderness, and filling up thin canyons. Unlike those in other parts of the country, they attract a dedicated mix of hot-water seekers, from your typical outdoorspeople to spiritual earth warriors and rubber-tramp drifters. Back east, springs are viewed, and treated, more like outdoor hot tubs than pilgrimage sites.
In Colorado, most hot springs are fenced in and require an admission fee, which is increasingly the case across the West. This is unfortunate, given that a huge chunk of the region is owned and managed by the federal government. Across the 11 western states—Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and everything else toward the sunset—47 percent of the land is public; in the remaining 39 states, just 4 percent is. As such, the commercialization of land and the hot springs that inhabit it have been part of the modern-day story of the West. The biggest proponents of privatization have been BLM and other public-land agencies.
Native Americans have been visiting hot springs for 10,000 years. The Sleeping Child Hot Springs, in west-central Montana, were discovered by the Nez Perce in 1877, when Chief Joseph and his people stumbled upon them while fleeing from American soldiers. With the threat of battle imminent, some members of the tribe left their infants by the pools to keep them warm and safe from the clash, which is exactly what the springs did. I imagine that finding the springs at that exact moment must have felt an act of fate. Today a 25,000-square-foot vacation rental that accommodates up to 20 people and features an elevator presides over the sacred springs.
The best springs are still wild, though technology is making them far less so. Locals in mountain towns do their best to keep their pools off Tripadvisor and top-ten travel listicles. The oft-debated question—Is Instagram ruining wild places?—comes to a head at hot springs. The answer is: yes, sometimes. The thousands of #natureporn images clogging our feeds are making them must-visit destinations, which, of course, I understand. But the small patches of wild where springs often reside just can’t handle 100-plus visitors a day. Especially when that level of traffic results in left-behind trash, a trampled forest, untethered dogs, and illegal campsites.
At the Conundrum Hot Springs, tucked high in Colorado’s Elk Mountains at an altitude of 12,000 feet, a permit system was activated in 2018 for the first time in the site’s history. According to the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, the 100-degree pool, which measures roughly 20 by 20 feet, was seeing upward of 200 to 300 campers a night in peak season prior to 2018. A High Country News story from 2017 reported that visitation increased nearly fourfold from 2006 to 2015. Today you have to go online and vie for a permit months in advance to camp there—and even then most don’t get lucky. Those who do are frequently met with surroundings dirtied by the usual discarded items, left there by visitors who don’t view themselves as stewards of a wild thing but passers-through going for quick-hit recreation. Maybe some mistake a hot spring’s elusive qualities—their well-calibrated temperatures and perfectly shaped pools—for something more familiar, like a private hot tub.
There’s a series of hot springs I’ve been to a few times on the banks of the Colorado River, a three-mile hike from the highway. The pools fill up a narrow slot canyon, the kind you’d consider amazing even if it didn’t contain the springs. The trail starts out dry and barren, but the landscape changes considerably the more you descend into the river basin. Green emerges, and the coolness of the mighty river washes across your face. The pools at the source of the springs are extremely hot, around 110 degrees or more, but as water flows down the constrictions, filling up other depressions, those cool considerably, to 98 degrees or so. Salt to taste, as they say, regarding optimal warmth. I like the third pool—not painful, not lukewarm coffee.
On my first visit, a few friends and I stumbled onto a ménage à trois in the second pool, with what I can only assume were professionals in the local… entertainment business, judging by the stagecraft and choreography on display. The candles flickering light onto the pool’s natural rock shelves gave the impression we had entered a vampire’s love nest. It was a calm night, the air still and mystic, the stars braggadocious. We headed to another pool to give them some privacy.
Years later I returned to the same place. Visiting the springs again was a must. My wife, Christy, and I botched the approach and hiked clear to the Colorado River without finding a thing. We skinny-dipped instead. When I’d visited that first time, there wasn’t an official trailhead with placards and the whole shebang. This trip, however, what was once a little dirt pullout had become a full-fledged parking lot, and because I was looking for a dirt road, I drove right past it. There was now a sign cautioning that deadly bacterium had been found in the pools, and that you shouldn’t submerge your head in the water, possibly a sign of the hot spring fighting back against its overuse.
Our second attempt, the following day, was a success. We arrived at dusk, wine and chocolate in hand, and as the red-gray shadows turned black, we floated in perfect animal pleasure. The desert stars filled the slit of the canyon’s berth as we soaked. We cooled our bodies by lying half in, half out, our skin marinating in both the netherworld and the heavens. We whispered to one another and squeezed the eroded sand with our toes. Slowly, the other soakers packed up and returned to their cars, and we had the place to ourselves.
There comes a point in every dip when I wonder how places like this exist, and imagine the water making its way to where I sit, surrounded by the heat of the earth.
At hot springs, a certain folk gather.
In the pre-permit days of Conundrum Hot Springs, there squatted an old man called the Lion. Before restrictions were placed on the site, he used to spend the summer camping up there and strutting around in his leathery birthday suit, as local as the surrounding ponderosa pines. He would survive on food donations from backpackers returning to civilization. He could talk for an hour about black holes and karmic-infused galactic energy, and if you gave him your email address, you’d receive thousand-word ruminations (without paragraph or line breaks) about synergistic crystals and transcendent herbs and how to protect the springs.
What came first for the Lion, the madness or the love of the hot springs?
Warm pools in the wilderness are where truth and physicality intersect, a hadron collider of curiosities, normality, intrigue, voyeurism, exhibitionism, and can’t-help-its. Big and round fleshy bodies, the thin, the old, the tattooed, the fit, the first-time nudies, and the prudes. Yuppies. Hippies. Good-naked and bad-naked, as Seinfeld taught us.
Hot springs attract those with a certain mentality, because they are, in essence, serving as a communal bath with strangers. These are the people, I imagine, who hold sniffly babies on planes for distraught parents and drop their food on the floor and don’t mind. The only person I know who hates hot springs—because of their communal-bath vibe—is also one of the least humane people I know. Just sayin’.
And yet despite this common spirit, not even an I-25 truck stop outside Jersey can compete with the sheer variety. The guy watching all the guys watching his pretty girlfriend and wondering if she is going to take her top off. The quiet guy in his late sixties with dark sunglasses. Those who are there to relax. The woman reading her book and drinking from her Nalgene. Downright creeps. The tattooed hippies who drop their towels ASAP and strut around. The couples who sit in the dark corner. It’s a delightful mix of bikers, vagabonds, mountain folk, old-timers, hipsters, and road-trippers.
To get to Conundrum, you hike nine miles through a thin valley studded with lodgepoles and ponderosas and a stream nosing about. You encounter, and have to navigate, large swatches of fallen aspen trees piled five feet deep, their demise due to big winters that caused avalanches to roar down from above. The trail climbs through douglas firs and wildflowers, beaver ponds and alpine swamps. After a final steep section, it opens up to a broad meadow flanked on all sides by 12,000-foot peaks, their slopes a mix of crumbling brown and gray rock and sharp granite talus that has replaced trees and shrubs.
At this point, the wind usually picks up. Clouds gather. It gets chilly. You’re far from the car, well out of cell range. You think, Damn, I’m kinda out here.
Before you see it, you smell it. Sulfur. Your skin registers a slight uptick in moisture, perhaps temperature as well. Over the trail trickles a stream of warm water; the rocks below boast new forms of life—moss, algae—that wouldn’t be there without the presence of a hot spring. You arrive, and there, patiently waiting, is a natural pool of warm water. You can’t help but think, How is this possible? You get in, and the earth gives you a hug.
Part of what draws us to hot springs is simply their incongruity. You don’t expect them. They don’t seem to belong within the surrounding landscape. There’s a strange sensation that comes from finding something both alien and familiar at the same time. Familiar because they’re bubbling there, above ground, seemingly just for us; alien because it’s as if the earth has shown its cards by accident.
But the fact that hot springs are born from rugged, inhospitable darkness and yet arrive so sweet should not be seen as mere happenstance. In his 2001 book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that the sweetness of apples is not a fluke. The apples are courting animals and humans with their deliciousness—when we pick them, their seeds are spread, ensuring the species’ survival. There is an intelligence to apples.
Perhaps in the same way, the earth is courting us through its hot springs. The ground gives birth, and our bodies listen. Day and night the pools bubble, providing persistent affirmation. We would do well to treat them tenderly.
Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.