Deep in the green ridges of the Cascades, hidden on the vast plains of the high desert and steaming quietly in deep river canyons lie some of Oregon's jewels: Hot springs.
Luckily for Oregon soakers, the state sits on the Ring of Fire, the volcanic belt circling the Pacific Ocean that gave birth to Cascade peaks. Beneath the surface, superheated igneous rock and molten magma simmer. With the Northwest's abundant rainfall -- not to mention deep aquifers -- all it takes is a basalt fissure to release better-than-bath-water thermal flows into nature's hot tubs.
As the water rises, it collects minerals such as sulfur, which give some springs -- not all -- their distinctive smell.
Note Oregon hot springs' de facto rule: At many of these pools, nudity is the norm, but so is respect. Signs are posted at trailheads alerting new soakers to the bare essentials. At other times, the first bather to arrive that day sets the tone. It's probably best to bring a bathing suit, but your birthday suit may work as well.
Directions to top 10 hot springs
Like any soaker, I have my favorites. What follows is a list of the state's best natural hot springs, which have seen little or no development. All you need to enjoy them is plenty of water, a good map, clear roads and careful directions (see Page TX for directions).
One of Oregon's most popular and well-loved springs is this amazing bathhouse outside Estacada. Named for a miner who stumbled on the spring in 1881, the knoll on the Collowash River is the site of a Forest Service ranger cabin built in 1913. The cabin still stands today.
The original bathhouse burned in 1979, but volunteers helped rebuild. On a not-so-busy weekday, soakers can have their pick of two big plank tubs or one of many hollowed-out cedar logs. You have your choice between tubs on the deck overlooking the forest or private rooms.
Camping is not allowed in the Bagby area, and the bathhouse sees occasional overuse. But it's still worth the mile-and-a-half hike through rhododendrons, trilliums and bunchberry.
Known to most locals simply as Cougar and named for the reservoir on this fork of the McKenzie River, this may be Oregon's most famous undeveloped spring. A parking lot along Aufderheide Drive in the mountains beyond Springfield signals the springs, from which you can see a horsetail waterfall above Rider Creek.
The hike to the springs passes through a classic old-growth forest. Expect to pay $5 at the trailhead booth; Hoodoo Recreation uses the fees to monitor and clean the pools for the Willamette National Forest. And mind the rules: no alcohol allowed, and the springs are open dawn to dusk.
The cascading pools are fed by a steaming shower pouring from a cliffside cave. Water descends through pools and cools as it goes. Choose your temperature, but be careful on the wet rocks -- a slip can hurt. Watch, too, for the image of a cougar carved into a boulder.
At Three Forks, a warm waterfall feeds several pools on a cliff overlooking the Owyhee River.
The Owyhee Desert is by and large the most remote and lonely corner of Oregon. In the midst of this sagebrush-laden desert, the Owyhee River plunges into a deep canyon that is home to seasonal river rafters and several of the state's most secret springs.
Three Forks rests at end of a nearly 30-mile dirt road that can be treacherous in rain. With four-wheel drive and diligence, a soaker can make it to the bottom and follow an old military wagon road to a crossing of the Owyhee, which can be ankle deep by summer, to a hot spring that is actually a roaring creek and waterfall.
Warm water comes rushing down its own small gorge and pools chest-deep. When boating season drops off due to low water, use declines as quickly.
McCredie, named for Portland Judge Walter McCredie, has become a popular stopover for truck drivers on the edge of Oregon 58 near Willamette Pass.
Huddled on the shore of Salt Creek, McCredie hosts what is probably Oregon's single biggest pool, measuring at least 20 feet wide. Several other pools hide in the shade of the cottonwoods, a few of them on the far side of the creek beneath a stone wall -- all that remains of a resort that burned early in the last century.
These springs are among Oregon's hottest, sometimes soaring to 163 degrees. Be careful. They are day-use only, but if you're lucky you may see bats at twilight come down to take drinks on the wing.
Known officially as Toketee Hot Springs, for a Chinook word meaning "graceful, pretty," these springs are commonly known by the name of the tribe that used them for centuries. High on a bluff, the springs overlook the North Fork of the Umpqua River rushing below. The oldest pool is beneath a roof shelter for winter elk hunters.
A fire lookout named Carlos Neal chiseled the sheltered pool by hand in the early 1900s. Modern soakers have followed suit, carving a number of new pools down the bluff. Water from the springs fills each pool before cascading down to the next. The water is rich with iron and sodium, giving the ground its distinctive orange color.
With its proximity to Crater Lake National Park, Diamond Lake, and waterfalls up and down Oregon 138, Umpqua is in one of the Oregon Cascades' most scenic canyons. Campsites are available along the river. Though the bridge is out, follow a trail from the parking lot downriver -- locals have created a makeshift bridge from a downed log.
Looming above the pine forests of central Oregon, the Newberry Caldera, a National Volcanic Monument, is a wonderland of geologic oddities. In the sunken crater, an obsidian flow separates two lakes. Rising over the lake, Paulina Peak offers views of the Three Sisters. Hidden along the lakeshores, hot springs bubble up.
The oddest spring lies on the shore of Paulina Lake -- sometimes. In spring, soakers arrive with shovels and buckets to dig their own spring from the red cinder beach, cooling it with lake water. From these temporary pools, you can watch ducks circle on the lake's steaming surface.
Campgrounds abound, as do black bears and mule deer. By day the lake buzzes with canoes and fishermen, but a soaker can camp among the pines and visit the springs at night, when silence and stars reign.
Designated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, the 269,000-acre Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge is home to pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep. Looming above the surrounding country and the tiny community of Plush, the refuge is nearly empty of humans. The only campground in the refuge, nestled in quaking aspen groves, provides access to hot springs in Hart Mountain's shadow.
Some say a rancher formed the spring with a single piece of dynamite. However it emerged, this deep pool maintains a hot temperature year round. A low wall guards against the stiff desert wind.
What looks like a tin shack at the edge of the Alvord playa, a shimmering lake of alkaline soil, are the corrugated walls standing over two concrete pools. The pools can get extremely hot.
Capping the pipe helps control the temperature. The bathhouse has remained virtually the same since the 1930s, when a wandering German concrete worker helped pour the concrete in exchange for a few good dinners.
Within a short drive from Alvord springs, it is easy to visit red-hot Mickey Springs, too dangerous to swim in, and steaming Borax Lake, home to the endangered Borax chub, a fish that lives in the arsenic-laced water.
Beyond the town of Fields, which hosts a diner and store selling gas, milkshakes and hamburgers, a pass through desert mountains follows Trout Creek and the old Oregon Central Military Road to remote hills popular with rockhounds. Along Willow Creek, which provides habitat for the rare Lahontan cutthroat trout, a single pool lies near a campground beneath a lone butte.
Whitehorse Hot Spring is divided by a smooth concrete wall, separating the water into hot and cold. Rarely used, perhaps because of the difficulty in finding it, the springs can belong to a single person for days on end.
Easier to reach is Snively Hot Springs, marked prominently with a big sign and parking area. Snively, in the Owyhee Canyon downstream from Owyhee State Park outside Ontario, offers beautiful sunsets glowing on red canyon walls.
Emerging from a concrete cistern and tumbling down a steaming creek, Snively is actually a pool situated in the river. Well-placed stones keep hot water in and cold water regulated perfectly. One can soak while fishermen wade into the current and rock doves coo from holes in the rimrock.
-- Sean Patrick Hill of Portland has written a yet-to-be-published book, "Taking the Waters," about the history and culture of hot springs in Oregon.
Directions to Sean Patrick Hill's top 10 hot springs
From the Portland area, take Oregon 224 to Estacada and 24 miles farther into Mount Hood National Forest. At 0.5 mile past the Ripplebrook Guard Station, turn right on Forest Service Road 46. In 3.5 miles, bear right on F.S. 63. In another 3.5 miles turn right on F.S. 70. Drive six miles to the trailhead parking lot on the left. Vandalism can be a problem, so don't leave valuables in the car. Northwest Forest Pass required. The trail to Bagby (#544) begins in the lot and continues 1.5 miles to the springs. The trail is well-maintained and easy.
From Eugene, drive 45 miles east on Oregon 126 past the town of Blue River. Between milepost 45 and 46, turn right on Forest Service Road 19, Aufderheide Drive. Go 3.5 miles to Cougar Dam, then right. Follow F.S. 19 another 4.3 miles. A parking area on the left and sign for Terwilliger Hot Springs marks the spot.
The fee is $5 a day and can be paid at a trailhead kiosk. Follow the trail 0.3 miles to the springs.
From Burns Junction, travel 30 miles east on U.S. 95, going 17 miles past the community of Rome (make sure you fuel up; this will be the last opportunity). At milepost 36, watch for a sign reading "Three Forks -- 35" and turn right (south). Stay on the main dirt road about 30 miles to a T-junction, then go right 2.7 miles to the canyon rim at an old corral. The final descent into the canyon is a steep and rocky 1.3 miles and should only be attempted in dry weather and with a high-clearance all-wheel drive vehicle -- otherwise, walk down. If you make it down in a vehicle, park at the BLM campground. A three-mile road goes to the warm springs, but without a four-wheel-drive vehicle and a good map, this route is not recommended.
From June to October, when the river is low, hiking is the best way in. Ford the combined Middle and North Forks of the Owyhee River just below (south of) the campground. Once on the opposite side, follow the water downstream to the junction with the Owyhee River in the steep-walled canyon. Turning upstream to the right, follow an old wagon road through sagebrush and along beaches about two miles, until you see the waterfall on the opposite shore: These are the main springs.
Where the jeep road comes down to the river, ford to a wide rocky beach and follow the road up the other side to the spring. These springs are on private property.
For a return loop, ford the river back to the trail side and follow the jeep road, staying to the right of the prominent Three Forks dome back to the campground (you will ford the thin stream of the Middle Fork and a bridge will cross the North Fork). A map is strongly recommended.
From Eugene, follow Oregon 58 about 40 miles toward Oakridge and Willamette Pass. After the town of Oakridge, go about 10 miles on Oregon 58 (about 0.5 mile past Blue Pool Campground) to a large parking area on the right just past mile marker 45, across from a sign reading "McCredie Station Road." A path beyond the signboard descends to the pools.
From Roseburg, go east on Oregon 138 (toward Crater Lake) about 60 miles to Tokatee Junction. Turn left on the paved Tokatee Rigdon Road (34). Bear left at a Y at the bottom of the hill, passing Tokatee Lake and Campground. In 2.3 miles, turn right on Road 3401 (Thorn Prairie Road) and go two miles to a parking lot on left. Northwest Forest Pass required. If the bridge is still out, go downstream along a trail to a sturdy log crossing. On the other side turn right (upstream) and follow the trail back to join the North Umpqua Trail (take a left at a junction at the site of the old bridge and follow uphill to the ridge above the river). Turn right at the North Umpqua Trail and follow 0.2 mile upstream to the sheltered pool.
Drive 20 miles south of Bend on U.S. 97 and follow signs to Newberry Crater and Paulina Lake. The road to the crater is 13 miles east of 97. Turn left at Little Crater Campground and follow road to the end. From there, follow the Paulina Lakeshore Loop 2.5 miles. The Newberry Caldera is closed from Nov. 1 to May.
From Lakeview, go north on Oregon 395 for five miles, then right on Oregon 140. After 15.5 miles go left on the Plush Cutoff Road (3-13). Go 18.7 miles to the community of Plush. One mile north of Plush, turn right on County Road 3-12, following a sign to Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge.
At the 13-mile mark the road turns to gravel. At the 24-mile mark you arrive at the refuge headquarters. Follow a sign, going right four miles to the campground. Just before the campground, a spur road to the right takes you down to the springs.
The town of Fields is 111 miles south of Burns via Oregon 205. Fields Station has gas, water, a cafe and small grocery store. From Fields drive north on Fields-Denio Road and bear right in 1.6 miles on a gravel road (Alvord Ranch Road). Go northeast 23 miles to a cattle guard and a pullout in view of one pool's corrugated walls down and to the right. A short path leads to the springs.
Follow directions to Fields as with Alvord. From Fields go south on the paved Fields-Denio Road toward the Nevada border. Go 8.2 miles to a Y junction on the left. Follow this dirt Whitehorse Ranch Road (CR 203) for 23.5 miles, watching for a low butte on the right. After passing the Willow Creek bridge, turn right on a dirt road (there will be a telephone pole marked #292 and farther down the road to the springs a sign that reads "Impassable in Wet Weather"). Go toward the hill about 2.3 miles and bear right just before the hill. The spring is on the right of the road by a campground.
From U.S. 95, go south of Burns Junction 21 miles and turn right (west) on Whitehorse Ranch Road for 23.5 miles. At 2.5 miles past the ranch, turn left just where the powerline crosses the main road. Bear left in 0.8 mile and follow the route from the directions above.
From the town of Ontario, go south 20 miles on Oregon 201 to Owyhee Junction. Follow signs south toward Lake Owyhee State Park. From the point where a pipeline spans the canyon mouth, go 1.5 miles and watch for the prominent BLM sign for Snively. The springs are a short walk from the lot.