Hot Springs 101

Human beings have been soaking in hot springs long before history began to be recorded. Archaeological evidence shows people have been using mineral water to treat disease for over 5000 years. From the ancient Greek and Romans to traditional Japanese rituals, from Middle Eastern ceremonies to fashionable European bath houses. The attraction to thermal waters is one of the truly universal human behaviors.

In the Americas, it was the native Americans who deemed hot springs a sacred place for healing. Despite the exploitation of these places during the colonization of the US, people can still soak in the same hot springs today. There are more than 17,000 hot springs in the US alone and the majority are found in the West. Only 115 have been developed into resorts or spas.

Geology

Thermal Systems Simplified 

To explain this in the most basic way possible, heat exists below the crust of the earth because there are decaying natural elements in the core. Hot springs form where that heat has the opportunity to escape to the surface through cracks in the Earth’s plates. However, there are many hot springs that exist for unexplainable reasons.

Water inevitably fills every crack in the Earth’s surface. When that water comes in close proximity to a source of intense heat, the water warms and rises (convection). It cools down slightly along the way to the surface. This is the reason why there’s a temperature range from pool to pool. Always locate the source of the heat and test the water before getting in to avoid serious burns!

Microbes

Living Pools

Hot springs are teeming with life. Scientists have discovered unique microorganisms living specifically in hot springs in the western United States. These microbes thrive in the thermal water despite lack of sunlight and/or oxygen. The existence of these organisms contradicts the general requirements for life on Earth. If an organism can survive without being dependent on water, sunlight, oxygen and organic carbon simultaneously, the possibility of life on other planets increases exponentially.

Basically, microorganisms found in hot springs are one of the most significant scientific phenomenons on our planet.

Important information: Don’t submerge your entire head underwater in a hot spring. In worst case scenarios people have died in California from contracting rare microbes through their mucus membranes (eyes, nose, mouth) directly from hot spring water. This topic has been debated but its not worth the risk. Also, hot springs can be very grimy places filled with skin cells, sweat, urine and everything else you can imagine that is unsanitary so just don’t put your face in it. Parents watch your children! Don’t let them go underwater or disrupt the environment.

Etiquette

PRACTICE COMMON SENSE 

Surprisingly enough using common sense is not so common. People come to hot springs in search of peace and healing so always keep that in mind. Understanding etiquette cannot be reiterated enough.

Many people do not share information about hot springs because ignorant people will go to these sacred places and disrespect them. People come to hot springs to party and they leave behind trash, physically destroy the pools and pollute the water. They are ruining places that have been used for thousands of years simply because they can’t respect the environment.

Please do not be one of those people. I will certainly receive ridicule from others in the outdoor community for writing this blog. I am writing it anyway because the experiences I’ve had with hot springs are some of the most incredible moments of my life. I never felt so connected with the natural world until I soaked in a hot spring alone in the wilderness. In my opinion, these thermal areas are the most beautiful and enjoyable places in the world and every human being deserves to experience it for themselves.

Disclaimer: Do not be surprised to find a variety of naked people when visiting the pools, the concept of soaking in hot springs is rooted in nature. Some people enjoy these places in their most natural state. Remember this when you’re bringing young children.

I won’t give away all the secrets. I can’t explain how many hours of research, driving with the wrong GPS coordinates, and being completely lost lead me to finding these places. A huge part of what makes hot springs so amazing is that you have to put in genuine effort to find them (in most cases). You earn the right to soak your bones. Here’s a few names of my favorite hot springs and thermal areas to point you in the right direction:

California, Nevada and Oregon

Classic Hot Springs

Nevada has the most hot springs of any one state followed closely by California. Many hot springs in Nevada don’t have pools but the ones that do are considered some of the most pristine in the world. For an explicit guide to Nevada’s hidden treasures click here.

A few hot springs can be found in Southern California but the vast majority lie in the north. The first hot spring I ever visited was a small resort called Sierraville Hot Springs.

Visiting hot springs is always easiest when you go with someone who has already been there. Don’t be too surprised if you don’t find what you’re looking for the first time you go. Most of the time they are located in areas that have no cellphone reception so keep this in mind. My top 5 hot springs in California are the Feather River hot springs, Big Bend, Buckeye, Wild Willy’s, and Travertine.

The best area for hot spring hopping is along California’s highway 395 in Mammoth Lakes; specifically between Bridgeport and Bishop. There are a solid number of pools to make for the perfect weekend trip. This place forms a fishbowl- the hot springs are in the middle of a vast valley surrounded by (sometimes snowy) mountains. This place is the remains of a collapsed volcano (caldera) that erupted 76,000 years ago. This volcanic activity is responsible for all these amazing hot springs in one place!

Don’t forget to stop at Mono Lake’s Tufa Towers if you’re in the area. It’s an otherworldly experience!

Oregon has some of the most beautiful hot springs in the US but I have the least amount of experience in this area so click here for a more reliable source of information.

International Hot Springs

A World of Limitless Possibilities 

One of the first things I look into when I travel somewhere new is if there are any hot springs in the area. You never know what you might find! This has lead me to the most unexpected places in the Caribbean, Africa and more.

There are mainly bathhouses in Europe, particularly in Budapest, Hungary which is also called “The City of Baths”. I visited Széchenyi Thermal Baths and highly recommend it. It was a great place to spend the day and experience European bath culture.

In Central America, there are many noteworthy springs to visit. When I traveled to Guatemala I made it a priority to see Finca El Pariso (Cascadas Caliente). This place was so unique because you could feel the heat from the hot spring waterfall from across the river. When you dive into the river and swim to the waterfall you’ll find a hidden cave underneath the waterfall if you know where to look. To find out exactly how to get here go to the Guatemala section of my Central America Travel Guide. You can also find details about volcanic crater lakes in El Salvador and hot spring resorts in Costa Rica in that travel guide.

In all my experiences nothing compares to the hot springs you’ll find in Iceland. The landscapes and pools are by far the most amazing in the world as far as unique hot springs. For a full write up of all hot springs and geysers I visited in Iceland and how to get there check out my blog Icelandic Road Trip.

Special Thanks To Talon Cook

The man who introduced hot springs to my life

Talon has done so much to greatly improve my quality of life, one of the most impactful being that he took me to my first hot spring. He taught me everything I know about hot springs and the natural world in general. Talon makes getting outside the most exciting part of life because his passion for exploring is contagious. This guy could live outside for the rest of his life and he would probably be more comfortable doing so. His life story is one of the most unique I’ve ever heard; so in an attempt to give it the credit he deserves I want to share it:

Talon was raised in a place you’ve never heard of called Camptonville, CA which is an hour drive into the mountainous middle of nowhere. His mom is a genuine old school hippie who bought a piece of raw land in Tahoe National Forest and built a log cabin from scratch. They lost their father when Talon was just a baby but this incredibly strong woman chose to raise her 3 kids on her own without modern conveniences. They were completely isolated down a dirt road without cellphone service, electricity or running water. To say this style of living was hardcore would be an understatement but Talon’s mom would probably disagree because she’s so humble. They didn’t have much but they had more love in their little home than 10 modern families combined.

Growing up he literally spent all day, every day outside adventuring and connecting with nature. Learning everything there is to know about California is what he’s always been most passionate about which is why he became a wildlife biologist. Living off the grid is at the core of who he is and it made him into the incredibly interesting person that he is today.

One of our first dates was to a hot spring in Sierraville and after that experience I was absolutely hooked. Countless 1000 mile road trips and years of international travel later, we’ve seen some of the most epic places on the planet together. He has engrained in me an unmistakeable love for nature and a true appreciation of its beauty. I couldn’t be more grateful for this because it changed my entire outlook on life. He taught me to see the world through his eyes and my life has been filled with vivid color and light ever since.