These days, hopping from one continent to the next is so far off my vacation radar, I’ve even stopped fantasizing about it. (Well, almost.) With the economy, job security, and air travel as they are, traveling domestically has become a whole lot more attractive. But how to mix things up from the usual big-city, tourist-hot-spot type of vacation? One way is to seek out natural wonders, like hot springs. The United States boasts springs with something for all of us—from family folks or those with an affinity for hiking nude (yes, apparently there are people who choose to do this) to those who want a quick jaunt outside a bustling city or a hike that will take them far from civilization.
Whether you’re after the long-praised health benefits of soaking up mineral-rich, earth-warmed water, or just something off the beaten path, the journey of hunting down one of Earth’s strangest wonders makes these hot springs mentally and physically satisfying. Generally found around mountains, springs start as deep groundwater, which is warmed by the earth’s heat and then travels quickly up to the earth’s surface, bubbling up as a hot spring. Of the dozens across the country, I sought out some of the most picturesque and peaceful.
1. Deep Creek Hot Springs, Hesperia, California
Once relatively unknown, this bubbly hideaway is the destination for those times when you truly need to get away from it all, as it’s remote and requires a bit of a hike to get there. If you’re searching for a moderate forty-five minutes of cardio prior to soaking up hot mineral water, look no further. And the sights are worth the sweat: the creek takes a sharp turn around the end of a ridge, and suddenly seven soaking pools filled with 100-plus-degree water arise from rocks. Oh, and one last thing: if you’re not down with sharing the springs with nude soakers, I’d avoid Deep Creek—it’s a nudie favorite. This is California, after all.
2. Bagby Hot Springs, Estacada, Oregon
It takes an easy, 1.4-mile hike to arrive at these fairly well-developed pools. To get there, hikers follow the Hot Springs Fork of the Collawash River, amid tall Douglas firs and slightly chilly swimming holes along the way. The 130-plus-degree springs are located at a 2,280-foot elevation and managed by the forest service and a local volunteer group. The water bubbles up and comes together in numerous bathhouses and ten-by-three-foot private tubs, which are held together by hollowed-out cedar logs. There are also public tubs near the private bathhouses. No need to pack a swimsuit here, either, for you free spirits out there.
3. Verde Hot Springs, Strawberry, Arizona
In addition to the appeal inherent in a gurgling, warm hot spring, the trail to Verde takes hikers through some local history, winding past the remains of an old resort that burned down in the 1960s. Today, the cement-formed pool is filled with the hot spring’s bubbles, erupting from the banks of the Wind River at about 120 degrees. There’s also local lodging at the Carson Mineral Hot Springs Resort, a Victorian-era hotel with a slew of therapeutic hot mineral baths.
4. Strawberry Park Hot Springs, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
These secluded springs sit amid the mountains alongside a creek, in developed pools made of native stone. Known for its picturesque beauty and lively history, Strawberry Park is a favorite among the many Colorado hot springs. It was originally owned by the city of Steamboat Springs, but rambunctious crowds and wild parties convinced the city to relinquish it, and it’s now part of a peaceful resort tucked away in the mountains. You can enjoy 104-degree mineral water in a bubbling spring year-round, even as snow falls in the surrounding forest. The park is accessible to all, not just guests staying overnight, and day-trippers can use changing and picnic areas while they’re visiting. It’s a short drive or shuttle ride from the Steamboat ski area.
5. Boiling River, Gardiner, Montana
Boiling River sits right on the edge of Yellowstone National Park; all it takes to get there is a half-mile walk from a small parking lot and a short trounce down a dirt path. Temperature control here is undertaken the old-fashioned way: by moving a few feet to the left or right as boiling water gurgles up straight into a moving creek and joins the cool water on its trip downriver. The six-foot-wide stream of hot water plunges over rocks and meanders through fifty yards of soaking pools along the river. This is the park’s most popular soaking spot, holding as many as 150 people at the busiest times, thanks to its accessibility and beauty. The water level of the river determines how warm the general soak is; more river water means a cooler temperature as the two intermingle. Regardless of the level, it’s possible to find a just-right spot by moving around a bit—just as the earliest soakers must’ve done.
6. Hot Springs National Park, Hot Springs, Arkansas
This national park was the first in the United States to be deemed protection-worthy. Before that, Spanish explorers and Native Americans sought out the mineral waters for their supposed healing properties. Today, the warm water, hiking trails, and historical centers make it an attractive family option. It’s also near downtown Hot Springs, full of old hotels, architecture, art studios, and Bathhouse Row, populated by old-fashioned shops and restaurants. The spring’s waters are pumped into downtown hotels, spas, and even city fountains. The three lakes also offer activities and camping near the warm waters.
Whether you’re a first-timer, like I am, or an old pro, there’s just something relaxing about soaking in the natural waters that our ancestors believed so rejuvenating. I’m planning on mixing up my vacation routine this year, and taking on such a novel, back-to-nature trip sure does beat fighting crowds on public transportation. I’ll definitely be heading to my nearest spring in a few weeks—but don’t count on catching me hiking naked anytime soon.