Complete Guide to Natural Hot Springs

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Natural Hot Springs Calfiornia

What’s better than warming your aching bones in a pool of hot water?

Doing so in a peaceful setting surrounded by nature! Although some are more remote than others, the best natural hot springs combine their warm calming waters with breathtaking scenery in a relaxing and often remote environment.

Today, we’re going to show you how to find the best hot springs in America. We list our absolute favorites (most are located in the Western United States) as well as how to track down those that are off the mainstream radar. But first we’ll start by going over the most important hot springs etiquette and safety tips.

Here is everything you need to know about safely enjoying the best natural hot springs in the United States.

Developed vs Undeveloped Hot Springs

Before we dive into the best natural hot springs to visit, you must first understand the difference between developed and undeveloped hot springs.

Undeveloped hot springs, also known as wild or backcountry hot springs, are those that feature no manmade improvements. The warm spring water is collected in a natural catchment. They are often quite remote and usually located on public land (although some are on private land).

Developed hot springs, on the other hand, feature manmade improvements. They still use the hot water from a natural spring but collect it in tubs and pools. The water temperature is often regulated (unlike wild springs). The water is sometimes even disinfected.

Most developed hot springs have a commercial purpose – i.e. the owner intends to make money through the operation. You must pay a small fee to use them (most wild springs are free). Most have bath houses or changing rooms while the more elaborate boast full-fledged hot springs resorts complete with food, drinks, and lodging on site.

All that said, there is a grey area between the two. Many backcountry hot springs feature small manmade improvements, such as primitive rock tubs, benches, and paths, but are often free and usually don’t have a dedicated commercial purpose.

Natural Hot Springs Health Benefits

Soaking in the warm water of a natural hot spring doesn’t just feel good. Here are a few of the other best reasons to go for a soak: 

  • Nature – Not only is nature relaxing in its own right, but according to a study at Stanford University, it also positively effects your overall wellbeing, most notably your stress levels and mental health.
  • Soothing – Warm water is one of the best ways to soothe aching bones and muscles, according to the Arthritis Foundation. It fights pain and stiffness, loosens up joints, increases circulation, and so much more. 

Remember that the specific therapeutic and health benefits of natural hot springs vary widely from location to location depending largely on the temperature, minerals present, and other factors. 

Natural Hot Springs Etiquette

Keep the following etiquette tips in mind while visiting natural hot springs to enjoy them responsibly without disturbing other visitors or damaging the environment:

  • Know the Rules – Most developed hot springs have written rules while wild hot springs usually do not. Just be courteous and respectful at all hot springs and you should be fine. Research local etiquette if visiting a different country. 
  • Respect the Springs – Backcountry hot springs are sensitive natural areas. Never use soap, shampoo, or similar cosmetics. If possible, shower before entering. Keep glass away from the pools.
  • Respect Other Users – Understand that some people use hot springs for relaxation while others come to socialize. Don’t splash or kick up dirt from the ground if others are present. Take turns if the spring is too small for the number of people present.
  • Respect the Land – Try to minimize damage to the surrounding plant life when entering and exiting the pools. Some backcountry springs are on private land – so treat the area like you’re a guest.
  • Test the Water – Some hot springs are little more than warm springs while others are boiling hot – too hot for humans. Even if you’re been to the spring before, dip a finger or toe in to check the temperature. Or, better yet, bring an instant-read liquid thermometer.
  • Hydration is Key – Dehydration comes quick when soaking in hot water. So, bring plenty of drinking water to sip on during your soak. Many wild hot springs require a long hike to access so packing plenty of water is even more important.
  • Take a Break – Very hot pools not only dehydrate but can induce fainting spells and heat stroke. So, don’t overdo it. Take breaks to cool off outside of the pool and drink some water every now and then.
  • No Dogs Allowed – The hot temperatures are dangerous for dogs. The water itself can also be harmful if ingested. It’s best to leave your dog at home or at least leash them up before arrival.
  • Leave No Trace – Always follow the 7 leave no trace principles when visiting a natural hot spring or any other backcountry area. Most importantly, pack out everything you bring in with you, including trash.

Proper hot springs etiquette is important to ensure these natural wonders stay open for all visitors to soak in for years on end.

What About Clothing-Optional Hot Springs?

Some (but certainly not all) backcountry hot springs are clothing optional.

If you prefer soaking naked, it’s important to do a little research to find out which nude hot springs are in your area.

Some of these natural hot springs explicitly allow nudity while others are so far in the backcountry that no one really cares (or is there to check).

If you do decide to visit a clothing optional hot springs, know that you aren’t required to strip down to enjoy them. There’s no reason not to wear a swimsuit if you feel more comfortable that way.

As for backcountry hot springs that don’t have explicate rules regarding nudity, use your own best judgement. Feel free to enjoy them naked if no one else is around (unless posted otherwise).

Make sure others are comfortable with you skinny dipping if you’re not alone. Act respectful if you do decide to bath naked. Same goes for those soaking in a nude hot spring with a swimsuit on – don’t stare or giggle.

Want to make sure you’re in the clear? Visit a developed hot spring in the evening. Some are clothing-optional after normal business hours for adults only.

How to Stay Safe in Natural Hot Springs

Most developed hot springs, especially those inside of a resort, are regularly monitored to ensure the safety of the water and water temperature. Many have staff on hand while some even have dedicated lifeguards.

Wild hot springs, on the other hand, are not monitored for safety. As their name implies, they truly are wild and there’s an inherent risk that comes with using them. Depending on the location, you might even be the only person around.

Here are the most common dangers to consider and how to avoid them:

  • Temperature – Always check the temperature of a backcountry hot springs before entering. Developed hot springs typically mix the hot water with cool water to create a safe and consistent temperature.
  • Drowning – Be careful and vigilant during use as drowning is always a risk, even in shallow pools of water. Excessive alcohol consumption is one of the leading causes of drowning and other fatal accidents in hot springs.
  • Pathogens – The water in most natural hot springs is safe, but precaution should be taken regarding disease-carrying organisms, bacteria, and other pathogens. Research the spring beforehand to see if there’s been issues in the past.
  • Red Spider Mites – Although not dangerous, red spider mites do bite and cause itchy sores. These tiny creatures seem to be most prevalent in natural hot springs in Idaho.  
  • Wildlife – Many backcountry hot springs are located in areas full of wildlife, including bears, elk, bison, snakes, and more. Those on private land are sometimes accessible to cattle. Take proper backcountry wildlife precautions to avoid dangerous wildlife encounters. 
  • Sharp Objects – Always wear sandals when entering a hot springs pool. Not only are many filled with sharp rocks, but you never know if the person before you broke a glass bottle or left behind other sharp objects in the water.
  • Water Quality – The cleanliness of the water is not tested or monitored at most backcountry hot springs. Human feces, animal remains, and other contaminants have the potential to find their way into the water. We encourage you to never swallow or drink the water.

Because of the remote nature of many backcountry hot springs, it’s important to take the same safety precautions you would while hiking or backpacking. Namely, don’t leave valuables unattended (or in your vehicle), visit with a friend if possible, and let someone at home know where you’re going.

Best Natural Hot Springs in United States

Here are 11 of the best natural hot springs (both developed and undeveloped) you won’t want to miss on your next cross-country road trip.

1. Wild Willy’s Hot Spring

Location: Mammoth Lakes, California

One of the best natural hot springs in California, Wild Willy’s Hot Springs is home to two shallow pools. The heart-shaped larger pool is slightly warmer (between 95° and 105°) than the other.

Accessing the hot springs requires a short 200-yard hike across a seemingly out-of-place wooden boardwalk. Don’t forget to enjoy the sweeping views of sagebrush plains with the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance. Wild Willy’s is free and primitive, although the springs are reinforced with concrete.

Because of the area is so easily accessible, it can become crowded on weekends, especially in the evenings. Arrive early or check out one of the more remote hot springs in the area.

2. Umpqua Hot Springs

Location: Central Cascades, Oregon

Umpqua Hot Springs is one of the best natural hot springs in Oregon for those that don’t mind the short but steep quarter-mile hike to reach it.

Although it’s still relatively primitive, the pools were carved into the hillside to create a series of terraced tubs cascading down to the river. There’s also a wooden shelter over the main pool. Enjoy the beautiful views of the North Umpqua River as you relax in the 108° water.

Note that this Oregon hot springs is known for nude bathing. And, although visiting the springs themselves is free, a day-use fee is required to use the nearby parking area.

3. Bagby Hot Springs

Location: Clackamas County, Oregon

Less than a two-hour drive from Portland, Bagby Hot Springs has ten total bathing pools of various sizes housed in a series of rustic bathhouses.

Accessed by an enjoyable 1.4-mile hike, the hot springs are nestled in a towering old growth forest. The pools, bathhouses, and even the plumbing are made from cedar which lends the area a rustic and primitive vibe. At 138° out of the ground the water is piping hot but it is cooled to an average of 105° in each of the bathing tubs.

As a developed hot spring, there is a $5 fee to help with maintenance. Crowds are common and nudity is popular, although all nude bathing is supposed to be relegated to the private tubs.

4. Deep Creek Hot Springs  

Location: Hesperia, California

Another great natural hot springs in southern California, Deep Creek Hot Springs boasts three spacious pools set alongside the slow-moving Deep Creek.

Located in San Bernardino National Forest, the shortest access is a steep 2.5-mile hike through mountain desert terrain. In addition to the three warm pools (with an average temperature around 100°), visitors can cool off by swimming in Deep Creek or relaxing on the sandy beaches.

Nudity is common here as is alcohol consumption (often in excess). Note that air temperatures in the area regularly exceed 100°. Visit early in the morning or in the winter to avoid extreme heat.

5. Hot Springs National Park

Location: Hot Springs, Arkansas

Hot Springs National Park is nicknamed the American Spa for a reason – it’s home to one of the largest collections of developed hot springs in the United States.

Most famous for Bathhouse Row, the most impressive collection of bathhouses in North America, the national park draws visitors from around the world. In addition to viewing the elegant buildings and rock pools filled with piping hot spring water, visitors are able to enjoy a variety of thermal baths and other spa treatments in two renovated historic bathhouses: the Buckstaff Bathhouse and Quapaw Bathhouse.

Although far from what most think of as a typical natural hot spring, Hot Springs National Park is one of the best hot springs in Arkansas for a total spa treatment that uses natural thermal water.  

6. Hot Springs State Park

Location: Thermopolis, Wyoming

Not to be confused with Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, Hot Springs State Park is home to some of the best natural hot springs in Wyoming.

The state park maintains a free bathhouse for bathing with large indoor and outdoor pools with a moderated water temperature of 104°. When you’re done soaking your aching bones in the healing water of the mineral springs, walk down and cross the swinging suspension bridge over the Big Horn River. You’ll likely see the state park’s bison herd while you’re out and about.

Another example of a developed hot springs, Hot Springs State Park is perfect for those that prefer to soak in a more controlled pool-like environment.

7. Valley View Hot Springs  

Location: Villa Grove, Colorado

One of the best natural hot springs in Colorado, Valley View Hot Springs strikes a good balance between developed and primitive.

As the name implies, the hot springs offer beautiful views of the valley below. Choose from several natural rock ponds, a series of cascading warming pools (plus one swimming pool), and even a hydroelectric sauna powered by the same thermal energy as the hot springs. The water temperature here is a bit on the “cool” side with most pools clocking in the upper 90°s aside from the hot tub that’s heated to 104°.

Valley View Hot Springs ranges from $11 for a quick dip, $15 for a day visit, or $30 for an overnight stay. Tent camping and RV camping are welcome as well as overnight lodging in historic cabins.

8. Boquillas Hot Springs

Location:

Boquillas Hot Springs is located in Big Bend National Park on the north bank of the Rio Grande on the border between Texas and Mexico.

This Texas hot springs is contained in the crumbling foundation of the historic bathhouse. The water temperature hovers around 105°. Many users hop in the Rio Grande to cool off after a long soak, although this isn’t recommended due to the strong undercurrents and other dangers.

It’s a two-hour drive down from the park entrance (including two miles down a dirt road) plus a half-mile hike to reach the springs. There is no fee for use aside from the national park entrance fee. Do note that Boquillas Hot Springs is often rendered unusable by seasonal flooding from the Rio Grande.  

9. Homestead Crater Hot Springs

Location: Heber City, Utah

Not only is Homestead Crater Hot Springs one of the best natural hot springs in Utah, it’s also one of the only easily accessible underground hot springs in the world.

Located just minutes from Heber City, Homestead Crater is known for its one of a kind swimming and soaking experience. The 96° geothermal pool is hidden away inside a volcano-shaped crater created over thousands of years by water seeping into the mountainside. This hot spring is also notable as the only place for warm water scuba diving in the contiguous United States.

Enjoying Homestead Crater costs $13 on weekdays and $16 on weekends. The hot springs is just one part of the larger Homestead Resort, although you don’t have to stay the night to enjoy a dip into the therapeutic waters.  

10. Strawberry Park Hot Springs

Location: Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Tucked away deep in a quiet forest, Strawberry Park Natural Hot Springs is home to several hot and cold spring pools.

The historic site offers the amenities of a develop hot springs resort in a relaxing and laidback backcountry atmosphere. The mineral water pools are naturally heated to 104° for maximum enjoyment and comfort. Additional facilities at Strawberry Hot Springs include a tent camping area, rustic camping cabins, and on-site massage.

Adults must pay $15 normally but $20 on holidays and holiday weekends. Shuttles are available for easy transportation from the nearby town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

11. Kirkham Hot Springs  

Location: Lowman, Idaho

Another fantastic wild hot springs, Kirkham Hot springs is situated on the side of the Payette River alongside the beautiful Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway (Idaho 21) that travels from Boise to Stanley.

This Idaho hot springs consists of several large pools in an undeveloped setting. The water temperature ranges from around 102° to more than 118°. Small steaming waterfalls trickle down from the rocks above the pools. Getting too hot? Take a dip in the Payette River or move the stacked rocks separating the pools and the river to let in more river water to regulate the temperature.

Kirkham Hot Springs is very easily accessible. This plus its location near a popular campground (Kirkham Campground) make it very crowded during the summertime. Because of the popularity with families, nude bathing is not allowed. Using the hot springs is free.

How to Find Free Natural Hot Springs Near You

The 11 best natural hot springs listed above are just the tip of the iceberg as far as hot springs in the United States are concerned. There are literally hundreds of other natural hot springs out there – the trick is learning how to find them.

While most developed hot springs are easy to find with a simple Google search, many backcountry hot springs, aside from the most popular and easily accessible, take a little more effort to track down.

My favorite tool to find free hot springs is this interactive map of thermal springs in the US from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The map shows the location of each hot spring color coded by recorded temperature (boiling, hot, warm, or n/a). It’s an excellent tool to find free hot springs you’d like to learn more about or simply to find regions with an abundance of hot springs to further explore in person.

Note that not all natural hot springs are safe or even legal to access. Many hot springs, especially those in national parks including Yellowstone National Park, are off limits for bathing.

What’s Your Favorite Natural Hot Springs?

As mentioned above, our choices for the 11 best natural hot springs are just a small selection of those available in the United States.

So, we’re interested to hear from you – what’s your favorite hot spring you’ve visited? Was it a backcountry or a developed area?

And don’t hesitate to ask us any questions you might have about finding the best natural hot springs on your next camping trip!

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