A curling wisp of steam rises into the cool morning air above a clearing in an emerald-green Oregon forest.
The telltale sign of vapor means one thing to the eyes of a trained observer: hot springs.
The very thought brings a smile to the face.
In a land born of fire, Oregon has many hot springs. Some are long-established spas, such as Lehman, Kah-Nee-Ta and Breitenbush, that cater to bathers and overnight guests. Others, such as Bigelow, Terwilliger and Snively, are simple pools hewn from riverside rocks by bathers over the years.
“This is so relaxing,” said William Thomas of Portland after soaking in Lane County’s Terwilliger hot springs. “We’ve been camping down at the lake and don’t have any showers. It’s nice to come up here and get into some warm water.”
Not only can the hot springs’ 104-degree water soothe aching muscles after a day of hiking or cycling, the hot springs can be their own reward.
“It’s so nice early in the morning,” said Arlene Des Jardin of Scotts Valley, California, after her soak in Terwilliger. “I like to visit early because it’s quiet. It can get pretty crowded during the day.”
Patty Mardon, another vacationing Californian from Monterey, learned of Terwilliger hot springs when her husband began visiting in the 1970s.
“It’s not too sultry like some hot springs,” Mardon said. “I come up here with sore muscles and come out feeling good.”
Ruth Burns of Sweet Home swears by the healing powers of Terwilliger hot springs, a rustic site that has six log and rock pools set deep in a tributary canyon of the McKenzie River.
“I’ve been coming here for four years, usually five or six times each year,” Burns said. “The hot water has a healing effect…. I first came here because an incision from surgery wasn’t healing well. After three months of not healing, it healed right up after a week of visits to the pool. I think it’s because of the sulphur in the water.”
Although medicinal qualities of hot springs are difficult to prove, there is little doubt on visitors’ faces.
“I come up here and camp in the national forest for a week just so I can use the hot springs,” said James Frazer of Los Angeles. “The ones we have in Southern California are all private, and you have to pay for treatment.”
An elegant natural pool such as Terwilliger is hard to beat, but some visitors aren’t comfortable with the nudity that occurs in backwoods bathing.
Swimwear is required at most of Oregon’s developed hot springs, including the 9,000-square-foot pools of Lehman Hot Springs Resort in the Blue Mountains of Umatilla County.
“We brought our tent, and we’re camping here,” said Jerry Dobish of Portland while soaking in Lehman hot springs near Ukiah. “I like the idea of four pools with different temperatures, with a nice hot one for soaking. I like it because it’s not chlorinated.”
The Harmon family of northeast Oregon has been visiting Lehman for nearly half a century.
“We’ve been coming here once or twice a year for 40 years,” said Mo Harmon of Hermiston. “It’s in good shape now.
“It used to be a mudhole when the Stubblefields owned it. I remember old man Stubblefield, 90 years old and soaking every time we’d come. They found him in the pool on his last day, too.”
He probably passed away with a smile on his face.
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