NORTH BONNEVILLE, Wash. - At first glance, the scene is typical of any hotel pool area. A young man with goggles swims laps. Children giggle and splash each other in the shallow end. A woman lies on a lounge chair absorbed in a paperback.
But this was no ordinary pool. The water, at 97 degrees Fahrenheit, has been warmed not by a boiler, but from heat deep within the earth. A poster listing minerals in the water reads like the back of a vitamin bottle: sulfur, silica, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium. This is because the pool at Bonneville Hot Springs Resort and Spa is fed from a nearby natural hot spring.
Hot springs destinations in the Northwest range from rustic, backcountry spots to high-end resorts. Bonneville is one of the more lavish in the Pacific Northwest. The 12,000-square-foot spa offers 40 treatments. A three-story great room features a massive stone fireplace, plush leather couches, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a forest.
The resort's flagship experience is a mineral bath and wrap. An attendant led me and a friend into a candlelit room with claw-foot bathtubs. As the bath was drawn a faint smell of boiled eggs from the sulfur in the water filled the air. But the odor was worth it. The water felt thick and therapeutic. And after 25 minutes of soaking, I had worked up a toxin-releasing sweat. Next came the wrap. Lying on warm towels trickled with eucalyptus oil, we were each tucked into a cotton sheet and warm blanket. A cool towel was placed over our eyes to block any light and the soothing sound of violin and piano lulled me to a semi-sleep state.
In the 19th century, hot spring water was widely claimed to possess curative powers. Resorts built around springs promised relief from arthritis, kidney and liver problems, and other maladies. With the growth of modern medicine in the early 20th century, "taking the waters" began to seem old-fashioned and time-consuming. By the mid-1900s, many of the resorts were closed and abandoned.
Over the past few decades, as Americans are increasingly turning to alternative medicine, hot springs have made a comeback.
Drawing from another spring farther south, Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat and Conference Center is completely booked most weekends. "This is an easy way for us to get into nature with our child," said Czeslaw Czapla, a software engineer from Portland, Ore. His son, Roman, 2 1/2, played alongside his parents in a rock-lined soaking pool. Breitenbush is nestled in a forest with cabins or tent sites for lodging. A stay includes three tasty vegetarian meals a day and several well-being and body movement classes.
Soaking after dark was an enchanting experience. To the soothing sound of a nearby rushing river, I lay in the hundred-plus-degree water, propped up by rock carved out along the edge of the pool. Thousands of stars glittered in the mid-August sky.
More modest folks might have difficulty at Breitenbush and some other rustic spring sites. Clothing is optional in most of the bathing areas and stripping down in front of strangers felt funny at first. (A small percentage of people wear bathing suits.) Having children around helped lighten the experience. Getting to know the down-to-earth people I was soaking with came easily.
I met Janine Wanée, who was visiting from Somerville, one morning in the steam sauna at Breitenbush. A trip there last year sparked a year of transformation, Wanée said. She quit an unfulfilling job to pursue her passion, music, and went to an alternative health practitioner. "I was feeling lost. This place woke up a lot of stuff."
Hot springs form when water descends through the planet's cracks and fissures. The deeper it travels, the hotter it gets and eventually enough pressure is formed to push the water back to the surface. The Cascade Range, spanning from southern British Columbia to Northern California, is an area ripe for springs. That's because it lies along a subduction zone where the edge of one tectonic plate slides under the edge of another and penetrates the planet's mantle. When this occurs, trapped heat is released.
Walking to Terwilliger Hot Springs, an hour drive east of Eugene, Ore., felt like entering the Ewok village in "Star Wars," only more peaceful. Giant trees, moss, and fern line the quarter-mile trail from the parking lot to the springs. A wooden railing leads you into a narrow ravine where six steamy soaking pools fall in tiers down the valley.
Terwilliger is one of many hot springs sites maintained by the US Forest Service. Without a resort built around it, these springs were the most rustic we visited.
Hot water spills out of a rock formation and into the upper soaking pool. Overflow from this pool falls into the others in succession. The temperature of the water cools about five degrees with each drop, with the upper pool averaging about 116 degrees.
With growing concern about global warming, the use of nature's energy soothes not only a spa-goer's body but also her conscience.
Sarah Sennott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.