The natural hot spring predates the hot tub by, oh...well, let's just say a really long time. And unlike your average deck-top jacuzzi, hot springs are about more than just guzzling beer with friends; there's something almost religious about them. Hot pools and sweat lodges have long been incorporated by Native Americans in their spiritual ceremonies. Whether the benefits of a soak are clinically measurable is arguable, but the bottom-line is this: It feels damn good to set your mogul-bruised psyche and tormented muscles adrift tea-baglike in a cauldron of geothermally heated water. Even better under a canopy of stars sparkling across the night sky.
The mechanism that gives rise to these spirited, aromatic fluids? Surface water percolates downward via cracks and fissures formed by the movement of the earth's rocky crust. Cold water eventually meets hot (if not molten) subterranean rock and-presto!-back to the surface come geysers and bubbling mud pots, as well as the steamy ponds, seeps, and springs that are your muscles' salvation. Here are some places to get baptized.
Hot Spring: OURAY HOT SPRINGS POOL - Ouray, CO
Ski Areas Close By: Telluride is approximately one hour away.
The Skinny: The epitome of commercially developed, swimming-pool-style operations, Ouray Hot Springs consist of seven pools of different temperatures and have complete changing facilities and locker rooms, even a picnic area. Downside? At peak hours, the ever-popular main pool can take on the ambiance of the Jersey shore in July.
Hot Spring: STRAWBERRY HOT SPRINGS - Steamboat Springs, CO
Ski Areas Close By: Steamboat Resort is just 10 minutes away.
The Skinny: These hot springs delighted the local indigenous population long before the arrival of cattle drives and liftlines. Strawberry Hot Springs are professionally run and offer a nice blend of serenity and comfortable amenities. In addition to a variety of pools along a creek, there are also rental cabins, changing rooms, bathrooms, and a masseuse.
Hot Spring: BLACK ROCK HOT SPRINGS - Taos, NM
Ski Areas Close By: Taos Ski Valley is roughly 35 minutes away.
The Skinny: A short drive north of the town of Taos, Black Rock Hot Springs sit in the bottom of the Rio Grande River gorge and bubble up through the gorge's volcanic basalt rock. Rough-hewn stone walls cradle these primitive pools, which enjoy stellar views down the steep-walled desert-river canyon.
Hot Spring: HOT CREEK - Mammoth Lakes, CA
Ski Areas Close By: Mammoth Mountain is about 45 minutes away.
The Skinny: Visiting Hot Creek is an essential element of any skiing, climbing, or mountain biking expedition into the Sierra Nevada's stunning east side near Bishop and Mammoth. The primary pool has a paved parking area and changing facilities. Other natural hot pots are dispersed among the sagebrush around the main pool.
Hot Spring: BANFF UPPER HOT SPRINGS - Banff, AB
Ski Areas Close By: Lake Louise, Sunshine Village, and Banff Mount Norquay are all nearby.
The Skinny: Banff's hot springs were "discovered" by Canadian Pacific Railway workers in 1883 as they hacked their way through tangled Rocky Mountain forests. Upper Hot Springs have lured tourists ever since and remain a first-rate destination. They consist of one large swimming pool in addition to lockers, changing rooms, and massage therapy.
Hot Spring: AINSWORTH HOT SPRINGS - Ainsworth, BC
Ski Areas Close By: Whitewater Ski area is 70 minutes away; the town of Nelson is 40.
The Skinny: Ainsworth Hot Springs' clear, nonsulfurous waters are a perfect counter to the often gray skies of south-central British Columbia. Their magical setting on the fjordlike Kootenay Lake affords a panoramic vista of the Purcell Mountains. Ainsworth Hot Springs feature a large pool, caves, a frigid-plunge pool, hotell rooms, showers, lockers, and a restaurant.
Hot Spring: SCENIC HOT SPRINGS - Skykomish, WA
Ski Areas Close By: Stevens Pass ski area is a 10-minute drive from the trailhead.
The Skinny: Accessed by a fairly long hike (around two miles; use snowshoes in the winter), these noncommercial pools are maintained by volunteers who have built a series of cozy wooden tubs. Interlinked by plumbing that captures the piping hot spring water and selectively blends it with cooler water, Scenic Hot Springs offer baths of different temperatures.
Hot Spring: THE HOMESTEAD - Park City, UT
Ski Areas Close By: Park City, The Canyons, and Deer Valley resorts are all within 20 to 30 minutes.
The Skinny: The Homestead features everything from a golf course to over 100 lodging rooms, as well as the craterlike mineral pool. While the crater is suitable for guests equipped with no more than a swimsuit (required) and a rubber ducky, certified scuba divers can actually descend 35 feet into the 65-foot-deep cauldron.
Hot Spring: CONUNDRUM HOT SPRINGS - Aspen, CO
Ski Areas Close By: The four Aspen ski areas are all close to the trailhead.
The Skinny: These hot springs are reached via an 18-mile round-trip ski tour. Surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks, the remote Conundrums are the quintessential au naturel hot-spring experience. The Conundrum Creek Valley is also an avalanche death trap early season. Leave this overnight journey for spring-after the snowpack has stabilized.
For more information:
Hot Springs & Hot Pools of the Northwest,
Marjorie Gersh-Young (Aqua Thermal Access)
Great Hot Springs of the West,
Bill and Ruth Kaysing (Capra Press)
Colorado Hot Springs,
Deborah Frazier (Pruett Publishing)
Craig Martin (Pruett Publishing)