Skeptical that a single-serving dip in a conventional bathtub is enough to soak the winter chill from your bones this year? Try following our multi-day hydrotherapy adventure through Oregon. It will whisk you from one natural hot spring to the next until you return relaxed, invigorated and ready for spring. Here’s our guide to sampling the full range of soaking styles, from campy and communal to rustic and remote.
STARTING POINT: PORTLAND
First things first: get yourself to Portland. You could make it further on the fist day, but we wouldn’t suggest it, especially with Portland being such a cool place to visit. But remember: this trip is about relaxing. Book yourself a night at The Woodlark Hotel and use this time to properly tune your road trip mentality.
Centrally located with a great restaurant and a super sexy lounge, The Woodlark is the kind of hotel you don’t need to leave to experience the best of the city. Just drop your bags in your room, head downstairs for a meal at Texas-Meets-Oregon Bullard and then retire to Abigail Hall for a seat by the fire. This softly-lit, lush room is perfect for a fancy cocktail and a big exhale. Winter is beginning to melt, and so should you.
Pro tip: Sometimes it takes a minute to locate that carefree road trip headspace. We find that donuts usually help. Blue Star Donuts is a five-minute walk from The Woodlark and they open at 7am. Whether you stuff a few in your belly before you leave Portland or take a box along for the ride, donuts have a special way of establishing that I’m-definitely-on-vacation-now mood you’re looking for. Try the (vegan) Mexican Hot Chocolate cake donut and a Blueberry Bourbon Basil.
Day 1 of your hydrotherapy adventure takes you to Brietenbush. Located on a secluded 150+ acre wildlife sanctuary in the Willamette National Forest, the historic Brietenbush Hot Springs Retreat and Conference Center is a worker-owned cooperative and ‘intentional community’ with a delightful hippy summer camp sort of feel, even with snow still on the ground.
Portland to Breitenbush Hot Springs is a 2-3hr drive (snow tires required) that passes through small towns along winding North Santiam State Forest roads. Once parked and signed in, visitors are invited to take foot paths through the forest to the hot spring, healing retreat and conference center area. Colourful towels hang to dry over railings and banisters of communal areas. Grounds are covered in trails for long and short hikes. Dedicated buildings encourage meditation. Yoga is offered. Staff, like camp counsellors, cheerfully shepherd guests in the right direction, and idyllic hand-built concrete and stone hot spring pools are mixed gender and clothing optional (mostly, people are naked). There is also a cold-plunge pools and sauna.
Breitenbush grounds are an artificial stimulant-free zone. That means, no booze, drugs, or caffeine. Electricity (generated from the Breitenbush River) is limited, so hairdryers are respectfully discouraged. Oh, and forget cell reception, you won’t get it. In our experience, the forced disconnect early on the trip makes for a nice reset. Breitenbush is about making do and appreciating Mother Nature. Start your hot springs tour strong; just strip down and jump right in. After your soak, an organic vegetarian buffet ($18) in a community dining hall is available.
Logistics: Breitenbush does have modest wood-framed cabins for rent (BYOB sleeping bag or rent sheets, blankets and towels). The demand for cabins is high. Reserve well in advance (we’re talking weeks, if not months, depending on time of year). Day visits ($23-$39) are available from 9am to 6pm – but even these require advance booking and spots fill up, so if you are thinking of making the trip, start by booking now. Note that our experience as day visitors allowed us more than enough time to explore and relax before getting back in our car to continue our journey to our second destination of the day.
Leaving Breitenbush around 2pm, we drove to Sisters, Oregon (2hr 40min). We were on a mission. We had word earlier that morning that there was an opening at The Hop In The Spa, and we wanted to check it out. Although not a natural hot spring, we felt that “America’s first beer spa” fit with our Oregonian hydrotherapy adventure. And seriously…beer and bathing; how could we skip this?
The Hop In The Spa is famous for offering a Microbrew Soak that steeps bath water with a combination of hops and herbs (as well as minerals). An hour luxuriating in this concoction is said to impart a beer glow to your whole body, inside and out.
We arrived right on time, and barely stepped through the threshold of the spa when we were ushered into a kitchen, poured a cold beer and handed a warm pretzel. We were already impressed. Owner Mike Boyle handles pint pouring and bath running and talks up an enjoyable and informative storm while doing both. Mike is an enthusiastic and generous host and we could not have had a better time, but I’m going to level with you: Hop in the Spa is not a spa. It’s an old house that has been outfitted with a few extra bathtubs. The thing is: fill those tubs with hops and herbs and add in a cold beer and a warm pretzel after a long drive…I mean, what else do you need? So check your herbal tea and dried fruit buffet expectations at the door. Forget gentle flute music floating throughout your softly lit changing room. Forget changing rooms at all. This ain’t The Four Seasons. This here’s a beer spa. Have a laugh.
Two soaks on your first day requires an early night. Five Pine Lodge in Sisters is a lovely cluster of comfortable cabins with fireplaces and a few well placed windows that look out over tranquil forest and streams. Check in, order some food and hit the hay, because tomorrow is a big day.
DIG YOUR OWN HOT TUB
Soaking in a carefully crafted outdoor pool designed to take advantage of surrounding views and connect bathers with nature can almost make you feel like you’re soaking in the wild. But what if you actually could soak in the wild? You can, and that is what day three is about.
Paulina Lake hot springs, located in Newberry Crater National Volcanic Monument, are referred to as ‘primitive’ hot springs. This means that, after you arrive at the Newberry Crater National Volcanic Monument (1hr20min drive from Bend), you still have to take a 5.5mi (8km) bike ride, followed by a hike (a portion of which will likely require snowshoes) and then you will need to dig any pool you want to soak in. No stroll in the park.
March, April and May are the ideal times to make this trip, but conditions can change quickly and dramatically. Although trails are marked with signs, they can be covered by snow. We don’t recommend that you just go searching for this piece of heaven by yourself. Hook up with a local guide who can take you directly to the good stuff. We connected with Kieron Weidner, owner and lead guide of First Nature Tours. He kept his eye on conditions and had a few different options planned to get us where we wanted to go. By the time we met up with him at a cafe in Bend, the morning of our dig-your-own hot tub adventure, he had determined what the journey would require and had us sorted out with bikes, snowshoes, a backcountry lunch, and a shovel.
The bike ride was a lot of work — uphill the whole way. And snowshoeing after the bike ride? That caused muscles to burn on a whole new level. But the journey was stunning and the soak at the end was the most rewarding and relaxing our tired muscles had ever had. To just sit there and rest our bodies on tiny pieces of pumice in lake-side pools of volcanically heated water while staring out across a glassy lake listening to the forest…that’s special.
After an hour or so of soaking, we were energized and ready to tackle the trek back. Our aim was to get out of the park area well before dark because we still had some distance to drive. Plus, we’d heard that the 2hr dive to our next stop had some of the prettiest views in the state; if we played our cards right we might just catch a sweet sunset on our way to Summer Lake.
Pro tip: Layers are key for this adventure! You’ll want a hat, a winter coat, snow or waterproof pants, gloves and good boots for snow shoeing. You’ll also want to take water and food (towels and bathing suits are advised but optional). And remember the campers rule: pack out what you pack in. Leave no trace.
BIG SKY BATHING
To get to Summer Lake Hot Springs, you have to take a 2-lane, rural road known as Highway 31 (part of the Outback Scenic Byway). The views are stunning. The rugged land catches light beautifully and the sky is big. This route is also known as a scenic shortcut to Burning Man for Burners traveling to Nevada from the north and north west. I mention this because something about this place being part of a burning man experience makes sense.
A collection of crystals and stones take up a close to half of the surface area of the check-in desk. Cabins are TV and phone-free. Instead, guests are encouraged to take up cloud-watching, star-gazing, meditating and hiking.
The structures here are built using green building and design practices and environmentally-conscious materials. The idea was to create a place that allows you to tap into calm by being in harmony with wind, water, earth and sky. Dawn and dusk are worth clearing your schedule for around these parts. No kidding.
The geothermal heated pools at Summer Lake are accessible 24 hours. The outdoor rock pool looks out across raw beauty of the desert, while the larger indoor ‘Grotto’ is a rustic version of a covered swimming pool. Clothing is optional after 9pm (when pools become ‘adult only’ zones).
Drop in to use the hot springs ($10 per person) or stay over night. Cabins are available (from individual hut to family sized ranch) but keep in mind that if you are looking to stay, there’s a two-night minimum on weekends and holidays. Two days wouldn’t be tough (there are some cool side excursions in the area including more natural hot springs) but if time and money are a factor, RV parking and camping are also an option.
Pro tip: Summer Lake is beautifully secluded. Quiet roads, no light pollution, kind of secluded. The cost of being that far away from ‘civilization’ is that food is not an easy get. The nearest town, Paisley (population 243), isn’t going to be very helpful. You want to come to Summer Lake with provisions. We suggest stocking up at Oliver Lemon’s in Sisters or The Humble Beet in Bend.
The drive home from Southern Oregon is a long one (over 10 hours before you factor in the border). We decided to break the drive into two days. This gave us the opportunity to enjoy a slow morning soak at Summer Lake before hitting road, and bought us one more night of a vacation before facing border traffic (and the responsibilities of real life).
We love a good PDX hangout, but a hard entry into city life after so much intentional decompressing seemed like the wrong call. So, rather than Portland proper, we spent the last night of our roadtrip in Wilsonville, at the Guest Barn at Middleground Farms. It was close enough to Portland to make a drive into town for dinner completely doable, but far enough out to hear roosters in the morning. So yeah, the perfect place to sleep. We slipped into Portland for a restorative meal at Ned Ludd and were back in Vancouver and in ours bed before midnight to dream of next time and the many cool roads ahead.
Road trip gallery
This trip would not have been possible without the generous assistance and guidance of Travel Oregon.