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Backpacker Magazine – April 2008

Hot Springs: The Perfect Pool

Here are the top wilderness soaks on the continent. Can you keep a secret?

by: Doug Schnitzspahn

Hotspring Island | Sespe | Yellowstone | Turkey Creek | Skillern/Big Smoky
Soak Here Now

Soaking–the act of doing absolutely nothing while sitting in a natural hot spring–is an art. A true backcountry spring-bobber seeks immersion not just in hot water, but in the very wild nature of a place. You sit. You sweat. You listen to the river rushing by. But the art form isn't entirely passive: The best pots are often the hardest to reach, making a truly great hot springs sojourn an excuse to explore some of the remotest wilderness areas in North America. Here, we offer the top five springs on the continent, plus six bonus soaks for families, mountain bikers, even scuba divers.

Update: Since a 7.7-magnitude earthquake in November 2012, the Gwaii Haanas pools are no longer hot. There is some hot water seeping still, but below the high tide line. It's still a great trip!

Paddle to Oceanside Solitude
Hotspring Island

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia
Okay, so there's no Ricardo Montalban or Hervé Villechaize waiting to greet you, but Hotspring Island is nothing if not a fantasy waiting to happen. At Gandll K'in Gwaay.yaay (what the local Haida call it), you can soak in the springs on an empty beach surrounded by pristine coastal-mountain scenery while a pod of orcas swims by.

The island, a part of Gwaii Haanas National Park, is remote–450 miles north of Vancouver and 75 miles off the mainland–and most visitors pay for a puddle-jump plane ride from the town of Sandspit on nearby Moresby Island. To get there under your own power, you need a kayak, an understanding of tide charts, and the expertise to paddle some of world's roughest waters. It's a four-day, 40-mile paddle to these pools on Gwaii Haanas's eastern shoreline.

Ranging in temperature from a skin-peeling 130°F to a merely muscle-melting 107°F, the pools on Hotspring Island lie below rocky hills covered in Sitka spruce. Steamy thermal meadows are filled with monkey flowers. On the horizon, the peaks of Moresby Island's San Christoval Mountains rise like lazy humpbacks into the sky.

Pull your kayak ashore and walk to a modern longhouse where Haida Watchmen co-manage their native lands in a unique arrangement with the federal government. Then submerge yourself in water considered sacred by the Haida for centuries. Nestled among the broad leaves and purple berries of salal bushes, the main pool fits a dozen and is carved into the rock behind the Watchman's house. Or you can slide into the seven-person cliff pool, perched in the rocks above the beach. The best tub is right in the surf, overlooking Juan Perez Sound, where you might see those orcas, or a school of wave-hopping Pacific white-sided dolphins.

Camping at the pools is restricted, so plan to soak and then jump back in your boat for a half-hour paddle to Ramsay Island, where tenting is permitted. Spend the next few days paddling south into bio-rich Burnaby Narrows, often referred to as the Galapagos of Canada. Camp on Burnaby Island and wrap back around the eastern edge of the islands, exploring several traditional Haida village sites on your way back to Moresby Camp–or pre-arrange a floatplane pickup anywhere along the way. Getting There Gwaii Haanas, which translates to "Place of Wonder," is not easy to reach. Paddlers often book a floatplane from Sandspit to Hotspring Island. The Gwaii Haanas Tour Operators Association pairs paddling, sailing, or floatplane outfitters with travelers. (888) 877-1770;

Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, (250) 559-8818; Gwaii Haanas caps visitors at 300 per day for the entire park, and only 12 visitors are allowed on Hotspring Island at one time. Make reservations early (call Super, Natural British Columbia, 800-435-5622 beginning in February), and expect a mandatory orientation when you register at the Haida Heritage Centre in the town of Skidegate, near the Sandspit Airport. Study up on the region with Kayak Routes of the Pacific Northwest by Peter McGee ($15, The Mountaineers Books).

The park is open all year, but the best times to avoid crowds and have relatively good weather are April through mid-June and September. Skip high season (July to mid-August), when Gwaii Haanas can be overcrowded with groups waiting to visit the island.

Hotspring Island | Sespe | Yellowstone | Turkey Creek | Skillern/Big Smoky
Soak Here Now

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Steve Snyder
Jul 11, 2013

Couple of comments.

1. There's several other springs in the Gila besides Turkey, many of them decent, and a couple of them a bit easier hikes. Some of Gila's springs get hot enough to need side-pool cooling.
2. There's other places in Yellowstone where springs and creeks mingle to get nearer right soaking temperature.
3. Can't believe you left off the hot springs at Big Bend. Late fall-early winter is perfect.

Jul 11, 2013

Unless something has changed since January (2013) the Gwaii hot springs are still dry after an earthquake cut off their water supply back in October 2012. The photo of them in the email caught my attention and I wondered if this had been added as an update.

Mar 10, 2012

In the eastern united states, don't forget Hot Springs, NC. The AT runs through town. Lots of great hiking in the area such as Max Patch Bald.

Double Cabin; John B
Mar 10, 2012

Unless something dramtic has happened since 2006 the Springs at Dunanda are not "110 degrees," close to their source they're scalding.Extreme caution is warranted IMO.

I think MR. bubbles is awesome. I reccomend soled footwear for all the springs, especially the shifting/rumbling crust of Mr.Bubbles.

Mar 08, 2012

I miss the west! any hotsprings near New Hampshire!?

Mar 08, 2012

Last I checked Idaho was on the west side of Yellowstone. Making for a quite a long trip if you are trying to get to the southeast corner of the park. But then if you're going to the southeast corner you won't really be looking to hike/backpack in the Bechler Area anyway.

Mar 08, 2012

You missed 2 beauties in Southeast Alaska. White Sulphur Hotsprings on Chichagoff Island. The pool is right on the edge of the Pacific. Incredibly vistas as you soak. There is a US Forest Service Cabin that can be reserved and paid for online. The Forest Service cabins are rustic but wonderful.
The other hotsprings is just a bit south of Sitka-capital of Russian America, Paris of the Pacific. There are 2 separate tubs maintained by Sitkans.The tubs are in separate Panabode shelters. Well loved by the local fishing fleet. Across the bay there is a cabin that can be rented through the city offices.
Oops-there's one more. It's in the small village of Tenakee. Tenakee is a non-motorized town with a great little harbor. The hotsprings is a bathhouse in the middle of town with alternating mens and women's hours for soaking. Beware, if you're soaking when the Alaska Ferry arrives, you might be part of the local attractions as curious ferry riders disembark to take a peek.

Give ItARest
Jun 04, 2011

Zack: You're just trying to discourage people from visiting this place because you want it to be your own private little spot. Give it a rest. There's plenty of nature to go around.

Mar 16, 2011

Im with Eric, stay away hippies!

Jan 14, 2011

It's for the better that the coordinates are wrong. Please stop writing about our backcountry thermal areas - they're incredibly dangerous, and encouraging people to venture off-trail is not a great idea. For the record, the "hot spring" that backpacker is encouraging you to swim in at the ferris fork is actually a semi-active geyser. When it erupts with someone in there, the death will be attributable to poor editorship on the part of backpacker.

Jan 13, 2011

Thanks for the article! A hot springs hiking trip sounds fantastic during this cold winter. If youre in the area Umpqua Hot Springs in Oregon is also a fantastic place to go!

Sep 26, 2008

I don't know if you can still get there from here but the 1 time I made it to Sespe I went in from Mutau Flat. From the Frazier Park and Gorman side. Be in good shape. Harder to hike out then hike in. Bring lots of water. Awesome place and the only encounter I had was with a mad wild possum. Remember though this place is infamous because Charlie Manson (yes, that Charlie Manson) had his hippie lawyer killed here. But that was in the days when you could drive to the Sespe Hot Springs. And when there was a road (from Rose Valley).

Jeff Barnes
May 20, 2008

I believe thatthe coordinates are wrong for Ferris Fork....IF you plot Ferris Fork UTM: 12T 0590482E 4903815N you are about 7 miles OUTSIDE of the park boundries to the east. I think the right coordinates are 12T 05090482E 4903815N The 0 & 9 are transposed on the Easting


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