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.
Paddle to Oceanside Solitude
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; placeofwonder.com
Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site, (250) 559-8818; pc.gc.ca/pn-np/bc/gwaiihaanas/index_E.asp. 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.