All Warm, Some Naked: Utah's Hot Springs 

Into Hot Water: Utah's love/hate relationship with its natural hot springs.

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Wet & Wild
For those who prefer the unstructured, noncommercial, wild hot-spring experience, Diamond Fork isn’t the only one worth finding. At the entrance to Ogden Canyon, just off 12th Street, two hillside pools regularly attract soakers. Unfortunately, those who gawk at bathers sometime show up, too—an occasional occurrence at hot springs close to “civilization.” Saratoga Springs is in a muddy mosquito-infested marsh but still interesting, Stinky Springs lives up to its name, and places like Baker in the west desert attract dedicated soakers willing to travel long, dusty roads (Visit CityWeekly.net for directions and more information).

Utah’s most beautiful natural hot pool is probably at Meadow Hot Springs. It ranges between 98 and 102 degrees and has the look of something you’d see at Yellowstone. Around its edge is a rough, rocky ledge (wearing footwear is a good idea) at just about the right depth for seated soaking. Beyond that, the sides slope toward an intense blue and deep center.

When he bought the springs about 10 years ago, billionaire inventor Jim Sorenson envisioned a physical and spiritual healing retreat, but that didn’t happen prior to his death in 2008. Now, Meadow Hot Springs may become unavailable for public use because Sorenson’s heirs are selling them. Hopefully, the new owners will continue to allow their traditional public access or will commercially develop them rather than horde them for private use.

Where’s the Flow?
But falling into private hands isn’t the biggest threat to Utah’s hot springs. In fact, according to Mystic’s Ginsburg, “In this age, springs are really better off under private management.” He may have a point, since wild hot springs are seeing increased use and are often abused. Serious soakers regularly cart off bags of trash. Glass bottles should never be brought to a spring where they’re all too often broken, but that happens, too.

Of course, a geological shift can seal the fate of a hot spring, but it’s more common for humans to alter things. Castilla Hot Springs at the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon was once a thriving recreational resort attracting miners and rail passengers. And, like many other Utah resorts, Castilla declined and died, and the unmonitored pools were used for years by locals and travelers in the canyon. But drugs and underage drinking were common, so in the 1980s, local authorities dynamited the springs and diverted the water.

Could a similar fate befall nearby Diamond Fork? According to U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Doug Jones, “The county made a request a while back to do that, but we turned them down.” He added, “The Forest Service manages the land, but we have no intention of destroying what someone else built there.” Jones, however, won’t support any new pools up there. “If someone tries to build something else, we’ll probably take action.”

click to enlarge Diamond_Fork_upper_pools.jpg
And that’s OK with one of the three builders of Diamond Fork’s pools. People have been building pools for soaking at Diamond Forks since at least 1977. The current pools began to take form in 1988 when individuals such as Ron Lindley, his cousin Marty Nelson and “Spike” (some soakers remain anonymous) packed in a few pounds of cement on each of many trips to construct the pools that many believe formed naturally. The pools above the falls were only completed a few years ago.

Lindley would like to see overnight camping at Diamond Fork prohibited or require a paid permit to fund upkeep. He cites the volunteer-supported Deep Creek Hot Springs in California as a prototype.

And humans pose another threat to hot springs: drilling to tap geothermal resources for energy can reduce or eliminate the water flow to a hot spring. Such a condition seems to exist at a hot spring near Point of the Mountain. Josh Davis, owner of Tropical Fish Wholesale, said that his father bought the hot spring there (also known as Crystal) in 1965, and the family once had a thriving enterprise raising tropical fish in an 80-degree pond it fed. A few years ago, he believes the state began pumping more hot water from a geothermal well it drilled that taps into the same aquifer feeding Davis’ spring; his pond temperature dropped, and the operation had to be moved.

Greg Peay, director of the administrative services bureau for the Department of Corrections, reports that the prison’s geothermal well does heat several buildings and preheats its culinary and laundry water, but his department doesn’t even extract all the water for which the prison has water rights. He also believes a commercial flower growing operation has recently put in two more wells that draw from the same aquifer. So, just like any resource utilized by humans, there’s a limit to every good thing.

The managers of the more northern Crystal Hot Springs are somewhat concerned about the underground resource they depend on. It’s being tapped by a new Proctor & Gamble facility nearby, but general manager Jeremy Johnson is “hopeful the resource is vast enough to supply us both.” Neither Davis nor Johnson is aware of legal remedies they could resort to if others take what once flowed to them.

Wild or Mild
For now, many of Utah wild hot springs remain alive and well. Of course, the idea of dodging rattlesnakes on a challenging trail only to share the water with an ample population of smelly, floating globs of algae is not for everyone. And because microscopic critters inhabit standing warm water, some experts recommend never putting your head beneath the surface in a wild hot spring.

Given the challenges, most people opt to get into hot water at a developed resort. But Utah’s commercial hot springs may still be a little rough around the edges for some. If you’re looking for immaculately maintained modern facilities, consider Idaho’s state-owned Lava Hot Springs—a 2 1/2 hour drive north—although soakers like Lori Grant of Salt Lake City could “do without those webcams that display who’s soaking.” If you want the high-end, full spa treatment with herbal massages and clay body wraps, the granddaddy of resorts in the West is Glenwood Springs, Colo.,—five hours by car, nine by Amtrak.

But if you can tolerate a few quirks and imperfections, Utah’s commercial hot springs offer something that, judging from the number of foreign accents heard, the rest of the world appreciates more than we do. And if you opt for wild hot springing, the soaker community welcomes all who adopt its ethics—don’t be obnoxious, no glass, no sex in the pools, and do haul away your trash and then some.

To all those willing, “Come on in! The water’s incredible!”

Jim Catano is a freelance writer and editor, green entrepreneur and au naturel soaker.

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