Natural Hot Spring Soaking In The Great Outdoors
Having grown up in the midwest, I had no clue about natural hot springs – let alone clothing-optional hot springs – until the winter I got a job at one. It didn't take long until I was hooked. Now I enjoy a hot soak whenever I find myself traveling near a hot spring. Here are my four favorites in the southwestern United States.
If your only hot spring experience is in an enclosed room at a resort, I encourage you to try soaking in an outdoor natural hot spring. It's amazing to relax in the hot water under the stars. You don't have to wait for a sunny day; soaking outdoors while it's raining will make you feel like a kid again. And it is utterly exhilarating in cold weather.
Don't be shy about visiting a clothing-optional hot spring. No one will force you to get naked if you don't want to. And if you think you might be embarrassed to see other people in the nude, make your first visit during the week when you are more likely to have the place to yourself.
There's really no reason to be self-conscious, though. Most people who visit hot springs are there for the relaxation. I've never experienced anything but respect from other soakers. Of course, there was a time when I had reservations too, and I'm grateful that I had a clothing-optional hot spring job where I learned to be accepting and comfortable with my body.
Photos copyright Nancy Shepherd
This is the go-to guide to hot springs of all types in the Southwest. Whether you're looking for hot springs that are commercial or free, wild or developed, clothing-optional or not, this book has pictures, descriptions, and directions so you can choose the best soak for you.
A Desert Oasis In Arizona
El Dorado Hot Springs may be just 45 miles west of Phoenix, but it is, as they say, "a million miles from Monday." Soaking in one of their tubs is a blissful experience that can drain away the week's tensions and make you believe that Monday might never come.
El Dorado is a commercial hot spring conveniently located just off Interstate 10 in Tonopah. A variety of private soaking areas, each with its own charm, offers an opportunity to relax and unwind in peace and solitude. The communal soaking area contains multiple soaking tubs, a lounge area, and a shower. Here you can choose to visit with other soakers or claim a quiet corner for meditation.
While the entire El Dorado property is not clothing-optional, there is a fenced section set aside for naturists. This naturist section is the communal soaking area, and it's actually not clothing-optional, either – it is clothing-prohibited. This no-clothes rule puts everyone on the same level and assures that no one is there just to gawk.
From the moment you drive into the parking lot, you get the feeling that El Dorado Hot Springs is special. The entire property is encircled by thick bamboo-like reeds. Overflow from the soaking tubs runs along a perimeter ditch, so the area is surprisingly green with plants, trees, and shrubs. The motif is rustic and the open-air soaking areas let you enjoy the fresh air and hummingbirds. You won't find anything pretentious here; the mode is natural, and the people are friendly.
Unlike some springs, the hot mineral water at El Dorado is odorless. It is naturally heated to about 107 degrees, and its pH is 8.2. Soaking tubs are cleaned daily, but during operation no chemicals are used. The water is allowed to flow continuously through the tubs, so there is always clean water and you can enjoy a healthful, chemical-free soak.
It is easy to find El Dorado Hot Springs. Just take Exit 94 off I-10, go south over the overpass, and turn right on Indian School Road. The hot spring is on the left, within a quarter-mile. Gas stations, convenience stores, and a restaurant/lounge is a short walk away. Parking for trucks and large RVs is just across the road at the truck stop.
A Mountain Hot Springs Getaway In New Mexico
If you don't mind driving a little farther off the main road, you can enjoy hot spring soaking in the mountains of the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. Gila Hot Springs is 40 miles north of Silver City and just 4 miles south of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.
Gila Hot Springs has several sand and mud-bottomed, rock-rimmed pools of varying temperatures, 105-110 degrees. One of the pools is lightly screened from view for clothing-optional soaking. The actual spring is on the other side of the West Fork of the Gila River, and the water is piped across to fill the soaking pools. Primitive camping (not advisable for large RVs) is available -- first-come, first-served -- with drinking water and pit toilets nearby.
The shortest drive to Gila National Forest is on Highway 15 from Silver City. It's 44 miles, but it can take 2 hours to drive because of the road's steep, winding mountainous nature. Any vehicle more than 20 feet long should use the alternative route, Route 35 north from 152, east of Silver City. It's a longer drive, but just as fast since it's not as winding.
Registration at Gila Hot Springs is self-serve. The rates and rules are posted at the sign-in kiosk, along with envelopes for your payment. A day visit is $4 per person; camping is $5 per person per night. Pay your fee, pick your campsite, and enjoy a relaxing soak.
The hot spring is part of nearby Hot Springs Ranch, which offers cabins and RV sites. Supplies are available at Doc Campbell's Post (the ice cream is a treat on a hot day). Take some time while you are there to visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings and enjoy the scenery of the mountains and the river.
An Arizona Hot Spring With History
Even farther off the main road, and not for those in a hurry, is Verde Hot Spring beside the Verde River. Between Phoenix and Flagstaff, it requires a long, slow drive on a bumpy, dusty dirt road, but the reward is a shady campground and a hot spring soak in a beautiful setting.
In the 1920s, Verde Hot Spring was a popular resort with a hotel and soaking pools. It burned in the 1960s, and all that is left is some foundations and a couple of pools overlooking the river. The original access is no longer available, so after the long drive, you'll still have to hike a mile and ford the river.
The main pool at Verde is deep enough to soak standing up, and has a temperature of about 98 degrees. A shallower and hotter pool is nearby, enclosed by walls. Over the years, visitors of an artistic bent have decorated the area colorfully with paint and tiles. There are no rules concerning nudity at Verde Hot Spring, and most visitors opt to soak in the nude.
To reach Verde Hot Spring, take exit 287 from Interstate 17 and turn right on AZ-260E for about 10 miles. Turn right onto Fossil Creek Road for 14 miles, then right on Child's Power Road for 7 miles. The dirt portion of the drive is rough; there may be times when 4-wheel-drive is necessary. I drove there in an Astro van and was generally okay, although I did get stuck briefly on the way out. My heart was in my throat when I approached the steep drop into the campground by the river. I wondered if I would get back out, but I did with no trouble.
The riverside campground is primitive, so take all the supplies you will need. Big trees shade the campsites, and you can camp for free. Be aware that the campground is not clothing-optional.
At the end of the campground, a rusty sign marks the trail to the hot spring. Follow the trail downstream to the river ford, then back upstream to the soaking pools. When I was there, the water was knee-deep. Please don't risk the crossing if water levels are high; someone drowned there a few years ago.
When you've had your fill of hot spring soaking, visit nearby Montezuma Castle National Monument, a well-preserved cliff dwelling of the Sinagua culture.
Convenient Hot Spring Soaking In California
Highline Hot Well is almost the exact opposite of Verde Hot Spring. I don't know how a free natural hot spring could be any more accessible than Highline. Of course, being right off the interstate means it can get crowded, but if you're in a hurry or if you're driving a large RV or truck, you take what you can get. It also means that this one is not actually clothing-optional, but some people get away with it by going for a soak late at night.
Located on BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, Highline Hot Well is right next to a long-term visitor's area, where many snowbirds from the north come to spend the winter. During the cold months, you'll find the camping area densely dotted with Rvers who enjoy hot soaks. Anyone can camp on the BLM land free in the summer; in the winter there is a fee. There is no drinking water or sewer dump, but there are toilets by the hot well parking area.
Two concrete soaking tubs are available at Highline. One is about five feet deep and 102 degrees; the overflow from this tank goes into a shallower tub that is also cooler. The tubs are drained and cleaned weekly. A length of perforated PVC pipe has been installed to create a sort of shower effect; this pipe can be rotated to aim the shower in any direction. Behind the soaking tubs is a palm tree-lined lagoon for the run-off water.
It's easy to get to Highline Hot Well. About 11 miles east of El Centro take exit 131 off Interstate 8. Take the first right just north of the interstate and follow the frontage road to parallel the highway. Right after crossing the canal you'll see the BLM long-term visitor's area to the left and then the hot spring parking lot on the right. Note that there is a curfew from midnight to 5:00 a.m. at the soaking tanks.