Thomas J. Story

Dive into the West’s trove of hot springs

Chris Colin  – June 1, 2018 | Updated July 26, 2019

I was floating on my back, looking at the Wellsville Mountains in the distance and dissolving problems in water the precise temperature of inner peace. Meanwhile, a lifeguard dished about a guy who drove all the way from Washington to this little oasis in Honeyville, Utah. He didn’t come to get in the water—he came to take it. Crossed three states with six massive plastic containers in his car. One by one, he lugged them across the Crystal Hot Springs parking lot, filled them with what’s said to be the most mineral-rich water in the country, then hauled them back to the Northwest. More than 700 miles for a hot bath, to go.

I had several questions but asked none of them. Maybe the lithium and manganese in the water had melted away all purpose. The heavy salt content meant I was buoyed right on the surface, Dead Sea–style. If this feeling were somehow transportable, I’d have gladly carted a few gallons home too.

Being new to this hot springs business, I’d only recently learned that Utah is full of them. I’m from coastal California, where people pay $5,000 for a backyard hot tub, so the idea of this resource occurring naturally amazed me—like stumbling upon a land where Greek yogurt grows on trees. I passed the information on to my wife, Amy, who sort of shrugged and reached for her swimsuit in the same motion. Ours is a marriage built on blindly leaping at quasi-affordable new forms of indulgence. And as VIP members of the weary parents club, we’ve honed an appreciation for relaxation, comfort, and any- thing not involving Lego pieces. The grandparents generously agreed to take the kids for the weekend, and after a week of research, we had a working understanding of the Beehive State’s hot springs scene.

Utah is bubbling with hot springs, it turns out. The subterranean tectonic plates get stretched extra thin here. Surface faults allow rain and snowmelt to seep down, heat up, and eventually gush back out. Within 80 miles of Salt Lake City you’ll find around a dozen mineral-rich oases in which to suspend thoughts about work, politics, playdate schedules, and overdue emails.

But which ones to visit? We wanted to find a doable number of soaks that could easily be covered by car over a long weekend. In the end, we decided to hit three, starting north of the Great Salt Lake, then crossing the mountains to the little town of Midway before ending up on a lonely road 175 miles south of where we began. Seven hours of driving, give or take, if you include the jaunts to and from the airport.

Airport? That was a dim memory by the time we pulled into Crystal, having spent the past hour and change sampling local radio stations (mariachi, Bible talk, Top 40), snapping pictures of every passing mountain, and ritually wondering if we were bad parents for abandoning our children. (Totally fine if we were. Just wondering.) And then, like a mirage made flesh, there it was—a steamy realm devoted exclusively to making people feel good.

Crystal Hot Springs, I learned, is the spa world’s answer to David Hasselhoff: popular enough here, but wildly beloved abroad. In the locker room I overheard Russian, Polish, and a third language that frankly sounded invented. President Roosevelt is said to have sent wounded soldiers here for rehabilitation during World War II. Before that, aching 19th-century railroad workers lowered themselves into similar natural baths nearby. Amy and I hadn’t laid any tracks or stormed any beaches lately, but we embraced the prospect of periodic table–assisted stress relief nonetheless. Hearing that the strontium-infused water might magically strengthen our bones didn’t hurt either. I’d be the Six Million Dollar Man for a $9 entry fee!

 

Crystal Hot Springs

Past the changing rooms, Crystal is divided into an array of constructed pools and jetted hot tubs. The site’s natural springs were first tamed by enterprising developers in 1901; the two 360-foot water slides came later. Amy and I put in respectable visits at the pools before bee- lining for the slides. “Why don’t they have these on every block, everywhere on Earth?” I asked. She indulged me with an uh-huh-dear look, then proceeded to schloop down the slides another dozen times, her laughs echoing eerily in the dark tubes. The lifeguard wore the long-suffering expression of someone charged with overseeing grown-ups in a Chuck E. Cheese’s ball pit.

The world is full of fancy spas, and this isn’t one of them. There’s an unfussy communal vibe that calls to mind no-frills Russian bathhouses—Odessa by way of Stagecoach. While one man executed a vigorous butterfly, a woman behind him chewed tobacco. I met two Brazilian sisters who, twice a week, make the drive from Salt Lake City. (“The heat reminds us of home!”) Another bather told me the pools are popular among people with mood disorders—the lithium helps, he said. This, I decided, has to be the most interesting collection of swimmers in all of Utah.

That night we crashed at a hotel in nearby Brigham City and set out the next morning for the town of Midway, the site of The Homestead Crater, a 55-foot-high natural dome covering a geothermal hot pot 65 feet deep. In pictures, it appeared we’d be backstroking inside a small, dark volcano. Sold.

During the 100-mile drive there, we pulled over almost immediately to check out a sparkly river and chat with a fisherman who’d already reeled in a dozen trout that morning. We watched a thousand birds explode out of some nearby pines, expanding and contracting against the morning sky like a cast net. Back in the car, we listened to an old John Updike story about another couple’s travels and the underground fault lines carving through their marriage. I pictured the literal fault lines beneath us, subterranean dramas resolving again and again into these steamy little pools for (happier) terrestrial couples to marinate in. When the story ended, we turned our focus to distant peaks and the occasional cheery farmhouse. Our inevitable maybe-we-should- move-here conversation lasted all the way to Park City.

We were early to our appointment at Homestead—only a few can go in at once—so we climbed the 78 steps leading to the top of the 10,000-year-old dome, which is just a hill of calcium and limestone with its top lopped off, allowing a shaft of sunlight into its depths. (People used to enter from the open top, but in the ’90s a tunnel was carved into the side.) We stood in the afternoon sun and peered out over Heber Valley, green swaths of golf courses and scattered distant houses dwarfed by the surrounding mountains. Then it was time for some Utah snorkeling.

Over the next hour we drifted like manatees in a slow-motion, head-down tour of a dreamy realm. Pale lights wavered up from below. Snorkel masks and life jackets made for easy floating in the warm water. There was no guide, so we idled freely, inspecting the dark walls and pondering the past. Before it got commercialized, this was just a hole in the ground for settlers to soak in, an unannounced portal to a surprisingly relaxing netherworld. Steer horns, assorted bottles, a wagon wheel, and even rusty vintage firearms were recovered from the grotto floor in 1995—akin to a La Brea tar pit for the pioneer set.

 

The Homestead Crater

We emerged invigorated. I can’t speak to the actual health benefits of lolling around in 95° water, but it felt like healthy living. Afterward we flopped onto a patch of grass adjacent to the dome. We’d brought reading material, but somehow looking at the clouds was engaging enough.

By Sunday we were ready for a wilder kind of hot spring. We drove an hour south past Provo and out toward the town of Springville in the Wasatch Mountains. We followed an old train heaped with coal, which followed a winding ribbon of river that hugged the underbelly of great red cliffs.

The god of such things wisely sited Fifth Water Hot Springs (801-798-3571) around 2 miles into an ascending hike, along a dappled path drawn beneath a canopy of maples and cottonwoods. I saw a tree that was the spitting image of Emmylou Harris. In passersby I beheld the only mood available to Utahns: hearty friendliness.

The desert mornings can get crisp at 6,000 feet, even in summer. By the time we reached our hot bath, we were wind-nipped and a bit dusty and more than ready. So Amy and I piled our stuff on a boulder and sank into a ghostly blue vat of sulfurous heaven. The tubs, such as they are, are a collection of little stone-walled pools built along a tumbling creek. Some were warm, some were hot, all were colored a milky blue typically reserved for science fiction. Un- like the other springs we’d visited, the soaking was free, at least for now. This is just a thing our planet does, and as inhabitants of it, we had the right to enjoy it.

That’s exactly what we did, sampling one pool after another. Once again, hot-springing proved to be a communal pastime, and we issued reassuring won’t-disturb-you smiles to fellow bathers scattered here and there. Laziness drifted on the breeze.

“The kids would love this,” Amy said after a while, gazing up into the trees.

“They’d fight over who got to sit on the best rock,” I answered. “But maybe the minerals would mellow them out.”

I couldn’t disagree.

Too soon we would be making the short drive back to civilization, concerning ourselves once again with rental car paperwork at the airport and scooping up our children. But for now, the mud under our feet was slick and smooth, the air steamy and smelling of ancientness. The trees above did their nervous shimmer. I thought: Surely there’d be peace on Earth if all of the world’s frazzled souls could just stew in these waters once or twice a week. Or maybe that was the lithium talking.