To get naked or not to get naked? That was the question. Or at least, that’s what was on my mind the sunny summer day my husband Ron and I hiked five miles into the wilderness in search of Rainbow Hot Springs. Many of the West’s abundant natural hot springs have been commercially developed with temperature controlled waters, cement bottoms and rules about clothing, but pretty much anything goes in the wild (well, other than the unlikely event a forest supervisor cites you for public nudity). According to Marjorie Gersh-Young, author of Hot Springs and Hot Pools of the Southwest, many natural hot springs are clothing optional, but it’s difficult to predict the etiquette for any particular day. Either way, I’d probably be too shy to go naked, so to be safe, I wore a bathing suit under my clothes.
Most soaking situations, especially noncommercial ones, attract visitors who love being in the outdoors, but having had my share of awkward encounters, I’m wary. One time in a Japanese bathhouse, while marinating in a wooden tub of something that looked suspiciously like green tea, I was debating whether to slip out of my suit and fling it on a lounge chair when a creepy looking guy in the buff slid in next to me. And on a remote stretch of nude beach in Tulum, Mexico, there were too many digital cameras in action; I had visions of myself turning up on the Internet in my birthday suit with a gorgeous ocean vista as a backdrop. No thanks.
On the other hand, at Esalen, the Big Sur mecca where visitors languish in stone baths perched on a cliff above the Pacific, it was easy to go au natural. Okay, fine, it was the middle of the night and I was alone (non-guests are welcome to use the baths between 1:00 and 3:00 am).
On the day of our hike to Rainbow Hot Springs, we followed the path as it curved through the woods, at times dipping down along the river’s edge, and at others, forcing us to climb through narrow passages of loose rock. The guide at the ranger station had warned that the last 200 yards of trail would be washed out—obliterated would have been more apt. I crouched low to the ground, sliding sideways. And then, out of nowhere, a tailgater in his mid-30s was on my heels. Alas, my footing was too unsteady to let him squeeze past.
Finally I glimpsed the hot spring, occupied by a robust woman with long hair that fell to her waist. Her locks were covering her chest, but I could tell she was topless. Then as I inched closer, I realized she was a he—a man in swim trunks. He introduced himself as “a hippie from Albuquerque,” quite a contrast to the guy who’d been breathing down my neck on the trail—a Denver lawyer on vacation to “chill out.”
Following Albuquerque’s lead, I stepped into the squishy-bottomed pool wearing my suit. The four of us fit comfortably with our legs extended, and took turns in a smaller second pool directly beyond the first, perfect for a solo soak. Above the twin pools, water bubbled from fissures in the rocks and tumbled down the cliff.
Ron and I sought out wild hot springs for the most common reason: to relax in the great outdoors among acres of pine trees and fresh air. Others come for the healing properties of the hot springs water. Although various springs have different mineral content, most are reputed to have benefits for a number of ailments, ranging from arthritis to high blood pressure. Spring water at the source retains all the vitality and curative powers that usually are drained by the time it gets to us—our tradeoff for having the convenience of water pumped or delivered directly into our homes.
Our soaking companions that day were perfectly nice people, but I’d hoped my husband and I would be the only two humans around for miles, able to freely strip and splash. For now, though, this was almost perfect. Leaning my head against a rock, I breathed in the views of lush forest and mountain peaks. A summer thunderstorm roared through, and raindrops scattered like confetti, celebrating with all of us in our outdoor sanctuary.