Exploring Lane County's thermal delights
BY JAMES JOHNSTON
Lane County is best known for … what?
The Country Fair? Oregon football? Hippies or anarchists? Logging shows or wine tasting? Grass seed or … well, grass?
Lane County could just as well be known for its hot water as its cold rain. We live in a geologically active area and have one of the most extensive networks of hotsprings anywhere in the country outside of Yellowstone or Lassen Volcanic National Parks.
Below I share a comprehensive overview of Lane County's hot springs. I'll omit several beautiful destinations outside the county (including Bagby, Breitenbush and Umpqua hot springs) that are longer drives but well worth the trip.
There has been little archaeological investigation of Lane County's hot springs, but the few artifacts recovered from the vicinity of certain well known springs indicate human use and occupancy for at least 8,000 years. When white settlers first invaded Oregon Country, well used trails led to all of the hot springs I describe below.
All of these hot springs are surrounded by beauftiful old growth forests, and if a careful observer were to survey these areas, he or she would note an unusually high density of cedar bark peels. Western red cedar was a cornerstone of native coastal cultures, who used different parts of the tree, especially the inner bark, for food, medicine, clothing and tools. I speculate that the springs were used extensively to soak and steam cedar so it could be easily shaped into containers and tools. We can also easily imagine native people using the springs for spiritual, medicinal and relaxation purposes.
Belknap: Belknap is the largest and most extensively developed of the cluster of hot springs found on the upper McKenzie River. All the hot springs are enclosed by a private resort complete with lodge, gardens and event facilities. There's also reasonably priced camping, which comes with free firewood and access to the hot tubs. The Belknap facility has a long history as a resort destination dating to the 1870s, when "mineral spas" were thought to cure a wide variety of diseases. Clark Gable and Herbert Hoover were both visitors during the resort's heyday, the Roaring '20s.
To get there, take Hwy. 126 east from Springfield for approximately 55 miles. Four miles past the town of McKenzie Bridge, take a left on Belknap Springs Road.
Deer Creek: The Deer Creek hot springs — also known as Bigelow or McKenzie River hot springs — are easy to find, little utilized, sometimes cooler, but extraordinarily scenic springs just a yard from the banks of the ice cold McKenzie River. About five miles past Belknap hot springs on Hwy. 126, take a left onto Deer Creek Road and find a short path to the springs on the left just over the bridge on the north bank of the river. There is just one 8 by 12 foot pool, half of which is enclosed in a four-foot deep grotto blanketed by moss and ferns.
Terwilliger: Terwilliger, or Cougar, hot springs are the most heavily used public hot springs in Lane County. To get there, drive Hwy. 126 east four miles past the town of Blue River. Take a right on FS Road 19, and drive another 7.5 miles to a paved parking lot. The quarter mile trail takes you through a fog-drenched old growth forest to weird rock formations and six rock-lined soaking pools that vary in temperature from cool to extremely hot.
Like most of the hot springs described here, Terwilliger is clothing optional. (For the walk in, anyway. No one wears a bathing suit in the tubs.) The springs have been heavily used and abused, and Forest Service law enforcement strictly enforces a ban on drugs, alcohol and nighttime soaking. And there's a $5 use fee (separate from the trail park fee required for the trailhead). Camping is allowed only at designated sites.
Foley: Foley hot springs are located to the south and east of McKenzie Bridge on private land. Once a developed destination, the springs are now closed, and trespassing is forbidden.
McCredie: McCredie is a very warm but often uncrowded complex of hot tubs you get to by driving east on Highway 58. Approximately 10 miles east of Oakridge, you'll find a parking lot on the right next to a sign for McCredie Station Road. Park here and wander downhill to a set of pools on the north side of Salt Creek. Or drive another quarter mile down 58, take a right on Shady Gap Road, cross a bridge, take another right, drive a quarter mile to a parking area on the right. A slippery trail leads to pools on the south side of Salt Creek.
Wall Creek: Wall Creek is interesting. It is the least developed (it's practically unknown) of the springs described here. The water is usually lukewarm at best. But the hike is beautiful enough to make it worth a day trip. To get there, take FS Road 24 from Oakridge for 9.5 miles, take a left on FS Road 1934 for about a half mile and find the trailhead on the left. The flat, level hiking trail is a half-mile long, and takes you through a spectacular Douglas fir, western hemlock and red cedar forest alongside a gorgeous creek.
Kitson: Kitson is another once well-known, now abandoned destination accessible off Forest Service Road 23 (turn right just past Oakridge). A fairly elaborate bathhouse was deliberately destroyed after being donated to the Boy Scouts as a campground. The old foundations are now an important sanctuary for endangered bat species and the likely future setting of a Blair Witch Project-like horror movie.