By: Sarah Jane Woodall I’ve never been a fan of winter. Every year, my fingers and toes go numb from mid-November until mid-March — and this annual torment was one of the main reasons I moved to Vegas in the first place! Back in California, I’d spend winters hovered directly over the furnace in […]
By: Sarah Jane Woodall
I’ve never been a fan of winter. Every year, my fingers and toes go numb from mid-November until mid-March — and this annual torment was one of the main reasons I moved to Vegas in the first place!
Back in California, I’d spend winters hovered directly over the furnace in my mom’s house, dreaming of crawling across the broiling wasteland of the Mojave Desert — so imagine my dismay when I finally moved out here, only to find that desert gets cold in winter, too. REALLY cold!
Hunkering down in a pile of blankets for 5 months a year isn’t an option for an adventuress like me – I like to get around! So over the years I’ve tried all manner of defrosting tactics – everything from wool socks and furry boots to antifreeze enemas and baked potatoes up my ass (fingerlings work best). But nothing really worked to thaw my frozen bones…until finally, one January day about 10 years ago, I found the answer.
A friend invited me to go hiking down by the Hoover Dam one bitingly cold winter morning, and I figured why not? At least the movement would stave off frostbite! He told me we were hiking to some kind of hot spring, but I had no idea what to expect – all I knew was, it was chilly and overcast all the way down the trail, with imminent snow threatening. What was I thinking?!
I asked myself that question more than once as we descended into the shadowy depths of White Rock Canyon, then followed the Colorado River upstream a ways before turning up a narrow side canyon, the sandy floor of which started out damp, and only got wetter the farther up canyon we trekked…until eventually we were sloshing along through an inch of water, soaking our shoes.
Great, I thought to myself. Now my toes are really going to freeze! But the funny thing was…they didn’t! This water was mysteriously warm, like someone had left a bathtub running somewhere up the canyon, and as we slogged along and the water got deeper, it occurred to me that my friend had mentioned we were hiking to a hot spring. I guess I’d never thought about it much before, but come to find out…they don’t call ‘em hot springs for nothing!
After two hours of hiking we arrived at the end of the canyon – and now found ourselves looking up at an extremely rickety two-story metal ladder that looked to be somewhat flimsily bolted to the rock face above. Apparently, I was meant to trust the engineering of whatever half-baked hippie had rigged this thing in the first place, and climb to the top…where this alleged “hot” spring lay in wait.
“Don’t worry,” my friend urged, jumping up a few rungs and scampering to the top, like it was nothing. “Just make sure you get a good grip, and go slow!”
Having come this far (and gotten this soggy), there was really no turning back…so I grabbed the sides of the ladder and hoisted myself up, one shaky step at a time. The ladder wobbled, and the situation was made even more precarious by the fact that water was cascading down the cliff face behind it, splashing off the rock and making the rungs of the ladder slick and treacherous. YIKES!
But the water was warm! Hot, even…and that’s what kept me going. When I finally hauled myself onto the ledge at the top of the cliff, I was greeted by a vision from paradise: a narrow slot canyon with towering stone walls rising several stories, only a sliver of gloomy gray sky visible above. The bottom of this canyon held a series of clear pools dammed by sandbags — with clouds of steam wafting from the surface!
Where has this place been all my life?!
The custom at these places being to bathe nude, I whipped off my hiking clothes and eased my chilled bones into the soothing hot water of the first pool. HEAVEN! The bottom of the pool was sandy and clean, and a steady current of fresh hot water flowed through from further up the canyon, flushing away all the bits and pieces (ahem) of those who’d come before me.
For the first time in weeks, I felt life coming back into my toes, and all the miseries and discomforts of winter melting from my frozen bones. I wallowed around in the warm waters like the proverbial pig in shit, color gradually returning to my cheeks and life slowly returning to my eyes. I was finally warm!
I soon realized that the farther one waded/wallowed/sloshed up the canyon, the hotter the water got – there are usually a series of 3-4 pools dammed up at this particular hot spring, each one hotter than the next until you reach the so-called “crab cooker” or “lobster pot” at the very top, where the source of the springs comes gushing from a crevice in the canyon wall, forced up from some volcanically-heated aquifer deep in the earth. And it was there that I found my nirvana.
Let me tell you, there is nothing like immersing oneself in lava-heated water, leaning back against a canyon wall and looking up to see rain misting down above you as you dig your toes into the sandy bottom and enjoy the sound of water rushing all around you. You’d pay hundreds of dollars for a similar experience at one of the fancy casino spas – but this was FREE! All you need is the gas money to get to the trail head, the gumption to hike a couple of miles…and the guts to climb that sketchy ladder.
My friend and I only had enough daylight to soak for an hour or two before it was time to get dressed and hike out…but I swore I’d be back. And on the hike out, I learned that there were more hot springs down by the Hoover Dam – some of which are only accessible by boat, including an amazing “sauna cave,” which is basically a tunnel bored into the side of Black Canyon during construction of the Hoover Dam. When the workers blasted the tunnel, they accidentally tapped into a hot spring – and now a hot creek flows through the bottom of this long, curved tunnel, filling the inside with steam and making for a totally otherworldly experience…especially when you hike in far enough that the daylight disappears, and you find yourself in hot, steamy darkness. Like being back in the womb!
The wonders of the sauna cave and other Nevada hot springs were still unknown to me as I hiked out of White Rock Canyon that January day over 10 years ago- but after that first magical hot spring experience, I was hooked. I’ve spent the last decade chasing natural hot springs all throughout the amazing state of Nevada (and beyond). Nevada has more hot springs than any other U.S. state, and I have made it my life’s mission to enjoy as many of them as possible. From that first hot soak down on the Colorado River, up through the cow pastures of central Nevada and into the mountains and playas of the Black Rock Desert up north, at last count I have been to 29 different natural hot springs in this beautiful state – and there are still many more I haven’t yet experienced.
And I’ll keep looking for them, because I’d rather drive 50 bumpy miles through cowpie-spotted rangeland to soak in a rusty old stock tank than pay to soak in some chi-chi spa, any day. Not only are the natural hot springs FREE, they are also unpretentious – and best of all, when you’re 100 miles from anyone but the cows, you can toke up to your heart’s content.
Try doing that at a hotel spa!