It’s not a pretty sight—naturally-occurring hot springs over-run with people, trash, human and pet effluent—sadly, it’s a reality in regions with abundant geothermal activity. Thoughtfully managing these areas is essential for public health and the survival of these special places.
All hot springs were at one time “wild.” That is, they occurred in an uncommercialized setting, perhaps popping up in a river, collecting in a rocky pool or seeping to the surface in a mountain meadow. In the U.S., indigenous cultures were often the first humans to soak in them. Almost without exception they considered hot springs sacred, worthy of reverence because of their rarity and healing attributes.
These days, in addition to guidebooks that reveal the whereabouts of remote hot springs, social media makes it easier than ever to dole out information—accurate or not—about “hot pots” off the beaten path. As a result, these delicate areas have become trampled and vandalized, with health and environmental hazards.
Don’t call it love when it’s abuse
“It’s been loved to death,” is a saying frequently cited in reference to places that have experienced the effects of over-tourism. Like all euphemisms, it seeks to soften and filter harsh, hard-to-view realities. Love that culminates in the destruction of the thing it professes to esteem is better and properly termed abuse.
The top issues facing wild hot springs are sanitation and human waste, user behavior and etiquette, trash and broken glass, traffic and highway safety, unsafe trails, overuse, dog-wildlife interactions, canine waste, lack of or limited cell phone coverage in cases of emergency and illegal camping and collecting of firewood.
Wild hot springs gone wrong
To prevent any further promotion, this article won’t mention the names of individual wild springs. However, these examples provide a sampling of what is all too common at undeveloped hot springs in the U.S.
A spring in Colorado has experienced textbook consequences of unchecked tourism. A hot springs book author who revisited a remote hot spring after writing about its beauty 20 years earlier was astonished to find the trees had been cut down for firewood. There were piles of human and dog waste, plus hundreds of pounds of trash strewn about. She also noted high levels of bacteria in the water, as well as the excessive drinking and drug-use that took place there.
Similarly, another “hippy dip” in Colorado, as well as one in California, are both billed as free and undeveloped, surrounded by natural beauty. The reality is quite different. There are so many cars parked along the highway they sometimes impede traffic; due to constant use and erosion trails have become steep and dangerous; and the hot springs themselves are often swimming with E. coli bacteria.
One “hot pot” in Idaho was reviewed by disgusted visitors who were hoping for a relaxing soak in a beautiful setting. Instead they found, “The grounds were trashed. Broken glass was everywhere. Diapers. Yuck!”
Implementing sustainable solutions
Short of bulldozing over, closing trails or fencing off undeveloped hot springs, communities are putting their heads together to find long-term sustainable solutions to the vexing problems facing wild hot springs.
Some national forests have implemented a permit system to reduce the number of visitors which has the domino effect of alleviating problems with trash, public toileting and illegal camping. While permit systems often meet with resistance initially, they can be effective in healing environmental wounds caused by overuse. According to reports from one site, since the permits have gone into effect, there has been a significant increase in cleanliness and respect for the natural surroundings.
Other communities have formed steering committees. Here is the mission statement of one such group: “To protect and preserve the natural environment and future use of Name of Hot Spring in a safe and environmentally sustainable manner that is compatible with the location and natural setting and that encourages respect and stewardship.” While ideas for mitigation are still being discussed, the steering committee formalizes a process for conversation, documentation, accountability and the implementation of remedies.
Monitoring solutions, such as increased police and ranger patrols, can also meet with resistance due to increased costs for government agencies, but have proven to be successful in areas where the undeveloped spring is in proximity to already established patrol routes. The intermittent presence of authority figures can also be an effective deterrent of bad behavior such as excessive partying.
Signage is a relatively quick fix that appeals to people’s inclination to do the right thing. With the exception of posting signs in a wildness area where they would be out of place, a sign can go a long way toward elevating expectations for behavior. No glass, swimsuits required, alcohol prohibited, no pets, no overnight camping; these kinds of reminders are educational and can be an essential step to restoring a wild spring back to health.
Depending on location, providing facilities such as parking, restrooms and trash receptacles can be a mixed bag for wild springs. While it reduces pollution and alleviates environmental pressure, facilities must be maintained, and their existence can even encourage more visitation.
Alternatively, educating the public and encouraging those who have platforms in publishing and the media about Leave No Trace principals can help to create a threshold of expectations for behavior and practices at wild springs and in the back country in general. According to the advocacy group, nine out of 10 people in the outdoors are uninformed about their impacts—a shocking statistic.
Indigenous cultures had it right when they declared sacred the places where geothermal waters percolate to the surface of the earth. Protecting undeveloped hot springs from overuse, pollution and environmental damage is a daunting task, with no one-size-fits-all solution. In a world with a finite number of special places like wild hot springs, it will take a community working together to make lasting changes.
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