The rumor on our ski bus was that there was a hidden hot springs somewhere near Stevens Pass and it was home to wild after-ski parties.
As a young teenager making weekly trips to Stevens for ski lessons, the cars parked alongside the highway five minutes west of the summit was all the proof I needed to confirm this fantasy.
Firmly fixed in our minds were the parties straight out of those raunchy ski movies that were so popular back then.
Oh, if only I were old enough (and cool enough) to join these adventurous rebels, I lamented whenever I saw their cars. After all, what could be better than fit, naked young skiers, several feet of snow and a secret natural hot springs bubbling out of the ground?
A few months ago I came across a list of Northwest hot springs and saw a name I didn’t recognize near Steven’s Pass called Scenic. I wondered – was this the same mythical place I’d heard about?
The location was about right, but I hadn’t seen the cars in years and the word on the slopes was that things had gotten so out of control that the fuzz had shut the place down.
So why was the name popping up on message boards? Could it be that Scenic Hot Springs had risen from the dead?
I’m finally independent enough to figure out how to get there (although I’m still not very cool) and I decided to see if what I’d imagined was the truth or just another urban legend (well, mountain legend).
As it turns out, the natural hot springs really do exist. And there’s a lot of truth mixed into those ski bus whispers from the debaucherous decades.
But I learned that the glorious après ski parties I’d wished for also had a dark side. In fact, they nearly murdered a historic natural wonder.
The Early Days
Scenic Hot Springs is more than just a tub of hot water where you can skinny dip with your friends. It’s history has deep roots to the early days of Washington back before it was a state.
As the Iron Goat Trail forged the original switchback train route through the Cascades, surveyors stumbled upon the springs – although like most natural springs their existence was probably known by Indigenous people long before then.
In the 1880’s the Japanese rail workers were thrilled to learn of the springs not far from their camp, and they spent their off hours soaking their worn muscles. Eventually a hotel was built near the rail line and the water was pumped downhill to be re-heated for guests.
An upscale sanatorium called the Scenic Hot Springs Hotel opened to wealthy and famous Seattleites but it was torn down to make way for a new rail tunnel under Stevens Pass. To make it up to the hotel owner, he was granted 40 acres of timberland including the source of the hot springs.
Abused to Death
Over time, the existence of Scenic Hot Springs was largely forgotten by the general public. The land was bought by a collection of Seattle doctors and harvested for its timber. But the owners didn’t manage the springs or keep track of who was using them.
This created an opportunity for a small but growing group who began to sneak onto the private land for a soak.
The vast majority of visitors loved and appreciated the springs. At one point, they built a massive wooden deck surrounding concrete pools.
There are photos from those days, and I have to admit – the place looks awesome like one of those cool Bohemian backpacking places you find in remote jungle and beach towns.
It’s especially cool when you consider that the whole thing was done organically. People had to haul in thousands of dollars worth of materials because they loved it there, and they wanted to make it better.
Unfortunately all of this went on without the landowner’s knowledge or permission. And there was were no doubt questionable construction methods used on the steep and sensitive land.
And there were also those who trashed the place.
It’s a tale that’s all too familiar for those of us who spend time outside. Why is it that some people go to cool places and decide to spray paint trees, leave behind dirty diapers and pitch their cigarette butts everywhere? Selfishness? Laziness? Antisocial behavior? Ignorance?
In the ‘90s and early 2000s Scenic became a place for massive drug and alcohol abuse. Sheriffs were frequently called in to quash dangerous behavior.
The authorities finally had enough and decided to shut down the springs for good. They raided Scenic and tore down the illegal decks and soaking pools. Their final solution was going to be to pour a bunch of concrete into the hot water seeps, and plug the springs forever.
A Last Ditch Effort
Scenic’s salvation came quietly – almost without notice. The land was purchased by Mike Sato who imagined the springs as Japanese style soaking pools like those he operated at Meager Creek and Skookumchuck Hot Springs in Canada.
The county wasn’t thrilled about the idea of reopening the springs to general public use, but they tentatively put the location on a long-term permitting track – like a 10 year probation – to see if the new managers could break the streak of historic bad behavior.
And so, very quietly, Scenic has come back to life.
When Amanda and I decided to visit, we made reservations on a bloggy website where we had to request permission to enter private land. Only after we were accepted and paid a $20 donation were we given directions.
Scenic is still awaiting permits but they can kind-of sort-of let “friends” use the springs.
As a travel writer, there’s always a tension you feel when you share your secret spots. If you’re successful in your craft, you can produce a Rick Steeves effect – the back doors that you love can become front doors for mass tourism.
That’s exactly what the managers of Scenic are worried about. And that’s why I’m only writing about it here on this blog rather than in widely distributed media.
They’re nearing the end of a long permit process and they’re happy to lay low for the next few years. Everyone is worried that things will go back to the way it was when a few bad apples ruined things for everyone.
I also won’t print the directions here, but I will say that the hike was no easy jaunt. It’s up-up-up hill to the point where we wondered how any 1980s ski bunnies ever made it to the party.
The decks are gone. There is still evidence of timber rotting in piles near the springs. The large concrete tubs have been replaced by circular plastic tubs with three different temps ranging from 115-105 degrees (this one is too hot, this one is too cold, this one is juuuust right).
There isn’t a caretaker on site (although there are plans for one in the near future) and as a result the water wasn’t the cleanest – it had lots of little floaties, but it didn’t smell too bad.
And it doesn’t take much imagination to see it’s potential as a sweet location with access from Highway 2. With a hillside view of the upper Cascades and mega snow dumps in the winter, it’s perfectly situated to be a really cool getaway if things go well.
If things go well… it’s up to us to decide if Scenic is worth saving, or if we feel like trashing this natural wonder once again.
If you’re one of the cool kids, you can request a reservation at: scenichotsprings.blogspot.com/