Cowboy Club Med, a Visit to Summer Lake Hot Springs


It took us a long time, but the family finally made a visit to Summer Lake Hot Springs. The experience really exceeded our expectations so it's worth sharing.

About ten years ago I found a short mention and photo of the historic and isolated hot springs bath house on the internet. Summer Lake is located in high-desert south central Oregon about two-hour's drive south of Bend, not the sort of place you can make a quick weekend get away too. I tucked this info away in a note on my computer and kept the dream alive of someday visiting.

Getting There
I was able to finally make it happen last weekend. The family went down to participate in the Burgundy Topz Scooter Club's 23rd annual camping rally, Scootouring. The rally starts in Sacramento. Becky's dad, Mike, and his wife, Pat, just moved into a new house in Cool, California which is located in the "gold hills." As luck would have it, their new house is actually very close to the traditional Scootouring camping location. We trucked a scooter down, had a brief visit and one-night's stay in Mike and Pat's new house and the next day meet up with the ride. As usual, it was a fantastic camping experience.

Early Sunday morning, we packed up for the return trip to Portland. To get to the hot springs, instead of taking I5, we went over to Reno, Nevada and took 395 north.

It was a long drive and pretty tough on our eight-year-old daughter, Greta. We arrived in Paisley, Oregon around 7:30 p.m. and decided we needed to get something to eat before checking in at Summer Lake Hot Springs which was a few miles away. We pulled into the first (and really probably the only) place we saw, the Homestead Restaurant. The waitress looked a bit frazzled. She was hurriedly loading beers into the cooler behind the register. We were told it might be a 20 minute wait before we were served because there was a big party in the back room. Having no other options, we sat down.

There was indeed a big party and it was all cowboys wearing true-to-life cowboy regalia (including their hats on indoors). They were having some sort of association meeting but they were also having fun drinking beer. While we were waiting, a couple groups of other local families sat down in the main area where we were. Picking up on some of the conversation, the families were ranchers too and most of them were duded-up in cowboy hats, boots and even spurs. Very likely there was some rodeo-type event in the area that day. Even so, it was evident that in this part of Oregon they take cattle ranching and cowboy culture seriously. Maybe I was a little giddy from the day-long drive, but I thought practically everyone in the restaurant had charisma. The people seemed full of character: strong, healthy and reasonably happy. Maybe there's something to be said for living in cattle country?

On to the springs

By the time we finished our food it was dark outside. We were a little worried we would be checking in too late and imposing on the proprietors. We showed up sometime after nine. It was late but we were graciously received. We were pointed in the direction of our cabin. The bath house was noted off in the distance with simple instructions to "help yourself." It was totally dark out but there were some lights on in the bath house. That was good enough for us.

I think one of the reasons I love soaking and sauna-ing so much is that, as I get older, I tend to get pretty sore muscles, especially in my hips after sitting all day. (Stupid desk job!) After driving for most of the day I was eager for some righteous "hydrotherapy." We quickly unloaded our stuff, grabbed towels and headed for a soak. We stumbled our way through the dark, partly dazzled by the incredible star show.

I was entranced by the bath house. It was empty, quiet and completely unsupervised. It was an old structure (built in 1928) and a bit like being inside a barn, peeling paint, dust, rust and a few spider webs. All was peaceful and quiet, with the only noise the calm steady pour of the spring water into the pool. After 9 p.m. bathing suits were optional and, amazingly, the bath house was open 24 hours. This was true cowboy freedom!

We found changing stalls and the showers. (Do you need changing rooms when no one is around?) We got into our birthday suits, and headed for the showers. Even though there is abundant geothermal hot water, there was no hot water for the showers. The website made it clear that they wanted people to "wash your bums" to help keep the pool safe and chlorine-free. We dutifully washed our bums in the bracing water. This really wasn't so bad knowing that blissful warm water awaits.

We soaked in the pool for a while, taking in the amazing rustic atmosphere of the space. We heard some voices outside the bath house. Greta did some exploring and came back to report that there was an outdoor soaking pool made of rocks and concrete at the back of the bath house. There were a couple of people finishing up their soak back there. Once the other folks vacated, we relocated to the outdoor pool. It was much hotter, making for a more vigorous soak. I loved the bath house but being outside in the hotter water under the stars was just what I needed.

The experience of soaking in the outdoor pool and looking up at the amazingly clear high-desert night sky was one I won't forget. There's really something to be said for looking out over the universe from the comfort of warm, womb-like water. The universe is gigantic and cold. It can seem lonely and unforgiving, but from my position it didn't feel that bad.

After the soak we slept like babies. In the morning I brought my camera out and explored.

The Cabin

There were two small cabins built next to each other. They were built on concrete slabs that were geothermically heated. When we arrived the night before, our cabin was actually too hot and opened the windows to cool it off a bit. We were impressed.

This one is the "Paisley," named after the nearby town
Paisley cabin

This one is the "Manzanita," where we stayed
Manzanita cabin

I thought our cabin was nice and well-proportioned. It was put together carefully and thoughtfully. We appreciated the interesting choice of materials in the construction. Notice the re-used corrugated metal roofing. This probably helps to keep the space cooler in the summer.

Much of the interior wood was salvaged old-growth clear vertical grain fir, replaned and sanded. If you looked closely you could see old nail holes.

Here is a good photo showing the reuse of an old ball-tipped door hinge.
Cabin hinge detail

I liked how the door and window casing was consistent with what would have been done in the 1920s in the area. There was the screen bead piece just under the top horizontal board but no crown lintel. Nothing fancy but it was the way it was done, particularly in working-class structures or out here.

The kitchen counter surface was made of red linoleum. It reminded me of my family cabin's 1950s kitchen counters in Hope, Alaska. It reminded me that this red linoleum is still obtainable in case we ever need to redo the Hope cabin's counter tops!

You can kind of see the counter here in this photo, along with some other cool features.
Cabin kitchen

The old refrigerator was a nice aesthetic touch but it was loud. We ended up unplugging it for the evening. I liked the old sink with the built-in drain board. Practical. Also, how about that re-used five panel door? The builder got it right, right down to the cast-iron escutcheon plate for the door knob.

Here's a pic of the bathroom:
bathroom detail

My only complaint with the cabin was that the drapery arrangement didn't seem like it had been fully sorted out yet. We couldn't close the drapes (and there were no blinds) sufficiently to keep out the light. This caused us to wake up a little early.

The Bath House

A stay at Summer Lake Hot Springs includes all-you-can-eat soaking, so we started out the day with another soak and I brought my camera.

Here's a picture of the bath house.
bath house, photo 2

Here's a photo from closer in
1928 Bath House

Here's the inside
bath house with rafters

The water pouring out of the old cast iron pipe/spigot for the pool was hot but not too hot. It was relaxing but it wasn't exactly what I consider to be a hot tub soak temperatures.

Standing under the spigot and having the water pour over my head and back was wonderful.
Hot sulphur water


I wished there were a few benches or something similar in the pool so we could sit down and relax. I wondered if that idea was ever tried?

The ambiance of the old bath house structure was simply fantastic. It was great to let my eyes wander around the boards and rafters and daydream. Many people from all walks of life had been here before us. I could imagine tired dirty ranchers using the pool, sharing it with some of the first and truly adventuresome tourists who traveled on Route 395 or whatever dirt road or trail may have proceeded it.

It was pretty disappointing to see graffiti carved into the wood with people's pointless initials and dates. The wonderful fact that people can use the bath house unsupervised and in relative privacy is a double edged sword in that there will always be disrespectful people who can't handle this sort of freedom. I looked around for signs of any really old graffiti. Maybe some of this started in the 1930s and I shouldn't be so judgmental? This would help me view the carvings as part of a historical continuum. All I saw were dates from 1990s and later. So they were just stupid disrespectful people and they don't get any excuses.

After a while we moved outside to appreciate the hotter, smaller soaking pool. It was a crystal clear morning, something we haven't seen too much of over the winter in rainy Portland.
looking south from hot pool

Here's a shot of the outside soaking pool.
hot soaking pool

We had a conversation with a worker who said that there were plans to expand this area to include two more pools. That sounded good to us as long as there was enough water for it all.

The only thing that would be any better (for me at least) would be to discretely add a wood-fired sauna somewhere nearby and to include a proper cold dunking tank. I kind of suspect that that is what the large steel stock tank (in the foreground of the above photo) will be used for.

Here's a link to the flickr set that has more detailed photos of things.