Is Kahneeta (Kah-nee-ta) a place for the sauna and soaking enthusiast? Here's my take.
Ever since the 1980s I've been curious about Kahneeta. I used to see newspaper ads and billboards touting a miraculous sunny escape from miserable rainy winters here in Portland, Oregon. It was billed as a high-desert resort and casino. Two hours drive and you could be golfing and swimming in the sun in the middle of the winter. How the heck is this supposed to work? Is Kahneeta some Oregon Shangri-La?--a hidden valley of eternal sun and youth? Not one to go for canned vacations, golfing nor gambling I never pursued my curiosity any further.
That was until recently. A few things came together that helped me decide that maybe Kahneeta was worth a visit. I learned that part of the miracle of Kahneeta was that it is all based around a mineral hot springs. I'm all about that! Plus it's kid friendly, with two water slides in a large swimming pool. The pool and slides run all year long.
The modern incarnation of the resort was built in 1972, a casino was added in 1995. Maybe a stay would offer some campy charm and entertaining weirdness? Always in desperate need for a vacation (and jealous of all of our friends who seem to be going to Hawaii this time of year) I booked a room for the weekend. The kid could slide and swim her heart out and I could do some proper soaking.
Researching before the trip, I had difficulty getting a sense of what it was really like. The company website is serviceable but since they're making a sales pitch I didn't really trust that I was getting the big picture. I may not be alone here, so hopefully I will provide a fair and honest report about what Kahneeta is really all about from the perspective of someone who's interested in quality bathing time. We went with few expectations other than to soak in a geothermally-heated swimming pool and make some runs on the water slides.
Kahneeta is located on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. It's east of Mount Hood and the Cascade Range and therefor in high-desert country. This is where the promise of sun comes from. It may not be warm but even though it's only a short-drive from a rainy wintery Portland, the mountains tend to stop the Pacific clouds from rolling in. As my twelve-year-old daughter and friend pointed out to me during the drive in, Kahneeta is in a rain shadow desert. (They had just learned this topic in science class.)
The resort is about a 30-minute drive into the reservation off of Highway 26. The drive in off the highway is really wonderful with terrain alternating between pine forests, desert scrub and cattle grazing land and--as you descend down into the Kahneeta/Warm Springs River Valley--increasingly interesting geologic rock formations.
Aside from the golf which I don't have much interest in, there are two primary parts to the resort: As you enter, the hot springs/swimming pool area is on the right. This is referred to as "the Village." It consists of a big pool/spa/rec area with a large "L"-shaped swimming pool. Near the pool is a summer camping area with rental-able "teepees. " There's also a small set of hotel rooms and RV parking. More on this area later.
Past the pool and up along a ridge to the left is the original early-1970s resort hotel, "the Lodge." This, until recently, include a casino. The structure is positioned to utilize the topography. Built somewhat into the hillside most every room has fantastic panoramic views of the valley. Even though it is a rather large structure, with many sharp angles, it blends in well with the terrain. This is achieved through the use of neutral-looking colors similar to the landscape. I'm not a fan of modern architecture and this building is an odd blend of interpreted "Indian" and 1970s modern design. Still I found the building, and by this I would include some of the interior elements, to be rather striking. A lot of thought went into the design and surprisingly it didn't feel overly dated. Even if it's not your thing, you would probably agree that for an industrial-scale resort facility built in such a beautiful, remote and rugged setting, it could have turned out much worse.
In the Lodge a giant cement fire place is just off the lobby. The fire place effectively provides a sense of center to the establishment. Staff maintain a fire throughout the day, adding giant logs onto the andirons .
The large dining area has giant windows that look out over an amazing landscape. It features a somewhat bizarre light feature, a giant star-burst chandelier. This, in my mind, is a feature that most dates the structure. I wonder if Kahneeta has considered stock piling appropriate light bulbs for this thing? If incandescent bulbs are on their way out, these particular bulbs might actually become completely extinct in the next few years.
There is a large central courtyard with a heated swimming pool. On the same level as the pool is a fitness center. In here there's an exercise room, a small hot tub, a sauna and steam room. All of these features are rather so-so. The hot tub seems small for the size of the hotel. The sauna and steam room are also small. I was hoping that this would be a central feature of the facility. They struck me as existing mostly as token amenities, something that would be advertised as included as adjuncts to the hot springs. The sauna is small and doesn't offer features that a true enthusiast would appreciate. For example, there are no nearby showers much less a cold dunking pool. I suppose you could argue that the outdoor swimming pool serves this purpose but to get into the fitness room you need a room key, so this makes running back and forth a bit of a hassle.
Down the hill at the Village is the main feature: the giant geothermally-heated swimming pool (with water slides!) Building this must have been a formidable engineering feat. As such, it's a little sad. These natural hot springs were a destination for Native Americans for thousands or years. Given the beauty of the natural surroundings, soaking here, before it was disturbed, must have been a profound experience. Today probably very little looks the same as it did, certainly not with a miniature golf course nearby!
What were the old soaking pools like? I don't know. I looked for historic photos at Kahneeta and didn't see anything. Today there is a small structure built over what may have been part of the original springs. This is fenced off and exists to keep guests from falling into the burning hot water.
Development sucks. And what was done was drastic and cannot be undone. For starters there is a giant stone levee that was built between the swimming pool and the Warm Springs River. This required a lot of earth moving and rock. The pool and locker rooms were built to handle a lot of people. The water control and chlorination systems are complex and substantial. It's a big facility.
Here's a shot of the entry to the swimming pools:
The shower room:
Out to the pool:
So what does a soaking enthusiast get from Kahneeta? The pool water is chlorinated and warm, it's just not soaking warm. Aside from the stunning views of the valley's hillside, soaking, if you could call it that, consists of hanging out in a large sanitized (literally) American-style swimming pool. There are two jacuzzi whirlpools: one small and a larger one that is somewhat separated from the pool area. The are both acrylic tubs (which gives them a low score aesthetically) and not particularly hot.
Nearby there is a spa facility that offers massages. This facility has a sauna and a hot tub. I tried the spa's sauna and I was disappointed in the same way that the Lodge's sauna was lacking. Also, you cannot easily wander from the spa to the pool so, again, you miss out on the exquisite pleasure of dunking in waters of different temperatures. This is a good example of the weakness of the resort. It was designed by architects and engineers as a pool but they simply did not possess an appreciation for bathing as an art.
In spite of my criticisms I still love Kahneeta. There's something really great about being outside naked (well, with a swim suit) on a cold winter day and still being warm, able to enjoy the freedom of swimming and floating in water. This is especially the case because the surrounding are so beautiful. Kahneeta is rarely crowded in the winter so, except for holiday weekends. It's easy to find a section of the pool where you can float on your own. One part of the pool has a large deep-end. I like hanging out here, swimming under water.
On one trip one Sunday morning, it started snowing. There was something really magical about catching snow flakes in my mouth while floating in the pool. On cold days and when the atmospheric conditions are just so, mist rises off the hot water of the pool. It's wonderful.
I worry for the long-term fate of Kahneeta. Recently Kahneeta closed the casino and moved it to the highway. It probably wasn't getting much gaming business anymore anyway but now it's really slow. After the casino closing, Kahneeta seems to have failed to re-configure itself back into the family resort destination it started out as originally. I had a friendly conversation with an Indian tribe member as we relaxed in one of the hot tubs by the pool. He was upset that the managers had lost sight of the 'how and why' of what the place was. Here was this fantastic natural resource, why not turn up the heat in the showers and in the pool? He thought the temperatures were kept at summer levels when it is hot outside and this reflected that the consultants didn't appreciate why people came here in the winter. And, why he mused in frustration, were the hot tubs not hot enough? What happened to Kahneeta selling itself as the sunny escape from rainy Portland? All I could do was agree.
I asked this guy about the tribe-only soaking house. Was there anything extra nice about this place or did it hold any sense of being sacred or special? He complained that the water here too was not hot enough! In spite of our grousing and observations it's important to remember that we were still enjoying ourselves, relaxing in warm water outside in the open. .
Maybe management is getting the message. Just recently I saw a new billboard advertising Kahneeta in Portland: woman in bikinis hanging out by a pool. The billboard was seen on a cold cloudy day in February! "Go Native" Now were talking.