Off the Grid at Deep Creek Hot Springs [Summer Travel 2018]

Photo by Mary Carreon

There’s something inherently mystical about hot springs. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that when we soak, we connect to and experience the energy of the Earth’s geothermic, molten core. Or maybe it’s the therapeutic effects of mineral-laden hot-spring water, which replenishes our bodies with elements such as magnesium, natural lithium, calcium and sulfur.

What’s surprisingly odd about Southern California, however, is there are few options for natural hot springs. You’d think it’d be the opposite considering there’s a town two hours east of OC called Desert Hot Springs. Ironically, naturally occurring Earth-springs are inaccessible there—unless you go to bougie hotel/spas that offer mineral-dense pools and accommodations costing $200 (plus your left leg) per night.

But nestled in the San Bernardino Mountains in a desert grid bordering Hesperia, Victorville and Apple Valley lies a valley of pools known as Deep Creek Hot Springs (Pacific Crest Trail, Apple Valley). The geothermal baths are surrounded by willow trees and majestic rock formations, just like the ones you’d find in Joshua Tree National Park. If mermaids could choose to live in freshwater environments, a community would reside at Deep Creek and co-exist with the massive bullfrog tadpoles that resemble swimming cucumbers.

The springtime weather kept the temperature below 85 degrees, and the canopying trees created ample shade. Day-trippers basked in hammocks. Hawks screamed as they flew among the contoured clouds, while visitors maneuvered over algae-covered rocks to get from pool to pool.

The springs are located on different-level rock formations. Two small, hot pools—one nicknamed the “crab cooker”—are positioned near the upper rocks and are between 95 and 103 degrees. There’s a bigger pool located just below the small springs called “the anniversary pool,” which is heated to about 80 or 85 degrees. Below that’s a spring named the “womb”; it’s naturally heated to 78 degrees and gets both hot and cool water filtered into it. Then there’s the main pool people swim in, which is the largest. Referred to as the “creek,” it’s a bit colder—shocking compared to the other pools—but after boiling in the crab cooker in 85 degree weather, the 70 degree mineral water feels like liquid nirvana.

If you’re someone who’s offended by seeing people in the nude, you shouldn’t go to Deep Creek. It’s an unspoken rule that clothing’s optional at hot springs, and Deep Creek’s no different. Groups of naked people roam around, hike, run and tan body parts that rarely see the sun. I saw my first “Prince Albert” piercing, and when that man bent over to grab his water bottle, I saw another piercing in an area I didn’t know people got pierced.

A number of stunning hiking paths line the hot springs. The world-renowned Pacific Crest Trail—the route spanning from Mexico to Canada—dips through the Deep Creek oasis. This should have been a sufficient hint at the difficulty level of the trails in the area, but my pride lead my logic astray, and nature whacked my ego like a pi–ñata.

Part of Deep Creek’s allure is how difficult the pools are to get to. There are two entrances to the springs, both of which require hiking. One access route (the most popular) is through an area called Bowen Ranch (6139 Bowen Ranch Rd., Apple Valley). A grumpy, desert-dwelling (yet charming) curmudgeon owns the property and charges between $5 and $20 to park there for the day or camp overnight, as camping is prohibited at the hot springs. There’s no number to call to reserve a spot at the ranch. You just show up with your gear, and the grumpy man accommodates.

The second trail requires an hour of off-roading through the mountains, followed by a 3-mile hike down the side of a sandy mountain. This path is the more strenuous of the two. It’s the one I chose, and in hindsight, I realize it was symbolic of my entire life: I always find the difficult or unconventional path and hike it with fury.

I ended up scaling a different facet of the mountain I was on because I didn’t understand which way the trail went. The gravel slipped under my feet, causing me to fall and take out my friend, who was 20 feet in front of me. Together, we slid, riding an avalanche of tiny rocks down to the bottom. I had dirt in my mouth, sand in my eyes, and my friend’s dreadlocks hanging in my face.

After sipping a few beers, puffing some greenery and reveling in the beauty of the hot springs, trekking up the vertical trail was one of the most challenging experiences I’ve ever endured. It required simultaneously using my hands and feet at specific points because of the incline. Halfway up, I almost vomited out of sheer physical exhaustion; I considered ditching my backpack to make the load lighter. The only reason I didn’t is because I couldn’t stand the thought of littering–especially in such a beautiful place.

Photo and design by Richie Beckman

The fatigue was humbling. I was dizzy, profusely sweating, dehydrated and starving. I thought I was going to pass out. At that moment, the clouds started shifting from white to gold to pink, while the sky evolved from light blue to a shade of violet. The sun began to set. I sat on the dirt path, using my backpack as a support pillow and my legs sprawled out in front of me. I felt like a speck of dust.

A person at the pools told my friend and me that search and rescue saves people every day from Deep Creek. At that moment, I was convinced that person was going to be me. The hike back up the mountain was brutal. But I visited the hot springs again the next day—and still didn’t take the more accessible route.

Why? Because there’s something beautiful about being reminded of how powerless and small we are in relation to the forces of nature and the universe. Maybe it was the fact I borderline hallucinated from exhaustion that made me feel this way, or perhaps it was a result of connecting with ancient geothermic Earth water. Either way, one thing’s certain: Full-body existential reflections don’t happen when you choose the easy path.

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