Carson Hot Springs Resort is an old resort located in Carson, Washington up the Columbia Gorge just east of the Bonneville Dam. It's an interesting historic relic that, if you can look past the oddities, offers a fantastic true mineral springs soak. It's very near to Portland, Oregon and soaking is reasonably priced at $20.
I was feeling pretty low the other day so I decided I needed to get away from it all. Carson Hot Springs was my choice for a short escape. It helped.
Sadly the resort has become muddled with various different owners and remodels over the years. There are still strong remnants of the original 1901 (1923 for the bathhouse) construction. I love the original Hotel St. Martin structure and the exterior of the bathhouse.
In 1994 a Korean investor bought the property. My guess is that to the Korean sensibility there was huge business potential seen in the mineral springs and natural surroundings. The mineral water of Carson is true mineral water, it is sulfur-y and has a high mineral content. This is very desirable in Japanese onsens and traditional Korean hot springs. A huge amount of money was spent doing redevelopment work, putting in a giant parking lot, two new hotel buildings and a brand new golf course. Luckily the old bathhouse and original hotel building were mostly untouched. Were there plans to eventually tear down and re-do these structures as well?
After the money was spent customers did not arrive. Tinygogo, my dear reader, exists to evangelize the joys of hot springs bathing, but on the whole this is a pastime that is largely forgotten by the American public. This means there's more room for me but this sort of recreation remains a niche market. Maybe the Korean investor had anticipated bringing in droves of appreciative Korean jjimjilbang goers? Whatever the plan was, it didn't materialize. In 2003 the property was resold.
Here are some photos of 1994 development nightmare. Parking lot:
Looking east toward the gorge, more parking lot!
This view shows the two new hotel buildings. Up until recently the building on the right was vacant. The bathhouse is dimly visible in the middle. But, take a second to look past the asphalt and appreciate the beauty of the Wind River Valley. The natural surroundings are magical. Wind River Hotsprings, a wild hot springs is somewhere up that valley on the river bank.
Meanwhile the treasures of the facility were neglected. With the pavement butting up against the wall of the building, I worry about the foundation. It's a great old historic structure that needs some attention.
Maybe the neglect was a good thing. The original structures are still there and potentially restorable. The new owners seem to be doing a good job of taking care of the property and bringing it back to working order. I will hope for the best.
A soak and towel wrap
The traditional Carson Hot Springs experience is to have a very hot soak in a large cast-iron clawfoot tub--maybe with a few intermittent dunks in another clawfoot tub filled with cold (non-mineral springs) well water--and then get tucked in on a bench with a hot towel wrap.
The towel wrap may be a traditional hot springs experience in other old resorts. I'm not familiar with it. Even though it's a little odd, I very much appreciate that it is a 100-year-old tradition at this resort. In spite of ownership and building changes the procedure has quietly remained a consistent part of Carson Hot Springs. This is what I came for and this it what I will share with you.
Inside the bathhouse
At various points in the bathhouse's history it has received updating to be in style with the conventions of the day. In the 90s a sauna was added, which despite my grumblings about the other development is a welcome improvement.
The bathhouse walls were tiled and the rest of the interior was covered in cedar. I took a quick peek in the ladies' area. It retained the painted white walls with wood wainscoting which were originally to the building's construction when the turn-of-the-century aesthetic celebrated the advent of sanitary indoor plumbing. Back then sanitary meant white porcelain and white everything else.
The men's soaking area consists of eight extra large clawfoot tubs. These are big tubs, probably even big for their day. (Just out of college, I used to move clawfoot tubs when I worked for Rejevenation House Parts. Their old store had more of an architectural salvage focus and we bought and sold many old clawfoot tubs. From this experience I know clawfoot tubs pretty intimately since I was one of the two flunkies who had to carry them up out of the warehouse basement when one sold.) I didn't measure them but my sense was that the standard is at least 6 inches shorter. There was plenty of room to stretch out in them.
Here I am in tub No. 6. Notice the hot mineral water is still flowing in. I've filled up a glass jar with sulfur-y mineral water for drinking.
No. 6 is a good tub.
And again, these tubs are special. My legs are totally stretched out and I'm not touching the end. The overflow is capped off so it was really filled up it for full immersion.
The water is hot. The temperature varies but typically it's around 120 degrees (48 celsius). It took a bit of mental focus to adjust to the heat and, like a good sauna, it got me sweating. Fortunately when it got to be too much for me, there was another tub nearby with freshly-filled cold water.
By far the oddest addition to the bath house are the posters put in the bathhouse soaking rooms windows. They've been here for a number of years. Here they are in all of their glorious weirdness:
1. doe-eyed jungle animals 2. Unicorn in waterfall vista 3. One wolf moon (similar but not to be confused with three wolf moon.) 4. Sylvester, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and the Tasmanian Devil playing pool. It's a little much to look at while lost in the sensual state of bliss of a soak. I just don't get it.
One neat, easily-overlooked feature of the bathhouse are the old original towel wrap bench/beds. Since they help you rest (in my case, sleep) in a somewhat upright position, they must have been custom built for this purpose. Notice the turned legs. Somehow they've survived all these years. Very cool.
Here's my bed, with the sheet awaiting me to finish soaking.
After the soak, I was asked to lie down naked on the bench/bed. A towel soaked in hot mineral water was placed over my chest and another was put over my head. The sheets were wrapped over me and I was covered in a blanket. Then the blanket was tucked under me (tuck, tuck tuck) just like I was a toddler. I was wrapped up like a mummy, very womb-like. It didn't take long for me to blissfully doze off.
My attendant took this photo of me. My camera did not cooperate in the low light. Hopefully you get the idea.
I've mentioned some critical things about Carson Hot Springs. I want to stress a few really positive things as well and, fundamentally, these things make up for the unfortunately remodeling (and psychologically disturbing posters in the bathhouse).
My attendant was absolutely fantastic. He understood why I was there and understood the basic principles of vigorous soaking: hot water and cold dunking. Everyday he assiduously updates the hot and cold water temperature and records it on this board. Record high temperature: 124.7 f (51.5c).
I arrived toward closing time. I mentioned that I didn't want to hold him up. My priority was just to do some soaking in righteously hot mineral water. He let slip that he was hoping to soak a little himself at the end of his shift. I encouraged him to make this happen. I soaked and got my hot towel wrap tuck-in. When he was done helping me and with his other duties, I heard him slip into his own tub and then later take his own repeated cold dunks. I rested well knowing that there was someone working at Carson Hot Springs who really understood and appreciated their job.
Since my last visit from a few years ago, the care and cleanliness of the bathhouse has improved markedly. Nothing has changed all that dramatically but the space is a lot cleaner. The service was great throughout but I attribute the quality of the soaking experience to this one employee.
Carson Hot Springs Resort is a rare historic treasure. Old traditions somehow manage to be kept alive here. Whatever happens with the future development of the facility I hope a few things are kept: the old hotel (this is where I'd want to stay!), the bathhouse, the clawfoot tubs (Don't refinish them! The chipped enamel and rust are part of their charm) the towel wrap and the antique beds. Keep it simple! It was a blessing to soak in a place that didn't force me to listen to new age music. The only music I needed was the sound of flowing water. I also felt lucky not to assaulted by any unwanted hotel/resort fragrances. Here the basics are all that is needed.