In less than a two-hour drive from Bend, there's an otherworldly, enchanted forest where you can hike through big trees, eat delicious health food and soak in natural geothermal hot springs.
The woods around Breitenbush hot springs are shockingly green for someone who spends a lot of time in the High Desert. Tucked into the Willamette National Forest about halfway between Sisters and Salem, the rustic resort is surrounded by moss, lush ferns and large, lacy cedar trees.
Built on a geothermal area in the Oregon Cascades, Breitenbush Hot Springs Retreat and Conference Center is known as a wellness and spiritual retreat. Many people rent a cabin or a room in the historic lodge at the center of the resort and stay a couple of days.
But two girlfriends and I went for one afternoon, and in the seven hours we spent there, we probably relaxed more than we usually do in a month.
Our first order of the day was the coolest (just more than 100 degrees) of the “meadow pools,” a series of natural hot spring pools lined with smooth river rocks overlooking the Breitenbush River. The pool we chose backed up against a mossy wall of earth, rocks and trees. For a short time, we had it all to ourselves. Three meadow pools accommodate at least six people each, grow progressively warmer as you walk down the path, and the last one is posted as “the silent pool.” Chatty as we were, we knew we didn't belong there.
These pools flush continually and the water looked clean. While we soaked and talked, a maintenance guy (or so we figured) walked through and reached into the pool, doing some sampling or testing of the springs.
“That guy must love his job,” my friend commented. Did I mention everyone was naked? Swimsuits are optional in the soaking areas, and most visitors don't wear them. People don't walk around the grounds disrobed, but a visitor needs to be comfortable seeing bare bodies in and around various pools and the geothermal steam sauna. The same friend commented on how in just the few hours we spent there, we all grew more acclimated to this.
In exploring the charming property, we witnessed two Canada geese walking slowly through a meditation labyrinth, an entangled maze of trails established by stone borders in an open field. Even the wildlife here are enlightened.
Then a bell gonged, indicating lunch time. And therein lies the most memorable highlight of the outing: The organic vegetarian food is scrumptious. We ate squash soup, quinoa, Asiago cheese biscuits and several helpings of salads in the cafeteria of the lodge.
Worth noting: If you are habituated to afternoon caffeine, like my other friend is, be aware that they don't serve coffee or tea. Don't even think about finding a Coke here. This was probably the only distress we experienced the whole day.
(Tip for addicts: We later discovered they sell black tea in the gift shop. Also, while alcohol is not permitted on the grounds, I doubt anyone would accost you for bringing a thermos of coffee.)
Ready to hike, we aimed for the Breitenbush Gorge Trail, through a tunnel of ancient cedars and monstrous firs. Wildflowers, including trilliums and shooting stars, were out in abundance. The soft, squishy dirt trails felt foreign to my feet, which are accustomed to the rocky, dusty, volcanic trails around here.
Our hike shortened to less than a two-mile stroll when we came to a bridge across the North Fork Breitenbush River that had washed out. The current was too strong for us to ford. So, we sat at the river's edge and soaked up the sun.
More than 20 miles of trail radiate from the resort, according to Breitenbush's website. Free, public access points to the Breitenbush Gorge Trail are available along Forest Road 4685, for hikers uninterested in visiting the resort (see “If you go”). We could have found somewhere else to hike, and I do hope to explore those other forested trails eventually.
But that day, none of us was feeling terribly ambitious. For three working moms, just sitting in the woods by ourselves with nothing to do was luxurious. Between our inertia and the rising afternoon heat, we felt ourselves slipping into a coma-like state. My friends shocked their bodies out of that by jumping off of a log-bridge into a clear, blue, frigid swimming hole along the trail when we finally decided to head back to the resort grounds for a yoga class.
Daily well-being programs are free to guests who pay a day-use or overnight fee. We returned to the meadow pools for one more soak, and then left around 6 p.m. as the dinner meal bell rang.
It would be lovely to stay overnight in a cabin, but on weekends a two-night minimum is required. We didn't want to be away from our families that long. Accommodations are also available in Detroit on Highway 22, and there are camping options all over the area.
Or, if you have the stamina, you can drive home. After all that relaxing, however, you might grab some coffee in Detroit before hitting the road.