Month: June 2015

3. Cougar: Ice Cream Sandwiches For Woodland Creatures

Distance to relaxation: 3 out of 5 spigots

Distance to complete relaxation:
3/5 spigots

Cougar Hot Springs are like an It’s-It Ice Cream Treat:

  • It’s uncomplicated as far as it lets the ingredients speak for themselves.
  • It’s unquestionably good from a value for money perspective.
  • But it’s over more quickly than you’d like, unless you make an attempt to savour it.

At the foot of Cougar Hot Springs you will meet the Enchanted Gnome, protector of this aquatic realm. He disclaims to you, as he must to all travellers, that dropped trou lies ahead.  You consent with a knowing wink and pay your nominal $6. Taking a big swig out of his gallon-sized coffee goblet, this rosy-cheeked friend bids you good bathing, and points up towards the path ahead. There is only one road leading to Cougar:  along a steep and unrailed ledge, then through the thick Cascadian greenery. The trail and the baths themselves are not embellished. A verdant fernscape surrounds the bases of impossibly towering trees–D-Firs in Portland hipster parlance.  After a quarter mile walk you spot the wooden construction, enough to hang your clothes up but not to house a shower.


Squirrel’s eye view.

The 4 baths themselves are products of intentional rock rearrangement that divert hot spring water to trickle rather than rush down the hill.  Given that the water cascades between the pools, the hottest lies at the top, which is comfortable enough even in the midday sun.  If you’re looking for a scalding McCafé experience these may not be your baths. The hot springs are not designed with seating in mind, but a group of ten Tetris masters could optimize a pool. Due to the natural roughness, interpool navigability requires some degree of scampering and creative perching lest you pumice your perineum. The demographics we found there ranged from Nordic parent/adult-child trios, fruit offering Gaia couples, and lone wolf semicreepers with faithful canine companions. You might well be the recipients of wafting sage smoke, a nug, or a haphazardly sliced watermelon.



Even if you take a luxurious 15 minutes per tub, the running time is only a third of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (in which you can glimpse the aforementioned Gnome in minute :56). A typical time extension strategy at these places consists of out-of-water relaxing. The lack of lounging planks at Cougar make these intermissions challenging to take. Coupled with lack of on-site drinking water, an entire round here is capped at about an hour.

If the major things on your mind are that your boss is a wanker and you haven’t got your mom a present for her birthday yet, then Cougar will not be the most generous gelato.  However, if you’re armed with the attention to really appreciate this melting ice cream of a hot springs, there’ll be plenty to lick off your fingers.


Invasive species.



2. Harbin: Baths for Witches and the Techno Riche

Distance to complete relaxation: 3.5/5 Spigots

Distance to complete relaxation: 3.5/5 spigots

Harbin’s entrance, with its tiles and vines and handpainted signs prepares you to enter one size fits all Hippie Chic. Like a YMCA owned by Deadheads appealing to Silicon Valley middle management. Whether you want to glamp with a bathroom, rent a room in the Norcal Disneyland hotel, or just let your Miata shine in the sun for a few hours, Harbin keeps you in striking distance of the baths.

Protip: Definitely bring a flashlight, fsho. The walk from the camp area to the baths is a minor but dark walk for which you’ll need light.

There are six pools, from very hot to very cold along with a sauna and steam room. The heart-shaped pool fails on it’s promise of being a either a quiet special love-zone or a communal watering hole. The sauna and steam are standard. The warm pool is the largest of the silent pools, and is decorated in a witch-serves-a-nice-country-breakfast sort of way. But the real standout is the candlelit hot pool, a few steps away, with gnarled cast iron handrails that takes it all the way to coven-in-a-new-moon-mikvah. The overhead handrail allows you to hang half-in-half-out of the pool, providing maximum erector spinae release. There’s only room for about 10 people in the hot pool, but its very high temperature ensures there’s someone exiting to let you in.

It’s not that the entire compound is naked, in fact the only place that’s naked is the bath areas. The changing rooms can get full and are co-ed. Dick-wagglers exist, but are a silent (non-voting) minority. Only one erection was spotted and no one approached us. In fact it is quite coupley, but not to the degree that it would be unenjoyable as a platonic group of friends. It is the happiest place on pangea, after all. This interpretation of the Magic Kingdom has learned the lesson to keep your patrons fully entertained. Yoga lessons, a Restaurant, a movie room, and library. The food is mediocre but healthy, compromising on flavourfulness and fanciness, but not on quality. The library room, oh the libray room. It’s a great little refuge, for when your ereader is more appealing than being naked outside. It’s wooden and handcrafted. It’s not hobbled together and it’s free.

Our dedication to economizing our purse backfired on us during our trip. Unfortunately before leaving we didn’t fully rinse a can of garbanzo beans before recycling it, which very much angered the wind Gods. They knew our human-weakness, these wind Gods, that we required some non-zero amount of sleep, and therefore exacted revenge on us through the audio of tent-flappiness. It was really extraordinarily flappy. Not like a hummingdbird, or an even a scarf in a Miata. This was more like being in the cargo hold of an old propeller plane, except its sputtering engine was on the inside. We tried very hard to ignore this cacophonous plastic on plastic sound while cuddling necessarily for warmth. We contemplated abandoning the idea of trying to sleep, and eventually did at around 5 am, an hour before day break to seek refuge in the hot pool. Our deprived brains still acknowledged the heat of waters, and even registered the sweet sunrise dancing on the bare winter branches – but perhaps with not as much mirth as it could have. Upon return to our spent tent, some camping neighbours approached us. “How was your night?”  We responded distraughtly “very flappy tent.” And they said “yeah,” and we knew that they just knew precisely what we meant.

As it was now time to go, we augmented our scattered 15 minutes of sleep with two espressos at the on-site cafe, much like the YMCA smoothie bar – if only the Grateful Dead owned it.

1. Esalen: Baths for SpacePriests


Distance to complete relaxation: 4.5/5 spigots

Welcome to Mars. The ancient scriptures indicate that long ago the human race was concerned about the viability of terraforming our red planet. That was before we discovered Aquaforming. Dear SpacePriests, Esalen is your aquatic high temple.

The ritual of shadowy purification begins only during the deep Skuggic hours, or as you might call it, 1 to 3am. Much like the earth-dwellers did when they first came, you descend down lanterned lane to meet your first bath, the sounds of crashing waves. At the end of the moonlit jetbridge you are deposited at the mouth of your hallowed concrete temple.  De-shroud yourself in one of the two launching chambers, perform a rinse of filth, and finally, submerge.  Twelve aquacapsules are peppered across the temple grounds, perched at the very edge of the pacific cliff.  Some small, likened to the clawfoot tubs of yore, others are built to fit a quorum of humans. Find a dew-slickened massage table to integrate the mineral nutrients of water with the evaporative air element. Heighten your senses: relax your sore body in the sulfurous waters simultaneous to the visual meditation of the black and white ocean.


Clothing optional and disabled access friendly, Esalen is inclusive as well as ruthlessly geometric. We appreciated the wheelchair accessible bath at the roof level which had a mechanized chair built into the tub. We bathed with about 20 other water warmeruppers, which the venue easily accommodated with privacy to spare. Esalen Institute is located along the coast of Big Sur California.  Roughly three hours from Oakland, it’s close enough for a trip on a whim. Its hours and location make Esalen a bit too distant for a winding night drive back (unless you’re a master of keeping yourself up by doing arbitrary long division while your partner sleeps in the passenger seat). The only other pieces that prevent spontaneity are the required reservation and price. Esalen is a retreat space that generally requires a larger outlay of coin. The only hours open to public use are 1-3am nightly. You can view a visit in the middle of the night as a fun adventure – our approach – but we’d rather there was no restriction. Additionally, you have to call between 9-noon the morning of your trip to reserve your spot.  At $30/person Esalen is an extraordinary bathing experience but it doesn’t quite redefine the concept.  For this we give it 4.5 spigots.