How to find a hot spring in the dark

Owyhee Canyonlands Campaign Coordinator Corie Harlan shares a lesson learned from a particularly epic trip into the Owyhee.

Three hours into our drive in Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands, the AC quit working and I had a sinking feeling I’d forgotten my hiking boots – but there was no time to worry about any of that. Giant, ominous smoke clouds were growing ever-larger on the horizon. The Soda Fire – which would be one of 2015’s most devastating wildfires, ultimately burning 280,000 acres in southwest Idaho and southeast Oregon – was threatening to close the roads that would converge in the small town of Jordan Valley (pop. 175) and lead us on to the Three Forks region where we had work to do. 

Exploring the North Fork Owyhee River. Photo: C. HarlanOn this hot August day thick with wildfire smoke, I was barreling down Highway 95 with my twin sister sitting shotgun. We had two short days and an audacious mission: meet the KEEN “Live Monumental” film crew in Oregon’s desert, guide them through a small but incredible sample of the Owyhee’s many wonders, capture footage, and shine a light on one of America’s wildest places – one in dire need of protection. 

As we pulled into Jordan Valley’s only gas station, we were greeted with the sight of KEEN’s neon-yellow 1970s RV – and the news that the highway had closed behind them, just minutes after they puttered through. The fire was headed in the opposite direction of Three Forks. We could continue on with our mission, though a pervasive and relentless concern about the wildfire’s size and still-unknown impacts would infuse the rest of the trip. 

And then we left the pavement, knowing that anything that happened from here was a gift – an adventure unfolding through a modicum of planning and a lot of pure luck that tipped a razor-thin margin of success in our favor.

Trying to capture some Owyhee magic. Photo: C. HarlanEvery moment was sweeter because we all knew it was so close to not happening at all. We reveled in the Owyhee’s wild magic. We splashed up the North Fork Owyhee River, scrambling, picnicking and snoozing on sun-warmed rocks. We roamed across the vast, rolling uplands and drank in the spicy, sage-scented air. All while tackling the formidable challenge of capturing the indelible nature of this wild, remote place in words and on film. 

As evening rolled around, we’d decided that a visit to Three Forks Warm Spring would be the perfect finale. Of course, I could take us there. Though I’d been there just once before, a year prior, in broad daylight, I was undeterred. We mashed eight people into my rig and set out on a typical, god-awful horrible Owyhee “road.” The hard-to-find and harder-to-see path clung to side of a steep cliff as we crawled along. Everything seemed to take twice as long as it should have and looked only vaguely familiar. I could feel the groups’ dubiousness building. I could feel my own self-doubt trying to wheedle its way in. Where, exactly, was I taking them? What if I couldn’t find this place? Should we turn around?

Starry night skies in Oregon's Owyhee. Photo: T. FisherAt last we reached a place to stop. We descended the steep bank to the river, then waded through thigh-high waters and reached…the rope. Yes, we all ascended to the hot spring, most of us in flip flops, via rope. Precarious? Yes. Glorious? Absolutely. Unbeknownst to any of us, it happened to be a peak night for viewing the Perseid meteor shower. As we all stared up at that vast, dark night sky, one of the largest shooting stars I’d ever seen streaked directly above our heads. In unison we cried, “Whhhhoooooooaaaaaa!!!!” After this shared, impromptu primal call, a deep, comfortable silence settled in as we all contemplated the moment, this place, our journey, our world. Eventually, we toweled off and headed back. 

High on the Owyhee, we set our sights on home. Because it was almost our birthday and we’re goofy Leos who love to karaoke, my sister and I belted out the lyrics to the Lumineers ‘Stubborn Love’ on repeat on the long drive back.

“When we were young
Oh oh, we did enough
When it got cold
Ooh ooh, we bundled up
I can't be told
Ah ah it can't be done

Indeed.  This trip taught me how to find a hot spring in the dark: Visit first during daylight hours, bring good shoes, a headlamp and a towel, and for god’s sake, leave no trace. But, of course, this dark-of-night hot spring seeking escapade taught me so much more.

If you ever doubt yourself or feel out of your depth, out of your comfort zone, or not well equipped to tackle the formidable challenges ahead, remember: Sometimes, against all odds and by the thinnest of margins, things work out. Even in the dark we can forge a path ahead.


This piece originally appeared on Oregon Natural Desert Association's blog: onda.org/about-us/blog