Take the Plunge: America's Best Hot Springs Towns

Escape the stresses of everyday life by sinking into a hot-springs pool in a historic spa town—and immerse yourself in everything else it has to offer. Here are ten must-visit places.
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The Homestead, Hot Springs, Virginia
The Homestead, Hot Springs, Virginia  (The Homestead)

Modeled after European spa villages, America’s hot-spring spa towns were all the rage from George Washington’s days to JFK’s. "Taking the waters"—through a soak or a sip—was believed to cure almost any ailment. Mineral-rich natural springs were heated or cooled to comfortably warm temperatures for pools and tubs, and parks and trails were created to enhance the health focus of the resorts, which were frequented by presidents, movie stars, sports heroes, and gangsters.

But as the 20th century progressed, towns like "The Queen of Spas" (Saratoga Springs, New York) and "The American Spa" (Hot Springs, Arkansas) stopped drawing crowds as pills seemed to replace pools. The recent resurgence of wellness resorts and destination spas, however, is bringing travelers back to experience the "healing waters" and pre-modern charm of spa towns. B&Bs and modernized spas can make for a romantic getaway, while some resorts emphasize family-friendly touches like pool slides and zip lines. Here are America’s top ten.

10. Hot Springs, North Carolina
The main street of this village serves as a tiny segment of the Appalachian Trail before it disappears back into mountainous Pisgah National Forest, so hiking the AT from town is obligatory. But you can also fish, kayak, or raft the French Broad River, which bisects the village. Afterward, soak in the namesake hot springs in one of 16 riverside tubs at Hot Springs Resort and Spa. The ruins of the 1884-built hotel and bathhouse that preceded it are also on the 200-acre grounds. White settlers first came upon the springs in 1778, but the Cherokee people used it long before that. The natural temperature of the water is always 100 to 104 degrees, so the resort doesn’t need to heat it. After sinking into a tub, sink into bed at one of the nearby log cabins or B&Bs—including RiverDance, which is perched on a 300-foot cliff.

9. Thermopolis, Wyoming
Wyoming has the smallest population of any U.S. state, but it is home to the world’s biggest hot spring, which spews 1,600 gallons of 127-degree mineral water per minute over travertine "rainbow terraces" (colored by multihued algae) into cooling ponds at Hot Springs State Park. To witness this phenomenon, get yourself to Thermopolis (pop. 3,000), a scenic six-hour drive from Denver or Salt Lake City. Post-drive, melt into the free thermal pool at the park’s bathhouse, and then check in to one of the two hotels, both with thermal tubs, on state park land. Later, explore the park’s trails above the Bighorn River, where a herd of bison roams, and then unleash the kids on water slides while you soak in a tub at Star Plunge or Tepee Pools. The Wyoming Dinosaur Center and Safari Club Restaurant (with a big-game trophy collection of 100-plus animals) are also fun diversions.

8. Bath County, Virginia
A four-hour drive from Washington, D.C., brings you to this stoplight-free Allegheny Mountain county. You’ll graduate from traffic to tranquility, where forest trails and fishing lakes surround the twin villages of Hot Springs and Warm Springs. Here, you’ll find The Homestead, a timeless resort that operates the Jefferson Pools, where our third president bathed. The 1761-built octagonal building is America’s oldest existing spa structure. Also sprawled over the 18th-century resort’s 3,000 acres are presidential-caliber golf courses, trails, ski slopes, restaurants, 483 guest rooms, and a spa. Or, stay at Garth Newel Music Center’s Manor House, on 114 acres and home to 50 annual concerts; the Hidden Valley B&B mansion, where the Richard Gere-Jodie Foster romance Sommersby was filmed; or the Warm Springs Inn, the county’s first courthouse, where you can dine in the judge’s chambers.

7. Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
T or C, as locals call it, is a Rio Grande town as quirky as its TV quiz-show namesake. It’s a Southwestern swirl of Old West and New Age, befitting a hot-springs town where the first bathhouse was built in 1882 for cowboys to use. Dollar stores and kitschy gift shops, but also galleries and yoga studios, line the funky downtown streets. T or C is a travel bargain, from the walk-in mineral baths ($5 to $25 per hour) to the renovated "motor lodges" ($45 to $95 per night). Worth visiting are the Geronimo Springs Museum, a tribute to the odd couple of Geronimo and quiz-show host Ralph Edwards; Richard Branson’s Spaceport America, where commercial space flights are expected to take off in 2013; and 43-mile-long Elephant Butte Lake, for hiking, boating, bass fishing, or beach-going.

6. Berkeley Springs, West Virginia
Besides founding a country, George Washington also carved out some time in 1776 to found Bath (now called Berkeley Springs), America’s first spa town. Washington had enjoyed the "fam’d warm springs," as he called them in his diary, many times since his first visit at age 16. Berkeley Springs State Park (America’s smallest) overlays the heart of town. Plunge into its public hot-springs pool, then rent tub time or get kneaded at the 1816-built Roman Bath House (the free Museum of the Berkeley Springs is upstairs) or any of the newer spas nearby. Once you’ve dried off, browse the town’s galleries and antique shops, which have given this hamlet its reputation as one of America’s best small art towns. Lodging ranges from lace-curtained rooms to log cabins, and dining from cafés to candlelit tables.

Published: 13 Feb 2012 | Last Updated: 14 Feb 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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