Deep Creek Hot Springs

This is a post from 4 years ago.

Last Saturday I went on a hike with three different groups to a lovely spot east of Apple Valley in the San Bernardino mountains. Deep Creek is an extremely popular clothing optional hiking destination. I have met people from all over the world, tourists from Europe, South America, and the Far East can often be found here. This day it was mostly locals but there was one couple from India and another from Columbia. Weekends you see a lot of college students and local kids but so far they appear to be just normal kids, not drug addled hippies and rave partyers. It ain’t Burning Man, it ain’t even Woodstock, it is just mellow. Weekdays it is just a few retired old farts.

Deep Creek Hot Springs Freehike 06

What makes Deep Creek especially interesting is that it is located right on the Pacific Crest Trail. (Right around April and May of every year crowds of thru hikers stop in the area. The rest of the year it is nearly empty.)  That gives the day hiker several different avenues of approach. The most common – and the one I did Saturday – is to park at Bowens Ranch ($5 per person per day and $10 per for overnight) and hike 2 miles south. One would think this was the easy way but it is far and away the most strenuous. The middle of the hike is on level ground but the beginning and end are more like climbing the Empire State Building’s stairway, covered in sand and with washouts. Elevation changes about 970 ft. in a very short distance.

The other ways are to access it via the PCT from the east and from the west. A broad, well-maintained trail all the way without any monster hills, I could do that stretch all day long. About 5 years ago I did come in from the west. PCT crosses Deep Creek road near the Mojave River flood control dam. It was about 6 easy miles with small elevation gain and a few modest rises. From the east, you catch the PCT at a day-use area called Splinters Cabin which is just northeast of Lake Arrowhead.  From there it is about 14 miles of similarly easy trail, mostly gentle downhill. According to the local Forest Service, they don’t care how naked you get as long as you are out of sight of the road or the PCT bridge near Splinter’s cabin. (A freehiker’s paradise!) I’m coming out today with the SCNA, Southern California Naturist’s Association.

All three routes are spectacular. Going from east to west would make a lovely section hike on the PCT. I think that’s going on my to-do list. I just need someone to do the west-east route so we can exchange keys in the middle and not have to set up a shuttle.

It takes 2.5 hours to get there from here. I carpooled with a guy named Lenny.  His Siri was giving mixed messages as to the correct route. I pretty much knew how to get there but it was good to have confirmation since it had been a while. The last 2 or 3 miles is on a dirt road I would NOT recommend for cars with low ground clearance.

Deep Creek Hot Springs Freehike
Nude parking!

We ended up helping another guy who had locked his keys in his truck, using some stiff wire to catch the lock button. (Were it a newer model he’d probably still be sitting there today.)  At the parking area at Bowen’s Ranch was maybe 20 cars, some camping, some not. You are not supposed to camp at the hot springs themselves but this seems to be honored in the breach as much as the fulfillment. The custom is to lose one’s clothes right there.

We started down at about 10 am. The weather was perfect, 75 degrees climbing to maybe 80 and dropping to 65 as we returned to our cars. The sky ranged from maybe 20% overcast to 80% overcast, keeping the temperatures comfortable with a breeze flowing down-canyon.

Going down a steep hill is as painful as going up is tiring. You are far more likely to get hurt. More likely to sprain an ankle, more likely to blister the ball and side of your foot, and to get black toenail as your feet are relentlessly shoved to the front of your shoe. You are still fighting gravity just as hard, only this time it is trying to make you go faster. On a steep downhill, the impact on your knee can be 4 times as much as your weight.

This is where you step on a sloped patch of pea gravel and your feet slip out from under you and you end up on your keester. This is where ankle and knee and hips and spine take a beating. Uphill is more likely to put a blister on your heel, strain a muscle or cause heat exhaustion. Rest often and you won’t have a problem.

Deep Creek Hot Springs Freehike 70
Looking east from the Trail you can see the old route of the PCT going downhill while the current route stays above the river.

The view was, as usual beautiful. On the way, I pulled something in my knee. Very strange injury, it did not affect my ability to go on the level or uphill, but even slight declines felt like my knee was being stabbed. I am glad for that much at least as if it had affected my uphill ability it would have taken a VERY long time to make it up again. I also had hot and cold water to soak it in.

I later learned this was likely an injury to my iliotibial band. This is a band of tissue that goes down the side of the knee to help stabilize it and it can get pulled or it can get irritated from friction. The sudden onset suggested to me it was a pull.

People with arthritis of the knee are particularly vulnerable to it. A few days of NOT walking downhill seemed to fix it.

Deep Creek thru this section is wide, deep, and slow. The springs are contained by crude masonry tubs that catch the hot water before it hits the creek. There are about a half dozen, each with a bit different temperature. The people here were friendly, even the assorted dogs wandering around were friendly. Not a growl was heard anywhere.

Deep Creek Hot Springs Freehike 1
Looking down on the hot springs. You can’t really see them until you are above them.

We got there before the crowd, maybe a dozen people in all. By the time we left there were perhaps 3 times as many, probably a majority prepared to spend an illegal night. The water here is definitely unsafe to drink straight. Too many people and no sanitary facilities. If the Forest Service was serious, they’d designate camping areas away from the creek and install composting toilets. They aren’t.

There is one source of safe water and that is where the spring water flows out from the ground through a pipe. That water will burn your mouth and must be cooled off before use. I just bring 3 liters and a water filter for more if I need it.

Deep Creek Hot Springs freehike
This is the view from the Arizona pool, almost at river level. There is a pool higher up, a pool on the far side of the big rocks, and a couple of pools at the base of the rocks.
Deep Creek Hot Springs free hike 16
The place was swarming with bees but the honey bees weren’t the problem.
Deep Creek Hot Springs freehike 17
It was these buggers, yellow jackets. Didn’t bother me but a couple other people got stung.
Deep creek Hot Springs freehike 20
These lovely creatures were fitting about as well. I love dragonflies.

I enjoyed the warm-to-hot water of the springs and the cool river, but that wasn’t really why I came here.  I wanted to head a few miles up the PCT to see what I could discover. Any naked hike is usually a good hike. Eastward ho!

Deep Creek Hot Springs freehike 21
Looking back you see the beach. It would not be difficult to measure back 200 ft. from the river, designate “official” campsites and install a few composting toilets up the hill.
Deep Creek Freehike 22
Remember where an earlier picture showed how the old PCT and the new PCT alignment diverged? This is the split. Go down and you’ll find more beaches, cross the river and follow it up the other side. Almost never see anyone out this way except April/May.
Deep Creek freehike 25
Looking back, there is no sign at all of the springs. You can still see the PCT chiseled out of the side of the mountain.
Deep Creek freehike 28
More beaches and more deep pools, just no hot springs so nobody here. People rarely follow the beaten path, let alone step off it.
Deep Creek Warm Springs freehike 29
Less than a mile upstream there is a warm spring that is undeveloped. Obviously, someone wanted to be able to find it again.
Deep Creek freehike 31
Deep Creek continues on and on. I should be able to make it all the way to Arrowhead in 4 hours if I kept at it.
Deep Creek free hike 32
Some interesting geology here, the creek flows thru a very narrow and deep channel.
Deep Creek freehike 33
The holly leaf cherry is almost ripe.
Deep Creek free hiking 50
More steep cliffs and very deep water. There are fish down there, lots of them. I saw pollywogs and minnows in the weeds and shallows. Even a few larger catfish. If you just had a large net you could scoop up enough to survive on.
Deep Creek naked hiking 41
Gee, wonder what’s around the next bend?
IDeep creek naked hiking 52
Even more bends!

It is time to head back. Out a couple hours and back a couple hours and it is getting late. Not a soul on the PCT the entire time. My carpool partner will want to be heading back up soon, doesn’t want to spend the night. In at 10 am and out by 6:30 pm, that’s 8.5 hours of clothes-free time in perfect weather and beautiful topography.

On the way home, we were treated to a spectacular light show. Many miles to the northwest, there was a huge Cumulonimbus cloud over the desert. At its peak, it was discharging lightning about every two seconds. Must have been a hell of a racket to be under that storm. Pretty good way to spend the day, I think.

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