When the weather is nasty, a geothermal pool is one of the few places where you can spend an entire day outside in comfort.

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We rose an hour before dawn and stumbled out of our tent.

The old-growth evergreens around us absorbed mist from low-hanging clouds and bombarded us with fat water droplets as we began our trek uphill under the glow of headlamps.

Camping during the rainy months isn’t something that’s usually high on my wish list, nor is hiking in the dark through patches of early-season snow. But at Goldmyer Hot Springs, northeast of Snoqualmie Pass, we knew something rare and wonderful was in store. And with a little luck, we would have it all to ourselves.

Popular natural hot springs in our region

Goldmyer Hot Springs, near Snoqualmie Pass, requires 4.5 miles (each way) of hiking or mountain biking on a Forest Service road. A high-clearance vehicle is required to reach the trailhead. Visitors are limited to 20 per day so reservations are strongly recommended. Daily fees for visitors 18 and older: $10 to $15 per person. Camping is available. goldmyer.org

Olympic Hot Springs, southwest of Port Angeles, is within Olympic National Park (not to be confused with Sol Duc Hot Springs Resort). It ordinarily requires 2.5 miles of hiking, but as this article was published Olympic Hot Springs Road was under repair from a washout, requiring visitors to park at Madison Falls and hike or bike to the trailhead, making the one-way trip about 11.5 miles. Olympic National Park expects to reopen the road soon; call for updates (360-565-3131). About seven pools are scattered above Boulder Creek. Camping is available a short walk away. nps.gov/olym/planyourvisit/boulder-creek-trail.htm

Sloquet Hot Springs, a British Columbia favorite, is about three hours from Whistler. A hot waterfall fills shallow sandy pools, which are surrounded by boulders. Relax among ferns and mosses between a cliff and a cool creek that’s perfect for cooling off. Access after December may require a 7.5-mile snowshoe trek. Camping is a short walk away. whistlerhiatus.com/driving/sloquet-hot-springs-126k.html

Oregon’s Bagby Hot Springs is 65 miles southeast of Portland. Naturally heated water fills cedar soaking tubs in three bathhouses. Some tubs are in private rooms while some are on open decks. The Forest Service and volunteers manage this popular site. Visitors must walk 1.5 miles on an easy trail to reach the spring. It’s open 24 hours but no camping is allowed. bagbyhotsprings.org

Do your homework

While there are guidebooks to finding natural hot springs, they’re quickly out of date due to local conditions such as landslides or ever-changing land-use policies. So there’s still a word-of-mouth aura about them.

Some springs have unsafe water or outbreaks such as E. coli, so it’s important to do some research before you plan a visit. A useful forum with lots of photos and descriptions: hotwaterslaughter.com

Rounding the final bend, we had enough light to witness a scene straight from a fantasy novel. A triangular cave about as tall as a person emitted great billowy clouds of steam, and gentle waterfalls fed stair-stepping pools at its entrance.

I slipped out of my sandals and stepped into the lowest pool. The heat stung my half-frozen toes, but soon my shocked face was replaced with a smile.

“I’m about to spend the whole day soaking in this steamy pool surrounded by a beautiful rain-forest grotto,” I thought.

Great on a wintry day

Surprisingly, fall and winter are low seasons for natural hot springs. But when the weather is nasty, relaxing in a geothermal pool is one of the few places where you can spend an entire day outside in comfort.

From my bag I produced a handful of Ikea tea candles and set them on ledges around the cave, illuminating the lush mosses and ferns. The swirling vapor and gloomy glow reminded us of the Phantom of the Opera, coaxing us into the underworld.

The cave receded about 30 yards into the hill, but the water was too warm to enjoy for long, so we moved around the smaller pools outside, and even splashed in the freezing plunge pool fed by a clear stream.

We sat beneath the waterfalls, letting the therapeutic waters massage our shoulders, listening to the roar of the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River as we waited for sunrise.

Use vs. abuse

Hot springs in the Northwest generally fall into three categories: resorts, managed natural springs and springs without supervision.

There are a handful of resorts in our area, and they’re good options for families. They pump geothermic hot water into swimming pools and tubs and frequently have lodges or cabins. Some can be expensive and nudity is generally discouraged.

But it’s the natural wilderness that I prefer this time of year. The quest to find pleasant, unique settings is a big part of the experience for hot-springs hounds.

Those that are managed have caretakers or volunteers who quash the parties and keep the litter at bay. The on-site caretakers at Goldmyer clean the pools. Guests are limited to 20 per day to minimize human impact.

At the springs that are unmanaged, there’s a wild sense of freedom, but this is also part of what can ruin them. A huge threat to local hot springs is the party crowd that leaves behind cigarette butts, used diapers and spray-painted trees.

In some cases things have gotten so out of control that private landowners or authorities have shut them down. So when you visit off-grid sites, be sure to practice “leave no trace” and respect the enjoyment of others.

Finding perfect springs

There’s a lot of variety to natural hot springs. No two are the same.

Some are holes dug into hillsides, where heated water seeps up from below. Some are fantastic forest grottoes fed by hot waterfalls. Some are pools alongside rivers so you can mix hot and cool water to reach the perfect temperature.

The water itself could be tepid or scalding, and may smell of sulfur or nothing at all. You may be sitting on gravel, boulders, sand or even slimy mud depending on your location.

And you can always count on some nudity, although nobody will judge you if you choose to wear a swimsuit.

It’s all part of the Easter-egg hunt to finding your favorite. When you discover an idyllic spot, a hot spring is about as Northwest outdoorsy as it gets. On a cold and rainy November day, billows of steam and dancing waterfalls are the perfect setting to rejuvenate the body and enjoy the season.