Price of admission is leaving the site better than when you found it

12:25 PM, Dec 27, 2012   |  


All that remains at the Lower Breitenbush site are the bathhouse foundations and their built-in tubs along the river.

All that remains at the Lower Breitenbush site are the bathhouse foundations and their built-in tubs along the river.
Written by
Eric Gjonnes
Trail Time

The trail to Lower Breitenbush Hot Springs is steep and rugged at times.

Lower Breitenbush Hot Springs

Directions: Leave Salem on Highway 22 for 50 miles. Turn left on Breitenbush Road (FSR #46) as you enter the town of Detroit. Drive for 9 miles and turn right on FSR #2231 toward Breitenbush Retreat Center. Cross bridge and stay to the left. Drive approximately 1 mile. Parking will be on your left just after the yellow “congestion” sign.

Distance from Salem: 60 miles or one hour and 15 minutes.

General area: Detroit, Willamette National Forest

Season: All year. Road plowed all the way to Breitenbush Retreat Center.

Fees: None

Elevation: 2,300 feet

Road conditions:

Trail distance: 1 mile round trip.

Kid friendly: Yes

Dog friendly: No, hot springs water makes them sick.

Volunteer opportunities: Detroit Ranger Station, 503-854-3366. There are no scheduled volunteer events for Lower Breitenbush Hot Springs at this time, but the Forest Service would like a list of interested persons for future events to be planed.

Early winter can be an awkward time of year for many avid outdoor enthusiasts. We’ve been hitting as many low elevation trails as we can possibly find because the higher elevations are at a transition point this time of year.
As the temperatures drop in the mountains, so does the snow level. However, until the freezing temperatures become more consistent, we are stuck with a landscape too muddy or slushy to hike, ski or snowshoe before the desired snow pack has accumulated. Instead of sulking in this fact, I’ve decided to soak in it. That’s right, another hot spring!
Before I let you in on this little known gem, you have to promise to respect and protect it. Promise? The Lower Breitenbush Hot Springs, also known as the “Russian Tubs” obviously has a rich history, but no one I’ve spoken with, including Mr. Google, seems to know much of it. I believe this is largely because it is so closely located to the popular, but privately owned Breitenbush Retreat Center up stream. The two individual sites share much of their history.
Many years ago, Native Americans traveled hundreds of miles to soak in the healing waters of these hot springs. European fur trappers discovered it in the 1840s and later named it after the one armed explorer settled there, John Breitenbush. In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt granted homestead rights of the upper site to another settler, making much of it private property. At one point, the lower site was well developed under a special use permit with bath houses, a foot bridge, camp store, and cabin rentals across the Breitenbush River.
Both sites were severely damaged from flooding in the 1970s. The private retreat center up stream was rebuilt and further developed while the site on public land was never restored to suitable conditions prompting the Forest Service to not renew the required special use permit. Today there are no structures remaining at Lower Breitenbush Hot Springs. All that is left now are the foundations of the old bath houses with built-in tubs.
I first discovered Lower Breitenbush Hot Springs about 10 years ago and found it to be disgustingly filthy. The grounds, starting with the parking lot were covered in trash including but not limited to; underwear, food packaging, and broken beer bottles. The tubs were lined in a thick slimy black algae and the water was murky. After that experience, I resolved to instead pay a fee to enjoy the beautifully developed and maintained pools at the private retreat center up stream. Three years ago I returned to the abused lower public site to help clean it up. I drove away with a pick-up truck full of trash and my friends filled the trunks of their cars with even more.
Since then my friends, family, and I try to clean the site every few months as our schedules allow. We have noticed that there is less trash and abuse each time we visit and have even found evidence of others cleaning up. We arrive early in the morning and the kids pick up trash while the adults bail water from the tubs and scrub them down. Once the tubs are cleaned and rinsed, we begin refilling them with the hoses and plastic tubing left at the site. There are two small tubs lined in ceramic tiles that we clean and refill first to reward the kids with an early soak for picking up the sometimes nasty trash. The water emerges from the spring at more than 120 degrees so we add cold water from the adjacent Breitenbush River. Once the large tubs have a foot of tepid water in them, we all enjoy a long glorious soak as the pool fills up with hot mineral water.
If you visit, please do your part to leave it a better place than you found it. I believe if more people with a conscientious outdoor ethic enjoy this natural wonder and set a good example, that those who would otherwise abuse the site will either change their behavior or stop using it.
While in the parking area, the half mile trail to the lower hot springs will be on your left parallel to the road you drove in on. It is a well trodden but rugged path, and can be very muddy this time of year with several small streams to cross. Once you reach the river, follow it upstream to the right until you reach the hot springs. This is not considered a clothing optional site as many of its visitors are families, Russian Americans of conservative faith, and there is a public campground directly across the river.
Eric Gjonnes is a long-distance hiker, snowshoer, and mountaineer who lives in Salem. He shares area trails with readers twice a month. He hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail (2,652 miles) and Appalachian Trail (2,1,84 miles) with his 12-year-old daughter. Read more about his adventures at /sunshine2012at.