Above, you can almost see the stars rotate as the night passes. The winter air is freezing, but it doesn’t matter. Your body is suspended in 100-degree water—your backside gently supported by the smooth, stone bottom of a shallow pool. You inhale warm, sulphury vapors that rise from the surface. The only sound you hear is the gurgling of a nearby mountain creek.
You’d pay good money for this, but admission was free. Well, almost. You drove an hour and a half from Salt Lake City through Spanish Fork Canyon, then trekked 2 1/2 miles (or seven, if snow closed the road) up a sometimes-steep trail with drop-offs that could fatally injure a careless hiker.
Once at Diamond Fork Hot Springs (also known as Fifth Water), all thoughts of long drives and challenging hikes fade as you slip into one of several ponds heated by powerful geological forces. You’re in full and direct contact with the ancient four elements: earth, water, air and fire. Even though the sun is down, the fire still burns. You feel it in the warmth that envelops you. You may be completely alone, but you’re “connected.” This is heaven—or as close as some imagine it.
Want to "Hot Spring"?
A history of Utah's former hot spring resorts (Note: Pah Tempe has now re-opened)
That’s what a midwinter, middle-of-the-week visit to Diamond Fork can be like. At other times, especially on a summer weekend, you may find yourself at the same place surrounded by a loud party of high school or college kids (including a few BYU rebels).
Diamond Fork may be Utah’s most beautiful “wild” hot spring, but it’s not the only one. Each offers a different personality to the serious “soaker.” And three developed, commercial hot spring resorts (Crystal, Mystic and Pah Tempe) currently operate in the state. Two others, Homestead Resort and Veyo Pool, feature “warm springs” at below body temperature (98.6 degrees).
That wild hot springs can even exist close to Utah’s metropolitan areas is surprising. Long magnets for naturists (those who bathe in the nude), party animals getting drunk or stoned, homeless folk seeking a warm bath and, at some, hordes of mosquitoes, Utah’s hot springs aren’t always family-friendly recreational spots. In response, government officials have been known to blow them up (as with Castilla Hot Springs in Utah County) or box them in (as with Salt Lake City’s Warm Springs Park). To find a truly world-class hot-springs “destination” resort spa requires a trip out of state, even though water boils just under our feet at several spots along the Wasatch Front. So, in an arid state where every drop of water is precious, why is Utah so averse to utilizing its hot water?
Utah wasn’t always hot-springs resistant. Mormon pioneers took a cue from American Indians, who considered thermal springs a peaceful place to heal, even if warring tribes happened to be present. Warm Sulfur Springs came into being on what is now about 850 N. Beck St. According to Louise Pearce’s “Salt Lake City’s Vanishing Hot Springs,” an article written in 1969 for a state historical dedication ceremony, Mormon pioneer Thomas Bullock in 1847 called the springs a “blessing” for “poor Saints who are weak, sickly, and affected … and almost every complaint will here be healed.” By 1850, a resort there featured Utah’s first public dance and recreation hall. Mule-drawn trolleys delivered patrons. The resort thrived, then gradually declined and closed in 1951. The building that most recently housed the Children’s Museum still stands. Much of the water has been diverted, but Warm Springs Park remains. A warm pool had been made too shallow for soaking, but transients now use it for sponge bathing.
In 1885, German miner John Beck built Beck’s Hot Springs Resort three miles farther north, where an interstate highway, train tracks, refineries, and other industries now dominate the terrain. A railway once carried eager soakers to the spot from downtown.
Five other Utah hot-spring resorts rose and fell on the heels of shifting social dynamics. As indoor plumbing became common, the attraction of public bathing declined. In the late 1800s, physicians convinced the public to rely more on medical cures. A 1950s polio scare brought requirements for prohibitively expensive chlorination of constantly flowing waters. TV and radio replaced the live music that had been a big part of the appeal. And a series of devastating fires took their toll. Finally, the state of Utah condemned what had been Beck’s resort in 1953 to build a new highway (now Interstate 15) and, “so ends of the story of Beck’s Hot Springs,” Pearce wrote.