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From Blue Lagoon to Desert Hot Springs: 8 Affordable Thermal Spas Around the World

By Emily Manthei
January 12, 2022
Couple At The Springs
Known since ancient times for their curative properties, the hot springs at these destinations are sure to rejuvenate your body and mind.

In ancient times, Romans considered natural hot-water springs a gift from the gods, with healing properties that cast a spell on anyone who entered the water. Today, science explains the healing magic of thermal hot springs as an effect of the minerals that build up in the water on its way to the surface. Mineral waters are often credited with aiding blood flow, releasing muscle tension, calming mental stress, and even improving cardiovascular activity. And despite the extensive luxury-spa industry, many of these natural springs still flow for everyone, thanks to free or low-cost admission, offering their restorative properties to parents and children, the elderly, and those with limited mobility. Travel to one of these natural thermal baths and let the earth treat you to a rejuvenating embrace.

1. Chena Hot Springs: Fairbanks, Alaska

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The Chena geothermal system is cracked by a fractured bit of granite underneath the resort, allowing water to bubble up at nearly 150°F. It’s cooled to 106° for bathers. The year-round outdoor Rock Lake receives a flow of geothermal water that circulates, drains, and refills naturally every two to three days. The handicap-accessible indoor pool and smaller hot tubs are, however, regulated by chlorine. The resort offers cabins, yurts, tents, and RV camping, but a visit to the hot springs does not require an overnight stay. A day pass is $15. (chenahotsprings.com)

2. Mammoth Lake: Mono County, California

Natural hot springs around Mammoth Lake are mostly small holes in the earth, and you can visit them for merely the price of a state park entrance fee. The result of ancient volcanic activity, the bubbling springs brim with natural minerals. Dozens of steamy tubs surrounded by nature lie between Bridgeport and Mammoth, on the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park. Two favorites: The family-friendly Travertine Hot Springs, in Bridgeport, is in the Bodie Mountain Wilderness Area, about two miles from the Bridgeport Ranger District Office on the main highway. A quick walk brings you to crude rock-bottomed pools with a continuous feed directly from the hot springs, against the backdrop of the stunning eastern Sierra Nevada mountains. For something more sophisticated, Benton Springs offers above-ground natural pools on the site of wild west-era Benton Hot Springs Inn, near the ghost town of Bodie. Visitors can stay at the inn, or rent one of 11 campsites, each with its own private tub. Fair warning: These springs are clothing-optional. (monocounty.org)

3. As Burgas Thermal Pool: Ourense, Spain

Deep in northwestern Spain, along the Camino del Santiago, Ourense has been known for its healing water from the spring of As Burgas since Romans built their bath houses and places of worship there nearly 2000 years ago. A handful of thermal pools dotted along the Minho River, most of which can be visited informally, give visitors many scenic choices for enjoying the city’s healing waters. In the center of the city, however, the thermal pool offers a return to the experience of the city’s ancient residents. A free and open expanse of almost 2200 square feet, the As Burgas Thermal Pool situates bathers in the heart of the historic city to absorb skin-nourishing lithium and alkaline, which were long thought to be the spiritual secrets of the spring’s healing powers. (turismodeourense.gal/en/recurso/piscina-termal-de-as-burgas)

4. Blue Lagoon and Secret Lagoon: Iceland

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In recent years, Iceland has become a popular stopover destination for transatlantic tourists, and the Blue Lagoon, located about 20 minutes from the airport, is a major attraction to travelers passing through, many of whom plan their flights to include a long layover in Iceland. (There are shuttles to and from the airport.) A Silica mud mask and a drink of your choice are included in the basic entry price of $56. Pools here are made from lava-formed craters and filled with runoff water from a geothermal energy plant nearby. Although the mineral-rich water is filtered and clean, the pools are not the naturally occurring phenomenon many expect. Travel a bit further to the Secret Lagoon in Fludir, where mossy craters between geothermal springs release steam, creating a moody natural atmosphere around the man-made lake that was Iceland’s first modern swimming site, opened in 1891. Water from the hot spring flows directly into the man-made lake, then into the Litla River. The lake offers a great vantage point for watching the Litli Geysir erupt. Nearby, discover several other bubbling springs at the source, all for a $33 entrance fee. At both thermal springs, kids under 14 enter free. (secretlagoon.is)

5. Las Hornillas Volcanic Hot Springs: Guanacaste, Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, the earth is in constant motion. While most spas and natural pools focus only on the relaxing hot water at the surface, Las Hornillas, situated at the foot of the active Miravalles Volcano, gives visitors an understanding of what’s going on at the core of the earth too. Bathers can tour an active crater, where bubbling mud and hot water constantly regenerate themselves and steam escapes from below. Emerald green hot-water pools, fed directly by the tension and steam of the crater, make a visit here a touch more dramatic than other spas. At these hot springs, kids can learn a geology lesson while parents indulge in a bubbling mud bath, complete with skin-smoothing sulfur and clay. The family-owned business also has a restaurant, cabins, and camping areas. (hornillas.com)

6. Miracle Springs Resort and Spa: Desert Hot Springs, California

Miracle-Springs-Thermal-Spa.jpg?mtime=20190522121531#asset:105910(Courtesy Miracle Springs Resort and Spa)

Seated on top of North America’s most heated geological fault line, Coachella Valley is home to several mineral springs, at or near ground level. Hotels, resorts, and spas tap these wells for medicinal springs, but in Desert Hot Springs, the both hot and cold water bubbles to the surface. The Cahuilla Indians, the original locals, discovered the springs hundreds of years ago, but it wasn't until Cabot Yerxa, an early-20th-century homesteader and renaissance man, settled here in 1914 that the area gained popularity. While many resorts here only allow access to their pools for overnight guests, Miracle Springs offers day passes ($14) and caters to teens with a special spa menu for guests 12 to 17 years old. Pools fed by Miracle Springs and massage and spa treatments at the resort combine for a day of luxurious family-friendly pampering. (miraclesprings.com)

7. Hot Springs Historic District: Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Choosing between the 10 thermal hot spring resorts in the tiny spa town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, is nearly impossible. A geological rift along the Rio Grande resulted in an abundance of groundwater flowing to the surface, bubbling into a hot spring paradise. Most of the spas and hotels in the Hot Springs Historic District offer private tubs, which can be used by one or two people at a time. The tubs are drained and refilled with unfiltered hot spring water after every session. The boutique experience costs anywhere from $8 to $40 and lasts from 30 minutes to a few hours. Some hotels include an in-room bathtub and access to the thermal hot-spring water, directly from the tap. Each spa offers its own quirky, serene, and sometimes mystical take on hot water healing. (sierracountynewmexico.info/attractions/truth-or-consequences-hot-springs/)

8. Caracalla Therme: Baden-Baden, Germany

The Romans discovered southwestern Germany’s 12 thermal hot springs 2000 years ago, and they remain the region’s highlight today. Located in the historical spa quarter, near several other thermal baths as well as the ruins of those Roman baths, Caracalla Therme offers beautiful indoor and outdoor bathing pools, a rock grotto with hot- and cold-water plunges, and a salt-water inhalation room, which Germans believe has a healing effect on respiratory illness. Children between 7 and 14 are welcome to accompany their parents to the Badelandschaft, which encompasses the aforementioned bathing areas, where swimsuits are allowed. The various saunas, however, are “textile-free” zones, where Germans practice Freikorperkultur, or social nudity. For parents of small children, don’t fear: Caracalla offers childcare for kids over 18 months, so parents can take their time without a baby on board. Pricing is by the hour and tops out at $30 for an all-inclusive day pass. (carasana.de/en/)

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Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, in nearby Hyde Park, will host commemorative events all weekend long, including an exhibition devoted to the 75th anniversary of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion. Easy escape from: New York City (about a 90-minute drive; 90-minute train ride from Grand Central Terminal, with adult fares starting at $35 round-trip for an off-peak ticket bought at the station—it’ll cost you a few dollars more if you buy your ticket on the train) or Albany, NY (about a 90-minute drive). Why it’s a bargain: Hotels in neighboring communities from $79; Airbnb for two in Beacon from $67. 3. Orange Beach, Alabama A Gulf Shore beach town that also offers wild escapes A visit to Orange Beach (and its neighbor Gulf Shores) allows travelers to essentially enjoy two long weekends in one: The first vacation consists of the justly popular attractions that have been drawing Southerners here for generations, including the 30+ miles of Gulf of Mexico waterfront along the coast of what locals refer to as “Pleasure Island” with white-sand beaches, waterparks, zip lines, and fishing. The second vacation—which you can enjoy at exactly the same time—consists of a lesser-known and decidedly wilder side of the Gulf Coast, including the Backcountry Trail through Gulf State Park, 25 miles of trails ideal for cycling, running, or just strolling; and Graham Creek Nature Preserve in nearby Foley, boasting nearly 500 acres of habitat for kayaking or canoeing. 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Memorial Day weekend festivities: Visit the May 25 - 27 open house at the Crazy Horse Monument to honor veterans and those who gave their lives in defense of the U.S. An easy escape from: Minneapolis (a 90-minute flight from under $300 round trip) or Chicago (a two-and-a-half-hour flight for under $350); Rapid City is not an easy driving distance from any major urban area. Why it’s a bargain: Hotels from well under $100; Airbnb for two from well under $100. 5. Morro Bay, California A genuine fishing village that welcomes newbies like family Why you’ll love it: Morro Bay is first and foremost an authentic seaside community on the central coast of California. 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