Nevada's hot springs inviting, but exercise caution

Naturally heated water bubbling up to the Earth's surface attracts visitors today just as it has through the ages around the world.

People have been "taking the waters" since man first walked on two legs, soaking in hot springs and using the mineralized waters for therapeutic purposes.

Primitive people discovered early on that some springs were hot enough to cook food. They also figured out how to channel the heat to warm their homes. Today, geothermal technology harnesses a growing number of hot springs to generate electricity.

Nevada has more hot springs than any other state in the country: 312 of them, an indication of the high level of geological activity beneath the wrinkled surface of the Silver State.

Found in every county, Nevada's thermal springs vent heated water ranging from warm to scalding.

Grim signs posted at some springs warn visitors to test the temperature before plunging into the water.

Other signs may indicated danger from pesky critters that thrive in the warm water such as a pest that causes "swimmer's itch" and a more dangerous amoeba that enters the body through the nose, causing illness and even death.

Many warm or hot springs contain high concentrations of minerals. As a result, a few are quite smelly, such as Steamboat Hot Springs. The sulfurous output of this spring south of Reno powers one of the state's earliest geothermal complexes.

You might soak your tired body in a smelly spring, but only a fool would taste the water, which may contain concentrations of arsenic or other harmful elements.

Only a few of Nevada's hot springs have been used for power generation, while a few others lie on private lands, but many of the thermal springs are undeveloped and freely accessible on federal public lands. Central Nevada has several hot springs with minimalist facilities open to use by visitors such as Spencer's Hot Spring in Smoky Valley southeast of Austin, where pools remain at an old resort site.

All of Nevada's hot springs can be found on a website for natural hot springs enthusiasts (, listed according to water temperature, with their GPS coordinates.

Since pioneer times, Nevada's hot springs have drawn entrepreneurs who developed facilities for visitors interested in the water's therapeutic powers. One of the earliest of these hot springs spas was developed in the Carson Valley near Genoa. Acquired in 1862 by David Walley, the springs grew into a resort drawing the rich and famous of the day. Walley developed mineral baths, a 40-room hotel, a restaurant and a ballroom. Walley's Hot Springs today offers expanded facilities and accommodations centered on six mineral pools.

Other hot springs spas developed around Nevada as the state grew. Some still in existence include Bailey's Hot Springs near Beatty on U.S. Highway 95 and the Hot Springs Motel and the Agua Caliente RV Park in Caliente along U.S. Highway 93.

Several warm water creeks and springs in Southern Nevada provide protected habitat for tiny native fish and other rare creatures. Wildlife refuges at Warm Springs in Moapa Valley and Ash Meadows near Amargosa protect varieties of desert pupfish, while a nature conservancy near Beatty protects rare amphibians and other life forms. Swimming is allowed at one reservoir in Ash Meadows with posted warnings about "swimmer's itch."

Other hot springs in Southern Nevada remain attractive destinations. Popular since pioneer days, Rogers Spring near Echo Bay along Northshore Road in Lake Mead National Recreation Area invites visitors to wade, picnic, hike and explore. Ash Spring near Alamo along U.S. 93 in the Pahranagat Valley welcomes visitors for swimming and picnicking in the shade of fine old trees.

Several hot springs occur along the Colorado River. Some are accessible only from the river. Others may be reached by way of overland trails, some very challenging. Soothing soaks and refreshing showers under warm waterfalls reward the boaters and hikers who seek out the thermal springs found near the river or in nearby side canyons. Just don't get the water up your nose.

Margo Bartlett Pesek's column appears on Sundays.