Toll gate at Bowen Ranch
  • Toll gate at Bowen Ranch
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Deep Creek Hot Springs in the San Bernardino National Forest has been a minor magnet for hikers and other nature lovers -- eccentric and otherwise -- for decades. Volunteers have spent years fashioning rock-bound basins that impound water ranging from about 96 degrees to about 102 degrees. Water flowing out of those basins quickly reaches chilly Deep Creek, which has carved a deep cleft in the north slope of the San Bernardino Mountains.

Allow at least 2.5 hours for the one-way drive from San Diego to the most convenient portal for the hot-springs hike: Bowen Ranch. Head north on Interstate 15 and continue all the way through the "Inland Empire" (or take the slightly faster alternate route, Highway 215 through Riverside and San Bernardino). Pass over Cajon Summit on I-15, and exit at Bear Valley Road in the "high-desert" community of Hesperia. Turn right and travel east for ten miles to Central Avenue. Turn right on Central and drive three miles south to Ocotillo Way. Turn left on Ocotillo, and proceed 2.3 miles east to Bowen Ranch Road. Turn right on this unpaved but well-graded road, and continue 8.0 miles (mostly southwest, more or less parallel to a high-voltage powerline) to a toll gate and 1920s-vintage cabin at the rustic, private Bowen Ranch. Pay the $4-per-person fee at the gate, and be sure to pick up a copy of the hand-drawn "treasure" map which may help you navigate to the hot-springs site. Park your car at the ranch's overnight camping/parking area a short distance past the toll gate. Now you are ready to head out on foot toward the springs, almost two miles away and nearly 1000 feet lower in elevation. (Note: Bowen Ranch has no phone, no e-mail, and no website. Typically, the forest service has no definitive information about either the Bowen Ranch or about stream or weather conditions at Deep Creek.)

After an initial 0.5 mile of downhill hiking, briefly jog left on a dirt road, then veer right on a signed trail entering San Bernardino National Forest land. You'll lose about 700 feet of elevation as you descend for another 1.3 miles into Deep Creek's canyon bottom. About halfway down this stretch, where the trail splits, take the right fork to ensure an easier, more gradual descent. Once you reach the canyon bottom you must decide how to cross the creek to reach the hot pools on the far side. A month ago, the sluggishly moving water, no more than 18 inches deep along the shallowest wading route, was cold enough to numb the feet.

Forest-service regulations allow nude bathing in the Deep Creek Hot Springs drainage area, and typically about half of the visitors do so. Camping, campfires, and glass containers are strictly prohibited. Other regulations and rules of behavior are listed in a leaflet available along the trail leading to the hot springs site.

Do realize that the uphill, post-soak hike back to the car can be enervating and possibly exhausting in the late-spring and summer heat. Bring plenty of drinking water if the weather is warm!

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