Apple Valley, Calif.
"Do you have a problem with public nudity?"
That's what a buddy asked before giving me directions to Deep Creek Hot Springs near Apple Valley, a clothing-optional oasis about a two-hour drive from downtown Los Angeles.
Nudity? I was raised Catholic, I said. What do you think?
Natural hot springs are rare in Southern California, mainly because of the lack of searing underground volcanic rock to heat subterranean water. So, I was willing to overcome my hang-ups and insecurities to soak in one of SoCal's few natural hot tubs.
Most natural hot springs in the state are tucked away in remote canyons or deep forests and call for some serious backcountry orienting and hiking to uncover. Deep Creek Hot Springs is no exception. It's wedged in a canyon in the arid foothills of Round Mountain, about 10 miles south of Apple Valley.
If you go
THE BEST WAY From Los Angeles, drive north on Interstate 15 toward Hesperia. Exit east on Bear Valley Road and continue for about 10 miles. Turn right on Central Avenue and go about three miles, turning left on Ocotillo Way. Go two miles to Bowen Ranch Road. Paved road becomes dirt. Continue on Bowen Ranch Road for about six miles. When you reach private property known as Bowen Ranch, you will come to a stop sign. The ranch owner charges $5 to park on the land. Slip the money into the supplied envelope, write your license plate number on the outside and drop the envelope into the metal slot. Take a trail map offered at the ranch entrance. Trail posts numbered "3W02" mark the route. Follow it two miles to a bend in Deep Creek, where you will see a rope stretched across the water. Cross there. More detailed directions and an alternate route that avoids crossing the creek at www.deepcreekvolunteers.com .
INSIDER TIPS Take food, lots of water, sunscreen, a hat, sturdy shoes and a towel. Test the water before entering. The rocks in the pools can be extremely slippery.
After a two-hour drive from Pasadena to a dirt parking lot in the southwestern corner of the Mojave Desert, I begin a two-mile hike along a dusty trail bordered by Joshua trees, yucca plants and beavertail cactus. The path ends on top of a spear-shaped rock outcropping, about 50 feet above Deep Creek. Below, beige and gray granite and cottonwood, eucalyptus and willow trees surround a sharp bend in the creek.
I climb down to a sandy beach, where a blue rope stretches across the 25-foot-wide creek, marking the best crossing point. The cool, slow-moving creek water is waist deep and easy to cross.
On the other side, I spot a long-haired, middle-aged dude wearing a Fu Manchu mustache and nothing else. He's sunbathing on the edge of a hot springs bath about 10 feet wide and 6 feet deep.
This stretch of canyon has four or five pools. The biggest is the size of a hot tub; the smallest, no bigger than a bathtub. Some pools have been formed naturally in the granite by years of erosion. Other pools have been altered with rocks and mortar to make them deeper. The water gurgles out of cracks in the adjacent granite knoll.
The law of hot springs is this: The smaller the pool, the hotter the water. The smallest bath, about the size and depth of a coffin, is known as the "lobster cooker," for good reason. I step in gingerly and fly out like a bottle rocket, nearly scalded. Hippie Dude suggests I soak in the lobster cooker and then jump into the cool creekwater nearby. I try it. It's a rush that sends tingles to every nerve ending.
A few feet away, three 20-ish women relax in a second pool. If I forgot to mention it, they're nude too. Beads of sweat glisten off their bodies. I try not to stare. It's not easy. I should mention that I'm in my birthday suit too.
I hike back to talk with Hippie Dude, who tells me the baths are not segregated by gender. No rules, man, he says. No clothes. No hang-ups.
I feel like I have just stepped into a '60s commune.
Still, too inhibited to join the women for some coed skinny-dipping, I hang out a few more minutes with Hippie Dude, who chugs a can of beer and tells me he's been coming here for more than 30 years.
A decade ago, the scene was nasty with lots of criminal types and hard-core drug users, he says.
But the place has mellowed in the last few years, he says, and now it's just fun-loving people, some of whom come from as far away as Michigan, relaxing in Mother Nature's hot tubs.
Now, Hippie Dude's only complaint is with those who insist on wearing clothes. He claims garments foul the water, but I suspect his protest has less to do with water pollution and more to do with maintaining the let-it-all-hang-out atmosphere. (Most bathers enjoy the pools nude, but you won't be shunned if you keep your swimsuit on.)
Finally, I get up the courage to climb into the pool with the women. As I step into the water -- about the temperature of comfortable hot-tub water -- my mind flashes to the nuns from my childhood Sunday school classes. They are frowning disapprovingly.
We all soak together for a few minutes. I smile politely and chat about nothing in particular. I try desperately to keep my eyes from wandering.
Somewhere in the distance, Hippie Dude plucks a banjo. The music mixes with the sound of the wind rushing through the willow and cottonwood trees.
The afternoon sun begins to sink in a flawless blue sky. I'm sweat-soaked and parched but relaxed. It's time to go home.
One last splash in the cold creek next to the hot springs and I hike out.
But before I leave, I flash a peace sign at the two or three remaining skinny-dippers. It's been a rush.