Inside Breitenbush Hot Springs Resort's Winter Glow Up

After 2020’s heartbreaking fires, the resort sees a rebirth.

By Julia Silverman December 29, 2021 Published in the Winter 2021/2022 issue of Portland Monthly

For centuries, summertime has been high season at the beloved Breitenbush Hot Springs resort, tucked deep among the trees of the Willamette National Forest, east of Salem. Indigenous tribes used to gather there from either side of the Cascades to trade summer’s bounty; starting in the late 1920s, after the land’s purchase by the son of an ice cream cone magnate, well-heeled wellness seekers flocked to the new resort at the Pacific Northwest’s largest privately owned geothermal springs site, the local pilgrim’s answer to Lourdes.

Then, on the heels of revenue losses from COVID-related cancellations came the Labor Day fires of 2020, which burned down 73 of the rustic, treasured buildings on the 154-acre site, including guest cabins, the healing arts center, the resort’s sanctuary, and its staff housing.

But as much as the fires took from Breitenbush, the blazes opened new doors, too, says Peter Moore, the resort’s business director. Chief among them: winter now gets its shot at rivaling the summer months as the best time to visit the property.

The namesake hot springs, available 24 hours a day to guests, have also been reimagined for maximum privacy in COVID times, including the addition of 10 newly installed clawfoot outdoor soaking tubs for one or two.

Some of the natural pools remain communal affairs, yes, but because the resort is still working to rebuild its guest cabins, fewer people are able to be on site at any one time, maximizing guests’ chances to soak in peace. (Winter is quieter, too, when construction slows considerably on the three-to-five-year rebuilding timeline, Moore says.)

Accommodations are limited. To handle summer guests in 2021, Breitenbush built a snug cluster of elevated tents equipped with double beds, reading lamps, and picnic tables, but they aren’t heated. The tents might stay open during low-snow winter weeks, Moore says. If not, a handful of rooms are available in the resort's now-repurposed library. You can also try to snag spots in the resort's wood-and-stone-forged "Forest Shelter," which sleeps four and overlooks the Breitenbush River, the geothermally-heated "Sundial Yurt," which also sleeps four or one of three bunks inside a renovated dairy truck that the resort has affectionately dubbed "Milky Way." Additionally, the road leading to Breitenbush will be plowed, and there’s room for RVs and campers to park.

Some Breitenbush traditions are untouched. The resort still serves three organic, vegetarian meals a day (though buffet/family-style service is on hold until postpandemic) and on-site yoga classes and massage services are available. It’s still completely off the grid, with heat and power geothermally generated. Your cell phone won’t work there, so it’s just right for a New Year’s  digital detox resolution.

And winter has always been the time when it’s safest to gather around the property’s massive outdoor fire pit and warm your hands while stargazing. In other words: Eat your heart out, summer.

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