Concessionaire management cleans up image

by: ISABEL GAUTSCHI - There have been many renovations to the bath houses at Bagby Hot Springs over the last few years. In Bathhouse No. 3, when the creek is high enough, visitors may pipe hot and cold water into the tubs through pipes with on/off valves. When the creek is low, they can pour buckets of cold water into the tubs to bring the temperature down.Summer may be nearly over, but you don’t have to go inside just yet.

Bagby Hot Springs is just as enticing when there’s a chill in the air.

And yes, we’ve all heard rumors about wild things going on there. Public nudity, vandalism, filth, drunken louts.

“One thing I would say is when a place starts to feel like a party that was over yesterday and doesn’t look clean and inviting and becomes a bit sketchy, that is unfortunate for that area because when I am hiking to the springs themselves, I feel a bit like a hobbit on his way through a magical forest,” said Portlander Drew McAuliffe. “It deserves better than what it had lapsed into. I haven’t been in a year-and-a-half to two years. I used to go a few times a year, especially bringing folks from out of town from big cities, just because it is an easy and magical walk.”

by: ISABEL GAUTSCHI - Teri Gaarsland, left, operations manager of  Mt. Hood Recreation and Kathleen Walker, west side recreation program manager for the Mt. Hood National Forest pose on the trail on the way to Bagby Hot Springs.But officials from the Mt. Hood National Forest Service and the Mt. Hood Recreation division of Northwest Land Management have been working hard to turn around Bagby’s gritty reputation.

Last July, Mt. Hood Recreation took over the day-to-day management of Bagby Hot Springs.

Kathleen Walker, west side program recreation program manager for the Mt. Hood National Forest, explained the relationship between the two entities like this: the Forest Service is the landlord, the Mt. Hood Recreation Services, a private company, is the tenant.

What does that mean for Bagby?

For one thing, the site is much, much cleaner.

The Forest Service had been spread pretty thin before Mt. Hood Recreation Services took over the day-to-day management of Bagby.

“It’s a remote site, we only have so many staff,” Clackamas River District Ranger Michael Chaveas explained.

But since the Forest Service’s contract with Mt. Hood Recreation Services, things have been looking up for Bagby.

Chaveas said that since the concessionaire management of the site, he’s heard that Bagby looks “nicer and more under control.”

Throughout the summer, the soaking tubs have been cleaned daily.

Trash is regularly removed.

Walker said that before Mt. Hood Recreation Services took over the day-to-day operations of Bagby, Forest Service employees would have to haul at least seven bags of garbage from the site every few days.

And the mere presence of Mt. Hood Recreation employees seems to inspire visitors to behave themselves.

“With the concessionaire, I think people are feeling safer,” Walker said.

Walker admitted that she’d heard some concern from regular visitors to the site of management being turned over to a concessionaire. Perhaps people that had frequented Bagby for years were worried about new fees and tighter regulations.

As far as fees, those who wish to soak in the Bagby Hot Spring tubs pay a $5 fee.

Bracelet passes are available at the Ripplebrook Camp Store, or the fee may be paid at the Bagby trailhead. If no one is there, soakers may leave their $5 in the box at the trailhead.

Those who are simply hiking the trail don’t have to pay the fee. It only applies to those who soak at the hot springs.

As the “landlord,” the Forest Service gets a percentage of Mt. Hood Recreations’ revenues from the site.

That money may be used for trail repairs, replacing tubs, or other maintenance.

Before the concessionaire management, the Forest Service had no money to do such things.

Not that the Mt. Hood Recreation Services is making a huge profit.

Walker explained that when it was just the Forest Service operating the site, they relied heavily on volunteer effort to manage the site.

The concessionaire is not allowed to use volunteers. They must at least pay their site hosts minimum wage.

Teri Gaarsland, operations manager of Mt. Hood Recreation Services said that the company’s main objectives in Bagby’s new management are to keep the site clean and to “show a presence.”

“We try to keep it as clean as we can. And keep it as natural,” Gaarsland said.

by:  ISABEL GAUTSCHI - There's plenty to see on the gentle mile-and-a-half hike to Bagby Hot Springs.Walking the by-foot-only, mile-and-a-half long trail through old growth forest that serves as the only access to the hot springs, Gaarsland points to a tree stump covered in glitter.

Another tree is inked, carved and glittered with lovers’ names, graffiti hieroglyphs and inscriptions of people that “were here.”

Gaarsland and Walker shake their heads bemusedly. There’s still some work to do.

Walker explained the “broken window theory.” Walking by a house, if people see broken windows they may think it’s not so big a deal to throw some rocks through a few more.

If the Forest Service and Mt. Hood Recreation Services can clean up the graffiti trunks and glitter stumps, maybe visitors will be less inclined to make new ones.

“We don’t want it commercialized. We want it like this,” Gaarsland said while gesturing towards the old growth forest surrounding the trail. “We want it neat and safe. And I want families to feel comfortable.”

Passing people on the trail on the way to the hot springs, Gaarsland and Walker ask visitors how their soak was.

“Great!,” they say.

“It’s much better than before,” one woman said.

by:  ISABEL GAUTSCHI - A Bagby visitor relaxes with his dog as the tub fills.Gaarsland and Walker are pleased.

“Huge turnaround for such a little bit of time,” Gaarland said.

And “showing a presence” has removed a lot of the behaviors associated with Bagby’s formerly seedy reputation.

Car vandalism, once a major problem at the parking lot at the Bagby trail head, has ceased since Mt. Hood Recreation Services took over daily management in July 2012.

And, as Walker points out, there’s always toilet paper in the bathrooms.

With personnel on site, people are more likely to abide by the no alcohol policy, not to use and leave candles unattended, and to restrict nudity to the private tubs.

by:  ISABEL GAUTSCHI - Nudity is allowed in the private tubs in Bathhouse No. 2. This bathhouse features the old log-hewn tubs the site is known for. However, Bathhouse No. 2 is in need of renovations. It is uncertain whether the old tubs will be replaced with log-hewn tubs or more modern versions.Nudity, a traditional feature of the Bagby Hot Springs, is still allowed but only in the private tub areas. Public nudity is forbidden.

“We’re sticking with the status quo on that issue,” Walker said.

With the renovated bath house; wide, easy trail and new found cleanliness, it’s no wonder that Bagby is one of the top five trail destinations in the Mt. Hood National Forest.

“It’s one of our highest used destinations at least on the Clackamas River,” Walker said.

Bagby Hot Springs is open 24/7, year-round, but adventurous would-be winter soakers should be warned that snow plowing efforts only go as far as the Ripplebrook Camp Store. And there’s no cell phone service.

Also, the nearest gas station is in Estacada, 40 miles away.

For more information on Bagby Hot Springs go to

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