The Journey Back to the Springs


Map showing where Terwilliger Hot Spring is located
Terwilliger Hot Spring is located in the Willamette National Forest on the McKenzie River Ranger District around a 60-minute drive from Eugene.

Winding through the lush undergrowth of the majestic Willamette National Forest and meandering along the cold, clear waters of the McKenzie and Willamette Rivers, Forest Service Road 19 is part of the 220-mile West Cascades Scenic Byway, which runs north to south, skirting the northern half of Oregon’s Cascade Mountain Range.  The road connects Highways 126 (McKenzie River) and 58 (Oakridge).   


The road is popular for scenic drives, cycling, and hiking.  Many popular recreation sites are located along the route, including Cougar Reservoir and the Terwilliger Hot Spring.  With five cascading pools, the Terwilliger Hot Spring attracts over 30,000 people a year who come out to enjoy its warm secluded waters. 


Photo of Terwilliger Hot Spring
The three lower pools of Terwilliger Hot Spring.

Hiram Terwilliger: an enduring legacy

The Spring gets its name from Hiram Terwilliger, an early settler from the east coast.  In 1845, at the age of five, Hiram traveled with his four siblings and parents, James and Sophronia Terwilliger, on a six-month journey from New York to Oregon.  If you are driving through Portland today, you may notice Terwilliger Boulevard, Terwilliger Plaza and Terwilliger Trail, reminiscent of Hiram’s father, James Terwilliger, who left his mark as a blacksmith.

On March 12, 1906, Hiram Terwilliger filed a mining claim, staking claim to a source of cinnabar, a common ore that could be refined into mercury and used to gild silver or gold onto jewelry.  In 1912, a Forest Service map of the former Cascade National Forest shows the Terwilliger claim on the hot spring.

In early 1927, the Forest Service offered to let a qualified developer propose a site plan for the hot spring. They desired a development that included a main hotel with a lobby, dining room, kitchen, a public restroom, at least ten bedrooms, five cottages, a store, concrete swimming pool, septic sewage, electric lighting, a bridge, a trail, and 232 public camping spaces.

Terwilliger Hot Spring Incorporated was established in 1928 by a group of Oregonians from Eugene including AJ Jacobs, Dr. WW Elgin, MC Davis and AC Nelson. A 5 acre lot was filed with plans to build a resort. The Forest Service approved the permits. The Federal Power Commission had plans for a reservoir and classified the area as a power site under the Act of February 26, 1899. The hot spring lease was terminated in May of 1930. The Spring was rarely visited until the Cougar Dam was completed.

By the 1960s and 1970s the Spring was used by what has been described as a ‘motley crew.’ The area was littered with garage, vandalized and nude bathing was popular at the springs. It spilled on the road as well. It had become a popular hangout for hippies and theft from parked cars became common.  In 1978 and 1979 the Forest Service conducted a study. A trail was built into the springs, composting toilets were added and nudity and camping prohibited on the roads. Despite efforts the situation deteriorated, alcohol and drugs became common.

"Friends of the Springs"

In 1982, another Forest Service study by James L Caswell and Chuck Anderson proposed a number of solutions including closing the Spring by diverting the water, full Forest Service management, commercial management, or turning the spring over to a non-profit partner, “Friends of the Springs.”

The “Friends of the Springs” approach was favored. In 1982, a special use permit was issued to the Friends group. The group agreed to have a caretaker present to keep toilets clean, clear trails, manage a small camping area, cooperate with the Forest Service to build wood decks around the pools to protect soils. A caretaker’s cabin was built, and the plan seemed successful.

In 1998, the Willamette implemented new rules to make the hot spring safer and preserve its special quality.   The Terwilliger Hot Spring became a day-use only site with no alcohol or glass containers allowed.

Led by a Eugene-based stonemason, in 2009 volunteers renovated the pools by removing concrete that and building pools using a natural mortar.

Today, Terwilliger Hot Spring is subject to a $7 fee per day or a $66 season pass. These fees help maintain the property and protect the spring.

The journey ahead: hazards still remain following the Terwilliger Fire

volunteer and staff work crew
Chipping crews finish up along the 1993 road as transfer of command shifts back to the McKenzie River Ranger District.

Following the 2018 Terwilliger Fire, the High Cascades Forest Volunteers alongside Forest Service staff completed emergency mitigation work to restore the tread of Rider Creek Trail #3319 to the Terwilliger Hot Spring. 

Earlier this spring, Forest Service staff worked with volunteers to build new bridges, reroute the trail onto more stable tread, fly trees that had fallen over the spring out using a rigging system, remove hazard trees, revegetate, and install a new toilet.

With all the love of the staff, volunteers, and countless community members, the Spring is now ready to once again enjoy. 

A special thank you to the cooperating agencies and volunteers who assisted the US Forest Service with preserving the Terwilliger Hot Spring:

Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Forestry, Upper McKenzie River Fire Department, Lane County Sheriff’s Office, Lane County Emergency Management, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon State Fire Marshall, Campbell Global, Lane Regional Air Protection Agency, High Cascades Forest Volunteers, Northwest Youth Corps.

volunteer holds pick and restores trail
A High Cascades Forest Volunteer works to restore trail tread on Rider Creek trail.