For a mid-size US city, Portland has a respectable range of hot bubbly pool options. Crunchy wellness remnants like Everett House and Common Ground are still around, and the McMenamins Kennedy School offers soaking and socializing to guests, neighbors, and those willing to pay a nominal fee.
At the higher price range of Portland's soaking options is Knot Springs, which I'd heard about from a friend whose brother is a member—we'd both rolled our eyes at the membership rates of $200-500 a month.
But you never really know what something is like unless you try it. And precisely when I was feeling a strong hankering for a hot bubbly tub experience, I was offered a chance to drop-in at Knot Springs to check out its Summer Concert Series.
Mercury Culture Editor Suzette Smith stressed that she wanted an extensive report on the facility’s cold plunge. “There are some ALLEGED cold plunges in town that are the size of a bathtub,” she wrote over Slack. “But [for a proper cold plunge] you need to remove the possibility of hesitation.”
This is the second year of Knot Springs' Summer Concert Series, which welcomes live music to the spa’s deck every Thursday in August. While this is for the benefit of the spa's members, it's also possible to buy tickets for the drop-in rate of $89—which also gets you an hour and a half of spa time.
If you're used to paying $5 at house shows, that number made your eyes pop. If you've dealt with Ticketmaster's hidden fees recently you might be thinking: At least they're upfront about it. For those used to getting spa treatments, that's borderline reasonable.
When it comes to the Summer Concert Series, Knot Springs has sweetened the pot with charity—20 percent of ticket proceeds go to Jeremy Wilson Foundation: an organization providing medical and mental health resources to local musicians.
Furthermore, as we noted earlier, Knot Springs offers a cold plunge pool, giving them a cold plunge pool Portland monopoly. You will find cold showers and bathtubs at various local spas, but our research suggests the next nearest actual cold plunge pool is at the Society Hotel spa in Bingen, Washington.
All of this is to say, when I got the opportunity to drop-in and check out a Knot Springs summer concert, I jumped at the chance.
Ritual and Experience
Upon my arrival, Knot Springs' staff directed me to the fifth floor, where I was welcomed by even more staff. Everyone was very pleasant, and I received a ten-minute or so tour of the soaking facility and changing area.
Inside the spa's springs area, the concrete walls are covered in pleasant-looking greenery, giving off an eco-brutalist vibe. There’s a ritual to the Knot Springs spa process, and they feel so strongly about it that it's engraved in stone on one of the walls.
The ritual, in short: First, exfoliate in the shower—they provide salt scrub. Second, take a dip in the tepidarium: a still soaking pool set at just-below body temperature. This will allegedly “encourage your muscles to relax and unwind." Third, head to the bubbly, hot caldarium: a 104-degree tub designed to open pores and melt tension. After that, it's time for the Knot Springs’ pièce de résistance: the cold plunge. This pool is set at 47 degrees, and is said to “immediately help aid in recovery, exercise the heart and sharpen the mind.” Post-cold plunge, visitors are encouraged to head to the sauna and steam rooms. Then repeat.
Knowing I might not get the opportunity to visit Knot Springs again, I tried to get the most out of my time. I completed my first go-around quickly. While the other spa elements likely speak for themselves, I will say the cold plunge was truly invigorating to my senses. After the shock wore off, I felt more connected to my 15 percent Nordic ancestry, and began to seriously consider the benefits of cold showers.
In theory, I love a sauna, but I don't actually have much heat tolerance. After a few minutes of panting, I left what felt like a wood-lined chamber of hell with urgency, nearly burning my hand on the door handle as I went. But don’t let my weakness deter you: I saw many people hang out there for a lot longer than I could, blissful expressions on their faces.
Overall, I felt most comfortable in the tepidarium.
As I cooled off, I gazed upon one of Knot Springs’ biggest selling points: its views of the Willamette River and downtown Portland skyline. At first, I could only focus on the Burnside Bridge's car gridlock —ardent fans of any of the musicians playing the summer series might be able to enjoy the music from the bridge's northeast side—but as rush hour dispersed and the light softened, I started to better enjoy the sunset.
Concert and Company
During my second ritual experience, the concert started. The band playing on Knot Springs’ deck that night was Threedom, an “instrumental power trio” who mostly played upbeat jazz fusion without vocals but occasionally veered into covers. I was charmed by their version of the Steely Dan semi-deep cut track “Pretzel Logic,” a favorite of mine since I inherited my dad’s old iPod Video in middle school. I was similarly pleased to hear Threedom's version of Sting’s “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You,” which happens to be another dad iPod staple.
However, despite my positive impressions of the band’s musical chops and song choices, I’m not fully sold that live rock covers and soaking pools are a match. Guests who brought partners or friends were yelling to be heard over the loud music. It was a stark— and humorous—contrast with the otherwise soothing atmosphere.
My plus one, Cam, also arrived around this time—finding me in the tepidarium where I was trying to ignore the disruptive sounds and focus on a book. As much as I’d imagined the wonders of hot tub solitude, I was getting a little bored, and was grateful to have someone to yell at over the music.
Cam wanted to review all the available beverage options: two herbal teas (mint and ginger) and a choice between room temperature, cold, and sparkling water. Sparkling was our unanimous favorite.
Asked for his thoughts on the poetically-described lukewarm water, Cam said it made him "feel one with the space."
So, what’s the verdict? I deliberated over this for days.
My time at Knot Springs was wonderful—it left me feeling relaxed and rejuvenated. I can't tell you what the shampoo made my hair smell like, but it smelled nice. However, if I’d paid for two passes to the springs, I would’ve had to shell out almost $200, and I think my budget anxiety would’ve interfered with the spa experience.
Ironically, the live music—the reason I was invited at all—left something to be desired. It just clashed with the overall soothing vibe.
So, like I mentioned, Portlanders exist on different budget scales. Some invest in relaxing experiences as others might a hobby, a fancy dinner, or a concert ticket—or their $89 electricity bill.
Knot Springs deserves its reputation as one of the swankiest spas in town—and as far as we know the only one with a proper cold plunge— but you can also drop in at times that are not the summer concert series times and those might be much more chill. Whether this is new or not, Tuesday through Thursday drop-in prices appear to be (for the moment and before 3:30 pm) $69.
As for me, I might just utilize my own bathtub more often—but won’t gripe as much when I run out of hot water and have to make do with a frigid shower. Thanks to Knot Springs, I now know the miracles of a cold plunge.