Homestead Crater, Utah

It's winter. It's cold. And the water is toasty-warm, at least at this natural hot springs cavern. Inside a large rock dome, this dive site is reached by tunnel. The diving area is 60 feet (18 m) wide and the water temperature a balmy 96 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). The cavern is shaped like an hourglass, with the narrowest point about 35 feet (11 m) wide. The walls of the crater are composed of mineral deposits left by the hot spring waters. Visitors can stay at the on-site Homestead Resort.

Depths to: 65 feet (20 m) but divers are asked to limit their depths to 45 feet (14 m) to avoid stirring up silt.

Visibility: Unlimited

Water temperature:
96 F (35 C) year-round

Marine life: None. But so what? The sensation of diving in soothing hot-tub water is reason enough to come.

Fees: Diving rates are $20 Monday through Friday, and $25 weekends; a few dollars less
for resort guests. A one-hour "scuba experience," which includes equipment, is available for $60 weekdays and $75 weekends for resort guests; $75 and $100 for nonguests. Open-water referrals, "tuneup" lessons and certification classes are also available.

On-site amenities: A dive center is in the tunnel leading to the crater. Equipment rentals are available. Scuba and snorkeling lessons are taught (by appointment). Nondivers are welcome to swim around or just sit in Utah's largest hot tub. In addition, the nearby resort can arrange cross-country skiing, snowmobile or sleigh rides, horse rides, golf, mountain biking, and other activities.

More information: Visit www.homestead-ut.com or call (800) 327-7220. Reservations are recommended.

Open: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. year-round

Getting there: From Salt Lake City/Ogden: Take Interstate 80 east up Parley's Canyon. Exit at U.S. 40/U.S. 189 and go south past the Jordanelle Reservoir. Just after descending from the dam, turn right towards Midway/Wasatch Mountain State Park. After a few miles, you'll arrive in Midway. Turn right at the stop sign. Follow the signs to the Homestead Resort.

Part 2.

Utah's Hot Springs

Mile-High Tropical Diving

Story and photos by Linda Lee Walden

Utah is known for its wealth of unique natural attractions: the Bonneville salt flats, the bizarre rock formations adorning its national parks, the feather-light snow of its ski resorts, the Great Salt Lake itself.

But few are aware that Utah also possesses natural wonders that appeal specifically to scuba enthusiasts , almost a thousand miles from the nearest ocean and a mile above sea level, several geothermal springs have been transformed into northern Utah's version of tropical dive sites.

Bonneville Seabase

Forty miles/64 km west of Salt Lake City off Interstate 80, in the midst of a sagebrush desert which eons ago formed the bed of giant Lake Bonneville, lies a small saltwater sea. More accurately, Bonneville Seabase consists of a series of interconnected ponds fed by underground hot springs and stocked with tropical fish from all over the world.

The springs are nature's gift. Their development into the Seabase facility is the brainchild of Neptune Divers' owners Linda Nelson and George Sanders. Faced with a 240-mile/386-km round-trip drive between Salt Lake City and Blue Lake, a hot spring on the Nevada border, they decided to develop an open-water training site closer to home that could be dived even in the dead of Utah winter.

In 1988 they bought an 80-acre parcel riddled with hot springs. Since the early 1900s the site had been used as a local swimming hole, a baptismal and more recently a garbage dump. Sanders, whose background is in construction, spent two years excavating several ponds and lining them with rocks. An airfill station, dressing rooms, showers and outhouses, a gathering/teaching building and a snack bar/rental shop were constructed, creating a full-service dive facility.

The springs release 90 F (32 C) water at a rate of 80,000 gallons/303,000 liters per hour. The various ponds or bays, with names like White Rocks, Iron Bottom and Bubbling Sands, range in temperature from the low 70s F (low 20s C) to the mid-80s F (high 20s C) depending on seasonal air temperature and proximity to the spring openings. The thermal gradient in the bays is reversed , the warmest water is near the bottom.

White Rocks Bay, 125 by 65 feet/38 by 20 m, is covered by a Plexiglas roof for comfort in any weather. It is the main entry area, bordering the Aquadome, a heated staging enclosure. Connected by a swim-through, open-air Habitat Bay is almost five times as large and serves as the principle training area. For novelty, an underwater air-filled dive bell has been suspended at 15 feet/5 m, and a small boat lies nearby.

The main underwater attractions at Seabase, however, are the saltwater fishes. As the massive inland sea evaporated, leaving the Great Salt Lake, the former seabed became permeated with salt. Hot spring water dissolves these ancient crystals, resulting in a salinity level very close to the oceans. Starting with a few castoffs from home aquariums, Seabase's fish population has mushroomed to include French and gray angels and puffers from the Caribbean, Indo-Pacific clownfish, fire gobies and batfish, garibaldis from California, barimundis from Australia and a variety of Red Sea tangs. The undisputed stars of the show, however, are three good-size nurse sharks.

All these finned inhabitants do create nutrient-rich water, which reduces visibility to a few feet at times. Seabase co-owner Nelson, a chemist by training, has been experimenting with various biological remedies, including introducing algae-eating brine shrimp and rotifers. Visibility averages 6 to 20 feet/2 to 6 m depending on the time of year.

One consideration when diving in Utah is the altitude. At Seabase it measures a relatively modest 4,250 feet/1,295 m above sea level. Dive tables must be modified to account for the decreased density of the atmosphere. With this in mind, the fact that the deepest bay at Seabase is only 24 feet/7 m still means that divers experience an equivalent depth of 2 atmospheres, or 33 feet/10 m at sea level. A separate 60-foot/18-m pond is being excavated to offer deep divers the equivalent of a 72-foot/22-m sea-level dive.

Bonneville Seabase is open year-round to divers and snorkelers. Enthusiastic vacationers from many states have been known to ski Utah's world-class mountains by day and follow up with a night dive at Seabase.

The Crater at Homestead Resort

Located on the eastern slopes of the Wasatch mountains, just a few miles from Utah's ski areas, Homestead is proud of its distinction as the only full-service resort featuring both cross-country skiing and scuba on the same property.

As you enter the well-manicured grounds of this upscale country getaway, the crater's craggy dome, which resembles a giant beehive, overshadows the stately elegance of the historic hotel situated nearby. Almost 400 feet/122 m across at the base and 55 feet/17 m high, the rock dome was deposited over a period of 8,000 to 10,000 years by warm, calcium-rich waters rising from 2 miles/3 km underground.

The crater became a commercial mineral bath and the nucleus of the current resort over a century ago, when an enterprising farmer drilled into the side of the dome and piped the 94 F (34 C) water into a wooden tub. Access to the pool inside the dome was restricted, however, because the only way in was through the small opening at the summit.

In the early '90s Dr. Jerry Simons, electrical engineer and owner of Waterworld dive center in Orem, Utah, visited Homestead Resort. He immediately envisioned the crater's internal pool as a perfect, climate-controlled setting for all-weather diving. In partnership with the resort's owners, he blasted a 110-foot/34-m tunnel through the side, just above water level.

In 1996 the crater opened for diving and snorkeling, as well as therapeutic mineral baths. Inside the tunnel is a curtained shower and changing area, airfill station and equipment rental center. A separate building housing classrooms, a locker room and reception area is due to open at the end of this year.

The heart of the crater is a rock-walled cavern roughly 85 feet/26 m across containing a crystal-clear pool 65 feet/20 m deep. The high calcium and magnesium content of the water
precludes living organisms, and the spring's flow rate of 100,000 gallons/379,000 l per day completely exchanges the pool's contents every couple of days. These factors, plus underwater lighting and sunlight streaming from above, result in wall-to-wall visibility for divers.

Two water-level platforms provide easy access to the pool, and a training platform is suspended 20 feet/6 m under the surface. Because divers can ascend directly to the surface of the pool within the chamber, the crater is not considered an overhead environment and is regularly utilized by scuba instructors for open-water training dives. For safety reasons, maximum diving depth is restricted to 35 feet/11 m. At Homestead's 6,200-foot/1,890-m altitude, this equates to 52 feet/16 m at sea level.

The novelty of diving a natural hot spring nestled inside a rock dome draws divers from around the world, not just during ski season, but year-round.

Belmont Hot Springs

Less known, but equally as accessible to divers from northern Utah and surrounding states, is a third hot spring area that has been turned into a dive site. Belmont Hot Springs hugs the banks of the thermally active Malad River, tucked among hilly grasslands less than 90 minutes north of Salt Lake City along Interstate 15.

Located at the intersection of geological fault lines, the area is honeycombed with hot springs. In 1971 the land was developed into an aquarium-fish farm, golf course and naturally heated swimming pool. The growing popularity of scuba diving prompted the owners to open two of the hot spring ponds to divers in 1994.

The main diving pond covers over 2 acres and has a maximum depth of 35 feet. At an altitude of 4,400 feet/1,340 m, this is equal to 48 feet/15 m at sea level. Platforms have been placed at 3 feet/1 m and 20 feet to keep divers off the clay and sand bottom, which bubbles like champagne. Kara, an algae, grows in 5-foot/1.5-m "pillows" along the bottom in the cooler months, and small aquarium fish such as mollies and goramis, as well as cornucopia snails, can be seen along the banks of the pond. Visibility hovers around 10 feet/3 m.

Belmont Hot Springs are truly hot, bubbling up at a stable 125 F (52 C). By controlling the rate of flow, the water in the diving pond can be cooled to 91 F (33 C), but may run slightly higher during the summer. Because of this, another diving pond is being constructed to allow further cooling for more comfortable warm-weather diving.

Scuba instructors like the comfort of the warm-water pond for open-water training dives and utilize the large, heated swimming pool for confined-water teaching sessions. Amenities include locker rooms with showers, and an enclosed caf8E and meeting area. Belmont Hot Springs does not provide scuba equipment rentals or air fills, preferring that divers go through a dive center. The facility is open all year, but in the winter only by appointment.

To prevent overcrowding, all three facilities limit the number of divers in the water at one time. You must call ahead to schedule your arrival, and fees do apply. Each facility has safety equipment on premises. The nearest recompression chambers are in the Salt Lake City area.

Utah boasts the fifth-largest number of scuba divers per capita in the United States. Could this be due, in part, to the availability of local warm-water diving? Maybe they know something the rest of us don't. Find out for yourself , dive a hot spring.