Hot springs play an important role in the leisure scene of Idaho, but nowhere are they as celebrated as in Lava Hot Springs. Since its inception, the town has been a place of relaxation for weary travelers and anyone looking for a place to soak their bones. We spent three blissful days here; allowing our bodies to recuperate after a few long weeks on the road.
Lava Hot Springs has been attracting tourists since the days of the Oregon Trail, when it was famous as an oasis for settlers headed west. Nowadays, entrance to the pools will set you back $6. The main baths range in temperature from “pleasantly warm” to “crazy hot”, and are as popular with locals as with tourists. But don’t let the crowds put you off: the park is so large that you can always find a quiet corner to soak.
We used Lava Hot Springs as a base for excursions to Soda Springs and Bear Lake. While in town, we stayed in Greystone Manor: an old Mormon church which has been converted into a lodge. There are only a few rooms available, and they’ve been outfitted luxuriously, with giant beds, fireplaces, jacuzzi baths, lounge chairs, and elegant decoration. After roughing it through Idaho, Greystone Manor provided just the sort of ultra-comfort we desperately needed.
The best hidden gem we uncovered during our travels through Idaho was the Goldbug Hot Springs. Found at the end of a beautiful and moderately-rough hike through a canyon just south of Salmon, these cascading hot springs offer an idyllic experience, far off the beaten track.
We had been completely unaware of Goldbug’s existence until finding a flyer about it in Salmon’s Chamber of Commerce. It wasn’t in any of the guide books we read, and even most of the locals we would talk with later, from Challis to Sun Valley, hadn’t heard of it. Or perhaps, they pretended not to have heard of it. Goldbug is a paradise, and there’s no better way to ruin paradise than by attracting too many tourists to it.
The trail to the hot springs gets started here in a small parking lot just off Highway 93. The two-mile trail initially skirts through private property, but soon enters public land and becomes increasingly gorgeous as it follows a small stream into a mountain valley. Even without the promise of hot springs, the trail would itself make a great excursion. The final stretch is strenuous, going up into the hills, but the reward waiting at the end makes it all worthwhile.
The Goldbug Hot Springs are a collection of five or six pools complete with waterfalls and a view over an unforgettable valley landscape. The pools are of varying temperatures; warmer nearer the source, cooler further down, but never too hot nor too cold. And the waterfalls are the crowining touch; I sat underneath one for about fifteen minutes, just letting the hot water pound my shoulders and neck. Even if there are other groups visiting the hot springs, the number of pools almost guarantees some solitude.
We stayed much longer than we had planned, and felt like we were floating on clouds during the walk back to the car. Apologies to all the residents of Salmon and Challis who would like to keep Goldbug secret. We can totally understand that. But this is a piece of nature so incredible, that it simply must be shared.
On the drive back from historic Warren, we decided to check out the Burgdorf Hot Springs. This had been an area sacred to the Nez Perce tribe, but was taken over during the gold mining days by an enterprising fellow named Fred Burgdorf. He saw the financial potential in the natural hot springs, and turned Burgdorf into one of Idaho’s first resort towns.
Burgdorf has been owned privately since opening in 1870. It was the first commercial hot spring we visited in Idaho; you can bathe for as long as you want, for $6 per person. Besides the large main pool, which maintains a comfortable heat of 100°F, there are two smaller pools which are much hotter, at 112°F. The guy working the desk warned me to bathe in these pools for no more than two minutes at a time. I had a hard time staying in even that long.
Burgdorf is famed locally for the lithium in its water. We’ve heard that some visitors will even drink from the pool for the therapeutic effects of the lithium… which, considering the number of people who bathe here, probably isn’t the greatest idea. Lithium is known for its ability to smooth the edges and after my dip in the pool, I definitely felt relaxed.
Burgdorf has fifteen cabins which you can rent for $35 per adult ($10 per child). With its beautiful location in the woods just 30 minutes north of McCall, it would make for a great, and very relaxing, weekend.
Idaho has more usable hot springs than any other state in the union, and many of them are found on public land, which means that they’re free to access. Quite a few can be found around Cascade, so we decided to go hot-spring-hopping one sunny Saturday morning.
he water in Idaho’s hot springs is heated by friction between tectonic plates, and comes bubbling up out of the ground at temperatures that can reach boiling point. Idaho rests on top of a ridiculous number of fault lines, along which the hot springs (and earthquakes) appear. It’s as though the Earth wants Idaho to relax in a hot bath, before unleashing the cataclysms which destroy it.
Trail Creek Hot Springs was first on our list. Easy to find off NF-22 near Warm Lake, about 20 miles northeast of Cascade (location), this spot is popular with locals. Luckily, we got there early and had a pool to ourselves. It was more developed than I had expected; the pools were walled up and you could regulate the temperature by opening a valve to allow cold river water in. And, as I immediately realized on putting my legs into the pool, some regulation was necessary! The spring water was piping hot, and I needed a few minutes of acclimation before submerging.
From NF-22 we turned onto NF-409 and passed by Molly’s Tubs. We didn’t approach the bathing area, because it was already claimed by what looked to be a rowdy party. Past the tubs, we discovered Molly’s Springs after parking near a trail head and hiking about ten minutes off the road and into the hills (location) I don’t know who this Molly broad was, but she lays claim to some beautiful land.
This area was devastated by a 2007 wildfire, which left the forest dead, but hauntingly beautiful. Molly’s Springs weren’t as clean as the pools at Trail Creek, but more remote and exciting. We sat down gingerly in the almost unbearably hot water, and cooked in silence while admiring at the river valley through the blackened skeletons of pine trees. If I hadn’t been so concerned about my kochende eier, I could have stayed here an hour.
We got back into the car completely relaxed and continued down NF-409 to find the Vulcan Hot Springs (location). This required a hike of about twenty minutes through the forest, alongside a creek, ending in a foul-smelling morass of sulphur and algae, where extremely hot water was bubbling out of the rock bed. Even if we had wanted to get wet here, the pool was too shallow and grubby. It was a neat area, but not for bathing.
Visiting these public baths is kind of a crap shoot. We had great luck at two of the four we visited, but unless you’re a local (or have local advice), there’s no guarantee. If in doubt, consult the useful website IdahoHotSprings.com, which attempts to list all of the public and private hot springs in the state, along with pics, grime-level and detailed accounts of past visits.
We're Jürgen and Mike, from Germany and the USA. Born wanderers, we love learning about new cultures and have decided to see the world... slowly. Always being tourists might get lame, but eternal newcomers? We can live with that. So, our plan is to move to an interesting new city, once every three months. About 91 days.