Idaho’s hidden hot springs will simmer away reality

Go west, beyond Yellowstone, for a truly memorable soak


We’d driven three hours already, down icy, foggy roads that snaked along frothing rivers and through mountains covered in snowy conifers. And now, as we finally emerged into a high desert of sandstone bluffs and wide-open skies in Elk Bend, Idaho, it seemed we might go no farther.

Before us, a narrow trail that switchbacked up the north-facing hill was covered in three inches of snow concealling a layer of thick, slick ice. Three companions had joined me: Joyce Lee, a heavily laden photographer; Tristan Pettigrew, her less-burdened assistant; and Erin Gray, an old Idaho friend I hadn’t seen in years. We came armed with headlamps and hiking boots, poles and fleece, and supermarket sandwiches and a thermos of hot coffee. But what we needed were crampons — something, anything, to help our feet dig in. Because who knew how long it would go on? We had at least two miles (3.22km) of trail to hike and 1,400ft (130m) to climb; slipping and sliding the whole way didn’t seem smart.

Goldbug Hot Springs

Looking west from Goldbug hot springs

Smart or not, we’d do it anyway, because in them thar hills, we knew, lay gold: Goldbug Hot Springs, that is. “One of those too good to be true occurrences in nature,” according to the Complete Guide to Idaho Hot Springs. Idaho? Hot springs? Yes! Idaho has 130 soakable hot springs, more than any other state, thanks in large part to the Idaho Batholith, 15,400 sq miles (39,885 sq km) of mountains created over millions of years by colliding tectonic plates.

Rather than being heated directly by active magma, as in Yellowstone National Park, the hot water here results from plate friction. Dozens and dozens of springs lie just off highways — down trails short or long, nestled in canyons, or built into hotel features.

Over the last few years, these kinds of hot springs have become my ideal form of relaxation. Whether it’s a Japanese onsen or an improvised backwoods pool, a hot spring requires a soaker to do nothing but soak. You take off (almost) all your clothes. You stash away your phone. You sit and breathe and stare at whatever vista lies before you. Maybe you even sweat a little. It’s yoga without the stretching, meditation without the meditating. It’s all I crave these days.

My goal is to visit as many of these miniature natural wonders as possible over a four-day, three-night sprint in the middle of winter, when air temperatures in the teens would contrast invigoratingly with water that was halfway to boiling. The brevity of the trip only compounded a looming sense of urgency: Although Idaho’s natural beauty is its chief attraction, the environment is under threat. Mining projects such as CuMo at the Boise River headwaters, Bunker Hill up north, and Triumph just downriver from Sun Valley are flashpoints for conservationists across the state, and the public lands on which so many hot springs sit no longer feel eternally protected. Who knows how much longer intrepid hydrophiles can expect to find a free, safe soak?

I was hoping our expedition would culminate at Goldbug, generally regarded as the crown jewel of Idaho’s hot-water treasures. We began in Ketchum, a former mining town that’s the nexus of old-meets-new Idaho. Its downtown contains crusty classics such as the Pioneer Saloon — “the Pio”, as everyone calls it, where there’s almost as many animals on the walls as on the menu. It’s been joined lately by arrivals such as the Argyros arts centre, the contemporary Limelight Hotel, and Cookbook, a new restaurant where the walls are decorated not with trophies but with colourful tomes that inspire its Mediterraneanish cuisine. Summertime is high season, but even in winter, Ketchum and nearby Sun Valley are busy, mostly as havens for downhill and cross-country skiers.

Frenchman’s Bend

On the trail to Frenchman’s Bend

Ten miles west, on the other side of Bald Mountain, lies Frenchman’s Bend, my immediate post-airport stop. Just driving to a hot spring in Idaho, I quickly realised, was part of the thrill: As my rented Chevrolet Suburban Z71 — four-wheel drive with off-road suspension — coasted down Warm Springs Road, I gawked at the hills upon hills, sparkling sunlight limning the fractal edges of the evergreens, bright cabins crouching in the snow. By the time we reached Frenchman’s, I was as excited as I was nervous. Was this already the best of the best, or a hint of what was to come?

The spring flowed into the far side of a 15ft-wide creek, smelling of sulfur and demarcated by rocks dragged into rough pools shaped by soakers past. “No Nudity”, read a sign, though “No” was partly scratched out. I stripped to my swimsuit, then half-climbed, half-slid down a snowy embankment, wading through shin-deep rushing water.

I wasn’t alone. A trio of soakers occupied various parts of the steaming, two-foot-deep spring, each trying to find just the right level of temperature and comfort. This was an oddity I had to get used to when all I wanted was to hurry up and relax: Too-hot currents ran right next to too-cold ones, some over and some under them. When my torso was warm, my feet froze. When my left hand was tepid, my right hand was scalded. Eventually, though, I found a pool that was in the Goldilocks zone and watched fat snowflakes drift off the trees above us and melt into the spring. Aahhhhhh.

The trio knew this spot well. Jody Stanislaw, a diabetes educator, and Eric Alberdi, who owned commercial real estate, both live locally, though Eric splits time between Ketchum and Maui. Their friend Trevor Bain, who prefers unbearably hot water, was over on business from Jackson Hole, Wyoming. For them, soaking on a Tuesday afternoon was normal — what you did with free time. Indeed, we were soon joined by a quartet of furloughed government workers, who settled in upstream with tallboys from Rogue Ales.

Frenchman’s was as perfect as I could imagine — comfortable and convivial. But then, after an hour or so, I had to get out, which meant refording the cold creek, climbing the steep, snowy embankment, and trying to change into warm, dry clothes before my feet froze solid.

This was a dance I would become intimate with over the next few days. While I was prepared — I’d brought an inflatable pad to stand on, as well as a huge, hooded towel — it was never less than awkward. The discomfort was also invigorating: The chill on my skin only heightened the glow from within. I was cold, I was hot, I was energised, I was relaxed. And I was ready to hurry up and do it all over again.

Sun Valley Lodge

That would have to wait for the next day. In the meantime, we checked into the Sun Valley Lodge, a gloriously renovated 1936 gem with a wood and stone interior that signified comfort, solidity, and protection from the elements. Ernest Hemingway once stayed in Suite 206. I got Suite 200, with a fireplace, a cushy armchair with a cow skin throw pillow, and a bathroom the size of my first Manhattan studio apartment. After a beer in the lounge, I hiked to the 20,000-sq-ft spa for a test: How would a man-made version of a hot spring — a Himalayan Salt Soak — compare to Mother Nature’s?

For 30 minutes, I lay in a tub of hot water in which 2lbs (0.9kg) of salt had been dissolved and listened to twittery New Age music. Had I just returned from a day of snowboarding or fly-fishing, it would’ve been amazing. But it was too late for me — I’d been spoiled by Frenchman’s.

Our hot spring-hopping resumed in earnest the next morning. Using the Complete Guide and an online map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, I’d plotted a dozen springs along the roads leading north from Ketchum into the Salmon-Challis National Forest. All we’d have to do, I figured, was drive up, march through snow, jump in, and move along.

What I hadn’t counted on was the weather. Snow was falling along Route 75, the only highway north, slowing our progress over Galena Summit, where we spotted a Jeep Cherokee flipped on its side. (No one seemed hurt, and an emergency vehicle was already on the scene.) The wintry weather had cooled one spring, Russian John, and entirely blocked access to two that lie on private property. Again, with the jagged Sawtooth Range to our left, the scenery was impressive, but I was in a rush to relax.

Witches’ Cauldron

We were well over an hour from Ketchum before we reached an accessible hot spring. Or perhaps “accessible” doesn’t do justice to Boat Box, which lies off the side of the highway, unmarked and nestled among boulders next to the Salmon River. The “box” was a witches’ cauldron, fed by a pipe connected to the spring and big enough to poach three or four humans in 110.4°F (43.6°C) water. (I measured with a digital meat thermometer.) Standing on rocks and pebbles — not snow, thank goodness! — I stripped down and climbed in. For a few minutes, we were in solo heaven, listening to the rush of the river, and I felt the intense heat quicken my heartbeat.

Soon, we were joined by Whitney Mercer and David Selassie, a funky young couple from Portland, Oregon, who were on a weeklong road trip to Missoula, Montana, hitting two or three hot springs a day. So, I wasn’t alone in my obsession! As we traded stories and expectations, a bald eagle swooped into view, then plummeted to the river, snagged a fish, and hobbled to shore for a feast.

1930s Popular Soaking Spot

Very friendly horses enjoy a pasture off Route 93 in Idaho

A few miles farther up the highway was Sunbeam, a popular soaking spot since the 1930s. Alas, its natural pools were too cold. While some kind soul had installed a soaking tub, its pipe-fed water was 125°F, and we had neither a bucket to chill it with river water nor the time to let it cool down naturally. The sun was setting, so I hurried back to Ketchum and salved my failure with bourbon under the low ceilings of the Casino, a legendary dive bar downtown.

If any sense of disappointment still lingered, the trip to Goldbug the next day erased it entirely. After our initial frustration — we wound up taking a steep shortcut over a snow-covered scree field — we found the trail not only safe but gorgeous, a gentle 90-minute climb past sagebrush and juniper trees into a warm, bright canyon. Precisely where the GPS coordinates suggested we’d find it, there it was: A steaming hot, sulfur-free stream that cascaded down the hill, filling a half-dozen pools that glimmered in direct sun.

Some were occupied. One held a snowmobile racer proposing to his bikini-clad girlfriend; another had two guys dressed only in beards and tattoos. Our by-now-dear friends from Boat Box, pink-ponytailed Whitney and frizzy haired David, were also there. But Goldbug hardly felt crowded. And as I settled into a broad, 99.5°F pool at the edge of a waterfall, the view west gave me the sense of infinite space. South slopes glowed russet in the sun, north slopes wore thin caps of snow, and on and on the mountains stretched. I ate my ham and cheese, and it was the best thing I’d ever tasted.

That night, we would sleep in the town of Stanley (population 63) and feast on chilli and beer. At sunrise, we’d soak in the Mountain Village Resort’s private hot spring (106°F), gaping at yet more mountains and planning to visit the secret spots lying among them sometime in the future. Because sitting at Goldbug, I knew: Out there were scores more springs just like this one, bubbling and steaming as they had for tens of thousands of years and — one hopes — for millennia to come. And for once, I was in no hurry.

When to Go

Some hot springs can be visited year-round, but most are best in summer, fall and winter. During spring — which really starts in late April — melting snow swells rivers and renders many of them impossible to visit. Winter is fantastic, but some springs may be too tepid to be worthy of a soak.

What to Bring

A bald eagle hunts fish over the hot spring at Boat Box. The pipe at left feeds the tub

For US$20 (RM81.40), the Complete Guide to Idaho Hot Springs (Second Edition) contains 312 pages of detailed listings, including latitude and longitude, seasonality, historical information, likeliness of nudity and more. Your wintertime hot springs gear should include: Thick towels, flip-flops or an inflatable sitting or standing pad, crampons or Yaktrax, poles, drinking water, a headlamp and an additional pair of socks. A digital thermometer is nice for testing water temperatures and a bucket will let you mix cold water into overheated springs. Depending on conditions, you might also need snowshoes, topographical maps, and more serious backcountry equipment, such as an avalanche beacon and emergency bivouac.

What to Drive

A vehicle with four-wheel drive is good for such adventures — and pretty much essential in the winter. My Chevy Suburban did just fine. The Idaho Transportation Department offers up-to-date information on driving conditions via an iOS/Android app called Idaho 511. It’s always worth checking before a day’s expedition.

Where to Eat

Smiley Creek Lodge, home to all the essentials: Food, coffee and gas

For carnivores, Ketchum’s Pioneer Saloon is all about the meat, whether prime rib, barbecue pork, fresh Idaho trout, or buffalo burgers. It also specialises in that classic Idaho side: A big baked potato. Its polar opposite, a few blocks away, is Cookbook, a colourful, modern restaurant with a menu of crispy pizzas and a delicious beet caprese salad.

The wine list fits on a single page and includes nice surprises from Corsica and Greece. Linger over breakfast or lunch at nearby Kneadery and discuss the latest avalanche or the up-and-coming skiers with weathered locals. Try the Eggs Blackstone, a fine Benedict riff with grilled tomato and chopped bacon.

Where to Stay

The cushy, historic, all-in-one resort to know is Sun Valley Lodge, which lovingly ensnares you with its majestic Sun Room, 98°F pool, and sprawling lounge that feels so big, you can wander and gawk and read and drink for hours before remembering you wanted to go skiing or hot springing in the first place.

If the lodge’s Old West rusticity is a bit much, the Limelight appeals to younger travellers and those here on business. The Mountain Village Resort dominates the tiny town of Stanley a bit north. It has a few dozen comfy but basic rooms (some renovated, others sporting old-school, picture tube TVs), a restaurant and bar, and, of course, its own hot spring. — Bloomberg