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Elkhorn provides soakers with three options: an indoor grotto or "wet sauna," and two outdoor pools. All are co-ed, and suits are required.
The grotto, an intimate, rock-lined tub, runs at about 105 degrees. The outdoor options—a large swimming pool and a smaller but hotter pool—range from 95 to 100 degrees. Happily, the water has none of the telltale sulphur odor associated with geothermal springs, but the big pool is entirely covered by a thin layer of unpleasant slime. Many guests test the water, ourselves included, but we don't see anyone linger for more than a few minutes.
The other pool is a stark contrast—toasty, and bobbing with nearly two dozen attractive twenty- and thirty-somethings, with just a few kids here and there. Since there's no bar, Elkhorn soakers bring their own alcohol, and apparently enjoy sharing with new friends. We keep it social for a few more dehydrating hours, then roll, a bit rummy, back to the cabin.
Built nearly a century ago, Elkhorn's historic structures are spacious, well worn and clearly accustomed to partying. We play rowdy drinking games into the morning, then stoke the wood stove—the cabin's sole heat source—and head to bed. "Rustic" finger-sized gaps around the un-lockable door effectively keep the place from getting too stuffy.
The morning dawns brilliant and blue, and golden rays pouring through the un-shaded window roust us early—well, that and a pressing need to return to the daily grind in Missoula. We pack up and hit the resort's complimentary hangover cure: a buffet breakfast of coffee, grits and eggs. If the snow comes, we all happily agree, it's time for another shot at getting Mavericky.
Six days later I'm speeding across the Big Hole thanks to a John Wayne Bobbitt, ski parlance for "six inches on the ground in the morning." Maverick is reporting eight inches of fresh, but a surprise call from Dillon quickly trumped the on-area option. A friend's ex-wife hadn't yet picked up the snowmobiles she'd won in their divorce settlement, and as far as he was concerned, a group of us should use them—or abuse them—as we pleased.
We plan to meet at a trailhead on the snowy eastern flanks of the Beaverhead Range. Tempting options abound for sled-assisted skiers here, but the Dillon crew has drawn a bead on Rock Island Lakes basin, a high subalpine area just south of Homer Youngs Peak. At 10,621 feet, it's the tallest in the range and regularly holds snow well into the summer, offering a brilliant backdrop from nearby lines.
Our borrowed sleds for the day—two mid-80s Ski-Doos—belch blue for a bit when we start them up but are soon idling smoothly. We quickly attach our skis and begin motoring up the deeply worn trail. Nine laborious miles later we break above the tree line and emerge into the spectacular basin. A few other sledding parties are zipping about, but we are the only skiers. We find an untracked but perfectly angled area, park our rides on the frozen lake, and prepare to skin up the ridge to find a few face shots.
Well-protected from wind and sun, the cold snow on the ridge's northeast face is pleasant to ski and comfortingly stable. We take a few mellow laps, lounge in the alpine splendor and dream about three-day weekends. Before we're ready, the sun slips behind the divide and the temperature plummets. We don our parkas, schuss back to the sleds and speed down the now-icy, rutted trail toward our rigs. Then it's time to thank our friends and head back home.
It's been a great day, a great week, really, of exploring the Big Hole. We crest Lost Trail Pass happy and exhausted, but mostly thankful to be surrounded by so many new opportunities for adventure, and so many of them a few hours away.
Now if we could just get control over the snowfall...