Goldbug Hot Springs is the hot springs you talk about when you’re at other hot springs. It’s just that good. But, shhh, it’s a geothermal gem. And to go there, you have to work for it.

The journey begins (if you’re starting in Missoula) with a three hour drive down Highway 93 through the Bitterroot valley, over Lost Trail pass, and along the Salmon River, past Salmon, Idaho, then a left turn after mile marker 282. But you’re not done yet. Next task is to climb the steep, three-mile switch-backed trail to the springs. The trail is often icy, muddy, or a sweltering climb.

But easily worth it once you ease into one of those sandy-bottomed pools. A scalding waterfall drops from rock pool to rock pool in this lush, green crevice of a desert hillside. The cliffy, high desert setting is a stark difference from the alpine settings of Jerry Johnson or Weir. Each pool gets warmer as you climb to the source of the heat, where the non-sulfurous water seeps directly from the rocks. But be warned: sometimes the pools fill with the icy cold water of spring runoff.

Since the journey is not a simple one, many soakers opt to stay the night. For this, there are two overnight areas near the springs. One is a well-dispersed site 15 minutes below the pools. It’s flat and comfortable. The second is over-used and quite invasive to both the springs an the soakers. It’s such a small, un-level area, that only primitive camping can be used. But it’s often attractive to those who drank too much in the springs and have trouble navigating down the trail drunk. So they park themselves right next to the water, and the result is an area beside the springs, littered with toilet paper residue. So, be a courteous soaker, and make the short trek down to the better campsite.

You’d think the wonderfully crystal clear, hot pools would be full all the time, but they’re not. The long drive and the challenging trail keeps large crowds away and keeps the springs feeling just a little more wild.

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