The beauty of water is always magnified by wilderness. It’s liquid bliss on a killer hike; or when we douse ourselves with it to keep from bonking on a bike ride; or when we buck in it down wild rivers in a kayak or lumpy inner tube.
But nothing beats the sheer beauty of just taking off your clothes–okay, keep ’em on if you want–and soaking in it. Better yet, getting yourself in hot water—the bubbling, healing, natural kind—doesn’t require a flight to Leukerbad, Switzerland or any other rarified spa resort. All it takes is a road trip, and in the case of springtime soaking in Montana and nearby Idaho, a little courage.
In honor of that sentiment, the Independent sent its team of intrepid reporters to scout out the landscape and, well, get wet. This they did, with varying degrees of pleasure and peril. One water warrior had a moment of soaking magic followed by PTHD (post traumatic hypothermia disorder) and flashbacks to childhood hockey rinks. Another nearly killed himself to reach the splash point, but was forced to turn back without getting even a toe in the pool. And a third got more steamed by the thought of folks wrecking the place than by the hot pools and stress-melting waters.
None of those odd things will happen to you exactly, of course. The hot springs in Montana and beyond give everyone their own stories—serene, rowdy, high octane, lowbrow, 80 proof, sober, and whatever’s in between. When you get to those deep, warm pools of inviting agua, it’s up to you and the wilderness to provide the plot twists. So read on. And jump in.
A cold day in Hades
Hot Spring: The Boiling River
Where: Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone National Park
Find it: Two miles south of the Gardiner park entrance; look for the turnout at the Montana-Wyoming border
If a childhood of playing hockey on the frozen lakes and rivers of Wisconsin will teach you anything, it’s that hypothermia is a bitch. A pre-spring winter wade through the Gardner River to a fairly unique hot spring, therefore, jostles loose just a few feelings of post-traumatic stress. Accompanied by Indy photographer Chad Harder, I nevertheless ventured forth as the late afternoon began fading.
Stepping into the water, the Gardner’s arctic flow makes it too cold to calculate; too cold to anticipate; too cold to talk—other than to splutter blasphemy in variations on the same theme.
“JFC,” I exclaim as the surface creeps toward my waist (I’ll let the reader deduce the acronym’s meaning, but it involves a biblical figure).
The prize and purpose of our ordeal, just ahead, carries a moniker that is itself more than a little biblical sounding. At the Boiling River, fresh melt from the Yellowstone highlands meets a geologic stream that bubbles out of the rock from Hades’ water heater. The two flows serendipitously mix at an eddy, where spring seekers are treated to marvelous bathing conditions—if they can get there.
During the summer months, traversing the then-tepid river is hardly an ordeal, but in late March, the early trickles (coming off a record snow accumulation on the caldera) barely register above freezing. The radiant heat from the nearby boiling brook tantalizes the senses and keeps us pushing forward, but the surrounding Arctic-temped river water punctures nerves everywhere it contacts skin.
Still, as Oscar Wilde wrote, “Suffering is but one long moment,” and eventually this one ends. We settle into the Willamette Valley of our Oregon Trail—a small riverside pool thermally divided from the greater Yellowstone, where relief is to be found.
Already enjoying the spring, a young couple with a toddler bogart prime real estate at the jetty of the geothermal inlet. They leave not long after, and Harder and I move in.
A single visiting Canuck, named Gary, makes the torturous voyage on his own. His wife chooses to remain perched atop the steep riverbank. Gary, demure, says almost nothing. Harder takes a pull of scotch from a flask and passes over the decanter. “Prost,” I respond with a swig.
It’s early dusk and nearby bison can be heard fording a river bend to the south. Chattering magpies rustle in the conifers, harassing a meeting of arboreal rodents. One agitated red squirrel launches at the birds, clamoring like an old woman brandishing a rolling pin. Beyond the ecological opera, a chromatic aura pours into a sliver of sky exposed between the flanking Gallatin and Absaroka Mountains.
The scene is utterly fantastic and, thanks to the extreme conditions, relatively devoid of human distractions.
After sunset, we meditate to gain composure before the painful jaunt back upstream. Night is approaching quickly and the still air already feels more frigid. A step or two outside the heat-giving eddy, and a familiar wicked sensation expeditiously returns. “Looks like about 60 meters,” Gary says, glancing ahead.
Whatever—it’s too cold for metric conversions.
The gold standard
Hot Spring: Goldbug
Where: Elk Bend, Idaho
Find it: On Highway 93, 23 miles south of Salmon, Idaho. Take a left after highway marker 282.
Goldbug Hot Springs lies a full three-hour drive south of Missoula, up the Bitterroot Valley, over Lost Trail Pass and through the sage-covered Salmon River Valley. The parking lot is often packed with cars, and the steep, switch-backed trail to the springs—a full three-mile trip—is often an icy, muddy or sweltering grind through prime rattlesnake country. Well-marked private land surrounds the initial set of steep switchbacks before opening up into a broad sagebrush, juniper, and cattle-strewn canyon. But don’t get used to the easy stroll: Just ahead it’s another scramble up steep scree before you finally see the pools on your left.
Of course it’s not all nastiness, and those who persevere are likely to join the substantial ranks of soakers who sing hushed praises (loud ones would tempt overcrowding) of this geothermal gem.
Goldbug has a long-standing reputation as the premiere spring to soak one’s bones, and the coveted status is well deserved. The sandy-bottomed pools catch a series of almost-scalding waterfalls amid a remote, cliffy, high-desert setting. Van-sized boulders create intricate hot water mazes that increase in temperature as you climb toward the source and provide a semi-private setting.
The non-sulfurous hot water cascades parallel to a cold-water creek: a perfect dark and cool yin to the bubbling and sunny hot yang, although cool may be too mild a word for it. Like many soaking springs that gurgle up alongside mountain streams, the high water conditions of springtime are known to occasionally fill the pools with icy, scrotum-constricting runoff.
But that’s the exception, not the rule. On a recent impromptu trip to Goldbug with my girlfriend, we found the parking lot packed but the pools empty, except for one Salmonite who offered us a sampling of his homegrown before we’d even settled in to the springs.
Holding my breath, I slid down into the pool, a brilliant sunset reflecting off the still, steaming water. All was right in the world. Soon a few headlights came quietly up the trail, although with the waterfall pounding a soothing symphony, we never even noticed the new arrivals slip into an adjacent pond.
Our skin fully pruned just two semi-conscious hours later, we headed down the short but steep trail to the camping gear we’d stashed across a creek. She pitched the tent; I cooked the pasta. All was right for the night.
Some Missoulians find the drive and trek to Goldbug too sizeable for a daytrip. Campers can, however, choose between two overnight areas near the springs. The first is sustainable, respectful and appropriately set back, with well-dispersed sites just 15 minutes below the pools.
The other option is half-assed, over-used and invasive to both the springs and soakers. (For more on lame behavior in wilderness pools, see sidebar, “Hot springs etiquette”).
I’ll try not to rant here. But I’ve got a peeve with drunk or lazy parties who tend to bivouac immediately adjacent the springs. These sites, some of them actually spanning the flatter spots of the approach trail, aren’t just tiny—they’re also way too close to the water, often littered with toilet paper residue, and scarred from years of abuse.
It’s understandable that dehydrated, buzzed and waterlogged soakers tend to crash on nearby flat spots. But excessive wear and tear will at some point tempt the Bureau of Land Management to step in and tighten restrictions on the area, and then we all lose.
And we’d lose a lot. The pools are crystal clear and hot. The trail is just challenging enough to keep out huge crowds. And the lack of regulation, be it the clothing-optional status or the unimproved trail, keeps it feeling like the truly wild, special place that it is. And there really isn’t a better place around to catch the sunset naked.
About 63 miles southwest of Missoula on Highway 12, and about eight miles from Weir Creek Hot Springs
Take Highway 12 to Warm Springs Park bridge trailhead. Cross the bridge over the Lochsa River and follow the trail.
With a series of progressively larger pools and a short, pleasant approach, treed clearings and lush foliage, it’s easy to see why Jerry Johnson has a reputation as a crowded party destination. But on this springtime Wednesday evening, only a handful of people make the after-work trip, giving me nearly exclusive run of the place.
I cross the large suspension bridge over the Lochsa River, head right at the fork, and tramp down a mellow snow-covered trail that climbs gradually up an open, creek-bottomed canyon.
About a mile up the trail, a path breaks off to the right and winds down to a multi-colored moss-blanketed cliff—out of which pours a natural spring that feeds a creekside pool. The temperature is plenty hot, and the nearby creek helps cool the bath.
Minutes farther up the trail are the springs’ main hub of pools, where a boulder-sprinkled clearing lines a wide section of creek. There, an enclave of small to large-sized soaking spots seat anywhere from three to five people. The largest pool could easily fit 25.
But on this night, unusual calm prevails. At 7 p.m., only three people and two dogs are in sight.
A 30-something man hunches over a beer in the big pool, laughing while his bikini-clad girlfriend teases him and pulls long tugs off a can of Fosters.
“Hey, how’s it going!” she yells after seeing me stroll in.
Their Malamute-shepherd mix approaches me cautiously and gives a sharp bark, but stays his distance.
“He’s some kind of alley dog,” the man says, smiling. “He likes to bark and say hi, but really he doesn’t want any trouble…see?” The dog meanders over the hill, pretending to look for something to maul.
I keep walking and reach another set of smaller pools, surrounded by smooth rounded boulders. Khaki and grey rocks fill the tree-lined clearing, where multiple fire pits and fallen-tree seats scatter the landscape.
Over a hump in the boulder field comes what appears to be Toto, a small brown dog with a plaid sweater. He approaches, sits atop a rock twice his size and stares at me before trotting off.
“Oh, hi,” a bikini-clad woman calls out, as I near the water. “Do you know where we can camp? Back in the ’70s we used to camp down here, now they say we can’t,” she says in a spaced-out, melancholy tone.
I’m not sure who “we” is—or was, since there’s no one else. She’s a 40-something ex-hippie on a hot springs visit—with her imaginary friends?
Beyond this large area, the trail takes me to an empty clearing where fallen trees surround yet another soaking spot. Perched on the hillside under a towering overhang of trees, it’s shrouded in steam that occasionally blows away in the wind, revealing a translucent blue-green pool. It’s empty.
Snow falls, scattering ripples in the water. A cloud sets in, blending with the steaming valley. I lower myself into the water and let the heat penetrate muscle tissues. My neck loosens, my psyche relaxes, and the only sound I’m conscious of is the pulsing of the nearby creek.
In between thoughts, I marvel at the solitude I’ve found on a weeknight, just a drive away from home.
Weir are you going?
In Idaho, 45 miles northeast of Lowell
Near mile marker 141 on Highway 12
Weir Creek Hot Springs is famed as the serenity you’ve got to work for, especially in the early spring. Sitting atop a rocky tower under a monolithic canopy of snow-bearing firs, this secluded eight-person hot pool billows with steam. Its hot water splashes down over boulders, creating steady showers below. Warm mist cloud swells into a surrounding amphitheatre-like clearing where pink unicorns and arrow-bearing wood fairies would hardly seem out of place.
In the winter and spring, backcountry skiers and road-trippers stop here and brave a treacherous traverse to rejuvenate in the mystical setting (made even more phantasmagorical by the various substances that soakers use. If this means you, wait until after the traverse before cueing up.)
My trip, for one, doesn’t need any adventure enhancements. After a season’s snowfall, the 1.5-mile approach is a barely-visible boot-pack over steep, nasty terrain–one that begins from a snow-smothered trailhead and turnout that’s hardly visible from the road.
The narrow path splits into two trails: One runs through sections of snow and cliffs treacherously close to the creek’s roaring frigid waters. I take the other, a high road, and fast, since darkness approaches.
It’s no surprise moments later when I’m looking directly down on the creek from some 80 feet above, kicking steps into the snow as quickly and carefully as I can across an exposed pitch. I notice the snow melting away from a nearby cliff, creating a 12-foot chasm, barely visible in the shade. To my left, I see a body print where some unknowing person fell into one of these clefts and nearly slid the whole way down.
Snow chunks break off, tumbling down and eventually dissolving into the crashing waters below. I slip at several spots, grabbing a branch or making a pre-emptive fall fast enough to avoid tumbling uncontrollably the whole way.
This is some of the sketchiest leg-breaking alpine terrain I’ve been on this season. I can’t remember a hot springs trip where I lamented not bringing crampons and an axe—or where I’d refrained from libations merely in the interest of safety.
After a pumping paranoid scramble, I come to the hot pool. It’s vacant. It’s lovely and beckoning. Cold, wet and sweating, my body’s thirst for a soothing soak crashes against the realization that I’ve only got about 20 minutes of daylight left. I’m also alone, the ironic downfall of precious solitude.
In my gut I know I can’t get into that pool. It’ll be dark, and it’ll be two hours before I get out, and I’d have to brave that nasty traverse alone with nothing but a headlamp powered by weakened batteries.
I can’t think of a better way to end up in a cast.
Bending down begrudgingly, I splash steaming water onto my sweaty forehead. Some kind soul left an unopened Red Bull at the poolside. I down it for the scramble back, and squeeze minutes of sunlight for all the distance they’re worth.
Serenity has its price, and I’m not in a position to shell out such karmic capital right now.
Resolved: Come earlier in the day or later in the year.
Hot springs etiquette
Minding your mid-soak manners
Soaking isn’t exactly a golf match or fine dining experience. Wilderness hot springs, in particular, are much too informal and laid back for uptight, rigid rules of decorum. Nonetheless there are a few vital dos and don’ts for pool jumpers to follow. Here’s a breakdown, from the obvious to the subtle.
Don’t be an ass
In other words, treat fellow soakers and the site with respect. The whole idea of trekking to a remote, wilderness pool of hot water is to escape the stresses of everyday life and relax. Do your part to contribute to that vibe by leaving the rowdiness—including your best cannonball dives and your Matchbox 20-blaring boombox—back at the frat house.
Most sites post rules on the restriction of alcoholic beverages. These are rarely enforced, but should be noted. If you do plan to bring adult beverages—or liquids of any kind, for that matter—make sure to avoid glass containers. Employ a flask or thermos, or, better yet, utilize our local breweries’ non-glass alternatives: Kettlehouse brew comes in pint-sized cans, Bayern now sells mini kegs that can easily fit into a backpack, and, while it’s a bit unconventional, Big Sky’s tap room will fill up “anything you want,” including the Nalgene bottles sold in the store.
Care if I smoke?
Depends if you’re sharing. Just kidding. A lot of people go to mineral-rich springs for health reasons, which means that smoking butts and contributing secondhand smoke sort of defeat the purpose. Be courteous, and if you’re in desperate need of a fix take a walk to a less offensive distance.
Don’t be trashy
Perhaps the most obvious rule: Pack out what you pack in, and leave the site in the same condition—if not better condition—than you found it in.
Paws and consider
Sometimes it seems dogs are allowed everywhere in Montana, but a hot spring is not one of those places—especially in one of the pools. If your dog is well behaved and will stay out of the water (Labs, this means you)—and if you just can’t fathom doing a hike without Fido by your side—feel free to give it a shot. But expect veteran soakers to give you an evil eye, especially if there’s incessant barking.
Naked vs. Nekked
The old Southern line goes that “naked” just means you’re not wearing clothes; “nekked” means you’re not wearing clothes and you’re up to something. Knowing the difference pretty much sums up the main question most people have about soaking in a hot spring. Expect naked at wilderness pools (sorry, prudes), but nekked (sorry, exhibitionists) crosses the line.
The right overnight
Each hot springs site typically has camping rules, which depend on jurisdiction. In general, campsites should be placed far enough from the spring to avoid upsetting the fragile ecosystem and should not impede others from enjoying or approaching the water. Some Park Service-monitored springs require no camping within a mile of the pools.
Don’t funk it up
Hot springs are not baths and shouldn’t be used as such. If you’re hitting a spring following a treacherous or arduous hike, take a second to pour some water from the spring or a nearby river over you and rinse off before hitting the pool. The water’s communal, after all, and your personal funk should be kept to you.
When wild soaks don’t thrill you, trip on these dips
If you’re the hot water sort but not the hiker sort, western Montana has a hot spring made for you: the developed and indoor sort. Some developed hot springs maintain the flavor of their wild counterparts, and others feel more like, well, yet another commercial bastardization of a natural gift. You can always soak with wound-up business folk at the jacuzzi of the C’mon Inn, so hit these spots for a truly more Montanan dip.
Symes Hot Springs
Considered the Mecca of funkified—sorry, vintage—local commercial hot springs, Symes is simultaneously romantic and weird in all the best ways. The eccentrics who flock to the sulfur-scented mineral baths are almost as much a draw as the pools themselves, which include three outdoor options of varying temperatures and scores of indoor clawfoot tubs. And the amenities fulfill an easy escape, including a cantina, restaurant and coffee shop; and live music—usually by Missoula musicians—on the weekends. Symes is located 74 miles northwest of Missoula on Highway 28.
Boulder Hot Springs
Built in 1863 and once host to President Roosevelt, this remote destination is best known for its piping hot, mineral-laden, geothermal waters. An outdoor pool caters to families, but the best soaking happens in gender-separated indoor plunges. The women’s side includes both a hot (103-106 degrees) and cold (70 degrees) pool. The men only have a hot one. It’s not the best for soaking with your sweetie, but still worth the stop midway between Butte and Helena, just off Interstate 15.
Lolo Hot Springs
Its popularity with families and relative deepness makes Lolo’s sometimes-rowdy outdoor pool (75-98 degrees) resemble that signature aquatic scene from Caddyshack. A calmer, warmer indoor alternative offers the tranquility of soaking in a barn. Lolo Resort sits on a low-lying shelf of the Bitterroot Mountains—35 miles southwest of Missoula on Highway 12—with mountainside trails skewing off behind it.
Quinn’s Paradise Resort
Six pools of varying temperatures, and separated only by water-level dividers, allow for effortless flopping between hot and cold. Parties gather along the dividers like a bar, with drinks in hand. This natural mineral soak spot is located along one of the Clark Fork River’s least developed and most beautiful stretches (watch for bighorn sheep) just north of St. Regis, a quick hour plus from Missoula on Highway 135.
Fairmont Hot Springs
Kiddies, here we come. With a 350-foot tubular water slide that spits swimmers into a 90 degree-plus outdoor pool—and a game room, mini-zoo, and two sprawling indoor mineral water-fed soaking pools, to boot—Fairmont is the ultimate family splash spot. But, yes, there’s a bar and single adults around, too. Look for the Gregson-Fairmont exit on Interstate 90 in Anaconda, and follow the signs.