Hunting hot springs and road trips with strangers - taking the long route home.
With shoulder season setting in the Canadian Rockies I knew I needed to get out of town. I had met Bruin Alexander a few weeks prior during a backpacking trip at Floe Lake and we became instant friends. With an open invitation to visit him in Whistler and sunshine in the forecast I booked a flight west, instead of our original plan of staying on the west coast for a few days before flying home, we decided to take the long route back to Calgary including packing in as many hot springs as possible over the following two weeks.
With the recent closure of Keyhole Hot Springs near Pemberton, BC due to increased wildlife conflicts caused by recreational users we are reminded of the impact that we have on the environment. This was at the forefront of my mind this road trip, following leave no trace principles , picking up after a few of our fellow hot-spring aficionados and having conversations along the way with locals about their concerns surrounding the increased popularity of wilderness areas.
route and research:
One of the most common questions on social media is around locations but in all honesty doing research and building google maps is possibly one of my favourite parts of trip planning. A (large) number of hours researching and several coffees later this was the final product. I typically build maps around anchoring points (read: the best places to eat, sleep and shower) in this case those were Whistler(BC), Seattle(WA), Stanley(ID), Whitefish(MT) and Calgary(AB) - those are the yellow markers on the map. From there I rolled up my sleeves and dug into research, Bruin was responsible for our first stops near Whistler and I was in charge of the last few stops in the Canadian Rockies on our way home. This left the bulk of our road trip unknown, thankfully for us information on Idaho Hot Springs is absolutely abundant - Idaho has the most usable hot springs pools of any state in the United States of America, with approximately 130 "soakable" pools out of a total 340 springs. On my map, blue markers are the hot springs we were able to make it to and the purple markers were updated after the trip as hot springs that we had planned on visiting but were not able to (notes for them are italicized below).
Stop 1. Sloquet Hot Springs
We camped the night before and after waking up in a tent the 102km(63 miles) from Pemberton to Sloquet Hot Springs along a moderately maintained dirt road we came close to turning around countless times(thank goodness for our shared stubbornness). We drove and made wrong turns and eventually crossed paths with a member of the Xa’xtsa First Nation who was on his way out of the hot spring after performing regular maintenance and garbage disposal - he promised us that we were close and that it was more than worth it. Parking at the sign we hiked just over 1km through the forest along the river to the series of hot springs, and that man did not lie. We were there on a Monday in mid-morning and shared the springs with a rotation of six other people. There is ample room to find privacy at Sloquet with a half-dozen or so pools of varying temperatures allowed for several nude bathers to hang out in an upper pool and in one of the lower pools a solitary man reading a book.
temperature: pools varying from quite hot near the output to cool beside the river.
cost: $5CAD per person for use of the pools and an additional $15CAD per camp site if you plan on staying the night (it is cash only and this money goes directly back into the maintenance of the area)
overall rating: 64%
*Tsek (or Skookumchuck) Hot Springs was on our list but we underestimated the drive time, at a cost of $7.50CAD per adult ($5CAD per child/senior) for day use there are several different options among ten built up tubs directly filled with mineral water from the Pemberton Volcanic Belt- the water water temperature averages 122F entering the pools but several of the tubs offer options for cool water to be piped in. There is also camping available onsite.
stop 2. Trail Creek Hot Springs and Samuels Hot Springs
Located 20 miles east of Cascade, ID along Warm Springs Road these two were an afterthought in our planning process en route to Mile-16 Hot Springs. The roads were awful leaving Cascade(that really wet heavy snow that makes road slippery and visibility nil), we made it to the pullout for these springs and were pleasantly surprised. I can't really tell you where Trail Creek ends and Samuels begins, as you step down the steep path along the riverbank there are several pools built up along the river with a series of catwalks connecting them and aiding in crossing the river. I would have a hard time believing that these springs are not more popular in the summer as they are more built up than your typical hot spring and have a network of hot and cold pipes with valves to regulate the temperature(after researching them again it does show that these are a high usage pools and that we were just extremely lucky).
temperature: very hot with option to add cool creek water
overall rating: 67%
*16-Mile Hot Spring, this spring required the most research for this trip. Unfortunately as we approached the mountain pass there was too much snow and road became too dangerous - we were forced to turn around and save this spring for next time.
stop 3. Kirkham Hot Springs
We arrived at Kirkham ahead of schedule after having a failed attempt of reaching 16-mile hot spring - we pulled into the parking area and the pools were filled with bathers. Instead we turned around and popped into the restaurant at Haven Hot Springs - spending over a hour borrowing their wifi and drinking wonderful coffee their new owners gave a tour of the property. Each of the four motel rooms (that you can book on airbnb) has a private hot tub that caps out at 120f (but also have cold water piped in for comfort, as well as a large geothermal fed swimming pool for guest use. As the light dimmed we snuck across the road back to Kirkham Hot Springs, it’s famous for a reason: several pools of varying temperature await you at the bottom of a wooden staircase. There is also a warm water falling over the cliffside into a pool below - a natural hot shower(maybe a good spot for a reminder that no soap or shampoo are allowed in any natural hot spring). The quick moving water kept the water clean and the bottoms of the pools were a mixture of rock and sand with large boulders used to hold the water.
temperature: 102 to 108F
cost: $5USD per vehicle to park and an additional fee to sleep in the RV parking lot and campground nearby.
overall rating: 57%
*Loftus Hot Springs - we added this as an optional to our list but after speaking with locals decided that it was not worth the detour to get there. This waterfall fed clothing optional hot spring is a few feet deep with a sandy bottom and temperatures hovering around the 100F mark - it is situated on the side of the road and if it had not been out of our way we would have stopped.
stop 4. Mountain Village Resort
This stop was one of my favourites, located in the town of Stanley (with a population of 63 residents) this is the only partially developed hot spring on the list. The hot springs are all natural and are piped into a man-made tub that is large enough to seat at least eight people comfortably. The tub sits within a small log building that is situated on the banks of Valley Creek, a (very short) walk from the Mountain Village Resort. Inside the building, you’ll find small changing rooms ample space to sit and hooks for your clothing and towels, as well there is a large door which can be propped open to allow in the fresh mountain air and unparalleled views of the iconic Sawtooth Mountains. We reserved the hour around sunrise hoping for a break in the clouds to watch the alpenglow sail across the peaks (spoiler: we were clouded in all morning), in retrospect from a photography perspective later in the morning with slightly more light would have been helpful. The tub is chest deep when standing and has a built in seat around its perimeter, protection from the elements and a sandy bottom, there is a constant flow of water from the natural spring through and an exit to the nearby river. The cost of this hot spring was the main reason it lost points, but your fee does include towel rental from the resort.
temperature: between 103 and 106F.
traffic: zero - entrance fee for private use
cost: $25USD per hour up to three people (this also includes towel rentals) - or free if you are staying at the resort
overall rating: 70%
stop 5. Boat box Hot Springs
Situated three and a half miles north of the town of Stanley, boat box used to be an iconic wooden box in the middle of the river, I assume that it has since either flooded out or deteriorated over time - in it's current state it has been replaced with an old mining cauldron-like pot. There is a slight pullout on the righthand side of the road with room for two to three cars, you will see steam rising from the river below. The black PVC pipe feeds scalding hot water into Boat Box (which made this the hottest and subsequently my favourite hot spring) and a small white bucket is hanging off of the side to transport cold water from the Salmon River to cool down the water. The pot is deep enough that if I were to sit down I would be submerged at least to my shoulders in the water - it can fit a cozy three to four soakers before getting a little too close for comfort. We arrived here on a Friday morning just after 10am and it was empty, although everyone we spoke to in Stanley said that it is rare to see the small pot without at least one other guest.
temperature: 120F (with bucket to add cold creek water)
overall rating: 77%
stop 6. Goldbug Hot Springs
From the research we had done online Goldbug was the hot spring that we were most excited for, it includes a 3-mile approach to the springs (the first 1/4 mile is on private property so make sure to stay on trail and be extra respectful as to not have this access closed off) and the hot spring is located within Bureau of Land Management land and you are able to camp along the trail. The last quarter mile of trail is steep as it follows the cascading waterfall. We visited on a Friday a few hours before sunset and there were 20+ people that we shared the pools with. Due to the sheer size of this spring we were able to find a private pool albeit not the warmest or deepest option. As golden hour set in we moved up the the main (warmest) pool and shared it with a half dozen locals. Goldbug was definitely the most beautiful and photogenic of the hot springs with views looking over the Blackfoot Mountain Range and offers a dozen or so different temperatures and sizes of pools. Unfortunately a lot of the other springs offered hotter water, fewer visitors and easier access.
cost: suggested cash donation to national forest services at trailhead
overall rating: 71%
stop 7. Jerry Johnson Hot Springs
Located 56miles down a forestry road west of Lolo, MT the Jerry Johnson hot springs is located in the middle of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness area, it is another example of a hot spring that was been negatively impacted by backpackers. In the late 1990's, the Forest Service initiated evening closures and made camping at and near the hot springs illegal in an effort the protect the abused hot springs. This closure remains in effect currently. The parking area is across the road from the trailhead, after immediately crossing the river (by bridge) it is just over a mile to the first hotpot. The first few pools are down the bank along the river, they vary in size and temperature (one even has a small waterfall feeding it), continuing along the path there is a very warm pool with a large rock in the middle and the final pool is where we ended up, it was in the middle of the forest and less warm than other pools but a change in scenery from teh other springs on our trip. Fun fact: this along with most Idaho hot springs is clothing optional.
temperature: there are three water sources feeling these springs - the temperatures vary between them from hot to lukewarm
traffic: extreme (cited as Idaho's most popular hot spring)
cost: suggested cash donation to national forest services at trailhead
overall rating: 59%
*Stanley Hot Springs (confusing as they may be as they are not located in or near the town of Stanley) is located an additional 30 miles down the Forestry Road past Jerry Johnson Hot Springs. From our research it would have been just shy of 12 miles round trip including a river fording to visit. Camping is allowed near the springs and according to my research it even has a resident moose that likes to visit (so be careful). The photos looked beautiful but unfortunately we ran out of time to make it there this trip.
stop 8. Lussier Hot Springs
This was the first natural hot spring that I ever visited (that didn't resemble a public swimming pool) and I have returned here at least a dozen times. Over the years it has grown exponentially in traffic (I often worry it too will one day be closed because of it's abuse). Lussier is located 20km down Whiteswan Forestry Road in the Easy Kootenays - the road is an active logging road and in the winter can be a little dicy. There is no camping or overnight parking in the parking area but I recommend getting there early in the day and avoiding long weekends as it is likely the busiest hot spring on the list. There are several pools varying in size and temperature (the top being quite hot), the lower pools are often submerged in the river during the spring runoff, although the smell is not overwhelming they are the only pool that had a noticeable sulphur scent to them.
overall rating: 69%
stop 9. (lower) Fairmont hot springs
I was talking about this trip and someone asked me to put the hot springs into one of two categories: something that you wanted to go for a soak in with your friends... or that you wanted to take photos of and get the heck out of. These are the latter, overlooking a picturesque river with a raging warm waterfall feeding them the photos from these pools are some of my favourite from the trip. Unfortunately the water is only lukewarm and has a distinct smell to it, I also was very careful in my movement not to stir up too much sediment in the pools (and refused to wear my white swimsuit anywhere near them). It does require a small river crossing and descending a bank but the journey over is relatively easy.
overall rating: 54%
Big thanks to the social community for helping me brainstorm criteria, I built this ranking system based on the most prevalent seven factors:
- Temperature of the hot springs (the hottest receiving the best rating)
- Views and opportunities for photographs
- Amenities (proximity to town, camping opportunities, etc...)
- Privacy and size (how busy the pools typically are based on our research, the ability to find privacy while sharing and the overall size and depth of the pools)
- Overall comfort (was there a smell, were the pools clean, was it deep enough to soak in etc...)
- Hike (highest scores went to the most accessible - so if you are looking for a hike in this may change the ranking for you, although we found that the length of hike had little impact on it's traffic)
- Cost (free receiving the most points)
Each of these categories were rated on a 1-10 scale for a maximum total of 70 points, but in all honesty there isn't a hot spring on our trip that I would not pull over on the side of the road to re-visit.
backcountry hot spring etiquette:
- follow leave no trace principles
- hot springs are not bathtubs: whenever possible shower before entering a natural geothermal pools to reduce the spread of bacteria, but also remember that soaps and shampoos are not to be used in or near hot springs or any water source.
- nudity: a lot of backcountry hot springs are clothing optional, be aware of this and respectful of people who choose to partake(and maybe give it a try yourself!).
- jewelry: the sulphur found in a lot of geothermal pools can destroy some jewelry, it is best to simply remove it before entering.
- take turns and be respectful: some pools aren't very big and people need to take turns. Some people to go hot springs to socialize while others are trying to find solitude. Be conscientious of where you are and respectful of those sharing in the experience.
- test the water: we have all heard the horror stories from Yellowstone especially in recent history of people falling into their geothermal pools, in Idaho alone there are over 200 geothermal springs that are too hot for humans, test the water before hopping in.
- hydrate: hot springs are known to induce fainting spells, hotter pools, which can exceed 110 degrees, can easily induce heat stroke. Stay hydrated and if you are feeling too warm or lightheaded maybe take a break.
- leave your pups at home: aside from the hygiene issue, hot springs are typically too hot for dogs to enter into and even worse for them to drink.
- do your research: rules and guidelines vary not only by country and state but also by individual springs - most websites with driving directions will also mention anything you should know about the springs so keep an eye out for that.
(and if anyone has hot spring recommendations for our next trip let me know below-I am open to travelling anywhere!)