An hour after leaving our Boise home, we race along Highway 21 just east of Garden Valley. Overhead, the sky gradually transforms from clear blue to dull gray. Abundant elk and deer dot the meadows on both sides of the road. The lawns and fields of the rural area look like refugee camps for local ungulates, the elk appearing particularly ragged as their thick winter coats come unstitched.
Due to the roadside wildlife, our drive takes longer than expected, but two hours into our quest we reach the first stop on our itinerary. Were it another time of year, Jamie and I would keep driving. This particular site is next to the highway and not deep enough into the wilderness, amounting to a predictable overabundance of visitors. However, from across the South Fork of the Payette River, we spot a solitary hatchback in the paved lot.
“Shall we?” I ask.
“Absolutely,” says Jamie. “It's never this quiet.”
We cross a bridge just wide enough for our truck, park next to the other vehicle, and change into swimsuits. Just beyond a railed viewing platform and descending staircase, we see wafting steam. Kirkham hot spring is just below us at the river’s edge. Although not the combative entity it will surely become as our trip progresses, the cold weather still forces us to make a quick dash for the riverbank.
Kirkham erupts from a long rocky outcropping running parallel to the South Fork of the Payette. It works like a soaking hose with geothermal water bursting through the rock in flows of differing volume and temperature. Larger fissures on top of the outcrop create two cascading waterfalls for the perfect neck and shoulder massage. Below the showers and random streams, the naturally heated water collects in pools of various sizes. These natural baths descend to the river where human engineers have rearranged rocks to form even more pools, seasonally available depending on the runoff.
We find the hatchback’s owners in a shallow puddle below the first main shower. They are ghastly pale and naked as the day they were born. I can’t help smiling as I am instantly transported back in time to my first impromptu hot spring lesson.
“Nothing ensures a private soak like blatant nudity,” the man told me. He was a human of considerable girth, and I cringe to this day thinking of those dark, intertwined mats of body hair. My God, that hair! It was like someone had taught a plump Wookie how to speak. We had arrived at the same pool at the same moment and reluctantly agreed to share. Of course, that was before he stripped to the buff. Shortly afterwards, a noisy and crowded minivan appeared in a parking lot below the pool. After first glaring in their direction, the hairy stranger winked at me, and then stood up in full view facing the new arrivals.
“Use it wisely,” he said as the minivan tore out of the pullout with squealing tires.
As it was with my hot spring tutor, I suspect the hatchback couple prefers their privacy. We proceed past with barely a glance and disappear around a rocky wall separating the upper and lower showers. I'm glad they settled for the first because the real gem of Kirkham is the second waterfall and larger pool. It’s a rare treat to find this soaker available and we interpret the sight as a good omen.
By the time we remove our shoes and stash the towels, the other couple is already leaving. I peek over the rock wall just in time to see them ascend the last couple of stairs. I pass the information on to my wife who immediately removes her bikini top and tosses it over a nearby boulder. With uncontrollable grins, Jamie and I slip out of our shivering goose flesh and into the steaming pool.
The water feels unbearably hot, and our smiles turn into a brief grimace, but the stinging sensation is quickly replaced by an exponentially expanding synergistic mental and physical levity. Like melting pats of butter, we slowly sink deeper and spread out on our backs. The natural lithium begins to take hold, and it isn't long before our entire beings have turned gelatinous. Occasionally, I muster enough strength to stand in the waterfall where the heavy flow pounds my clay like muscles into rapturous oblivion. Were it not for the necessity of food, Jamie and I could live our lives slowly dissolving in geothermic heaven.
Every soak must end and ours does just as daylight begins to fade and a slowly building mist becomes a light rain. Getting dressed inside the truck causes the windows to fog from our body heat. As the vehicle’s defrost creates expanding half-moons of clear windshield, I notice the campsite is empty. We briefly consider staying, but only when left with little choice do Jamie and I utilize developed sites.
My wife takes command of the wheel allowing me a chance to spot wildlife. With laser improved vision, I consider myself an animal finding machine. A wasted gift though as not even the dim light of dusk provides a challenge; the deer and elk practically line the road like spectators for our adventure. I half expect one to offer me a cup of Gatorade as we pass.
Staring out the side window at a solitary cow elk, I hear Jamie gasp and feel the sudden lurch of brakes. I spin my head around to see a large form crossing the road. My brain tries to turn the animal into another deer, but the image refuses to cooperate. The creature doesn't match what my mind assumed it would see and I am forced into a double take. My jaw drops as I realize the animal is a sizable wolf still sporting his proud grey and white winter coat.
Before Jamie has brought the truck to a standstill, I open the passenger door and stand on the running-board looking out across the roof. The wolf, no more than fifty feet away, gives us a casually dismissive glance before loping off. Effortlessly, the canine covers ground and is soon lost amongst the baby pines establishing themselves at the base of the foothills.
Out of sheer primal joy, I want to howl into the evening air. This is our second wolf sighting in Idaho and we are beyond thrilled. Interpreting the experience as yet another fortuitous sign, we elect to find a nearby camp. Fortunately, primitive sites in this area are plentiful and a couple of miles from where our wolf crossed the highway, we find one complete with dry firewood.
As the temperature drops and we huddle around a campfire roasting hotdogs, Jamie relives our fortunate wolf encounter. My wife beams in the dark as she projects the scene unfolding in slow-motion from her perspective. Discussion of the majestic animal brings us back to when a young couple once joined us for a soak near Warm Lake. They had heard rumors of wolves stalking people nearby and the man seemed particularly concerned about not having a firearm handy. Unsure how certain baseless perceptions have persisted throughout the centuries, we did our best to assure the couple they had nothing to fear.
Jamie and I call it a night shortly after dinner. Our shelter is a fiberglass shell over the truck’s spacious bed. Dry as it may be, the thin walls do little to keep the cold at bay and climbing into a giant sleeping bag for two triggers a dueling shivering match. After several torturous minutes our quivering bodies warm the bed and I drift off dreaming of hot springs.
With the exception of a frigid morning scamper in the dark to the nearest bush for bladder relief, we make no effort to wake ourselves until sunshine is piercing the frosted side windows. A thin layer of ice covers the inside of our plastic chamber. The tiny, fragile, and marvelously unique crystals crushed by the millions during our clumsy efforts to get dressed while still lying down.
We emerge from the truck and step into a blinding light breathing dense plumes of white vapor. Even in direct sun, the air is spitefully cold and our real elevation climb hasn't even begun. At this point, I can only imagine the dense sheets of frozen air rolling off the Sawtooth Mountains to fill Stanley basin with temperatures rivaling Dante’s 9th level of hell; it is a demon we will face soon enough. For the sake of getting our day moving, we use a propane stove to boil water and settle for a breakfast of coffee and instant oatmeal.
A half-hour later we are back on the road silently thanking the gods for the truck’s blasting heater. It isn’t long before we climb into the receding snowline. At first, islands of mud and dead grass can still be seen amongst the white, but soon even those are swallowed in the icy landscape. Shortly after crossing the threshold of winter, we arrive at the turnoff for our second destination.
The road into sprawling Bonneville Campground, and at its far end, the trailhead we are seeking, is blocked by a Forest Service gate. We’ll have to hike from highway to hot spring, an endeavor suiting us just fine. Long walks tend to keep others away, and with no other vehicles around, the bathhouse should be all ours. We load a daypack with towels, a small lunch, and drinking water. There will be no need for swimsuits this time.
After a slow and slippery hike along an ice-encrusted trail, Bonneville hot spring greets us with a faint smell of sulfur. As we drop from the hillside path into a narrow meadow just above a cold creek, the ice and snow vanish and we are left standing on damp grass. Beneath our feet, geothermal water heats the entire plateau with enough energy to keep the ground clear year round.
Like Kirkham’s lowest pools, the availability of a creek-side soak depends on the time of year. During spring runoff, the hot springs are swamped and cleaned. As the creek recedes, pools become available, but over the course of several months grow to be ridden with algae, spiders, and dead minnows. Thank God for the bathhouse.
Built on a rise above the creek, and just below one of the more voluminous geothermal flows, is a ramshackle wooden structure surrounding an actual bathtub. Through a couple of crusty pipes, gravity feeds separately heated streams from the originating seeps straight into the tub. Like a real bath, controlling the soaking temperature is done by manipulating the flow of either pipe.
We head straight for the shack and deposit our packs outside the door. Although empty of people, someone has left the tell-tale calling card of empty beer cans. Compared to the typical littering devastation we find at hot springs, this refuse is mild.
“These idiots can carry full ones in, but not empty ones out,” I say, shaking my head in disgust. Like an old friend, I feel the rage well in my chest.
“Don’t let it get to you,” Jamie says, running a hand over my shaved scalp as if trying to sooth an angry dog.
We crush the cans and place them in the outside pocket of our backpack. After bagging the rest of the trash, Jamie and I undress and wedge into the tub for our civic minded reward. The two of us barely fit, but soon find a position in which both of us can relax and let the hot water work its magic. The steam builds inside the small shack until we are lapping in the luxury of a hot tub and mild sauna at the same time.
I lay back taking note of the dates and initials carved into the wooden walls, most surrounded by a crudely shaped heart. The oldest date I find is 1980; I can’t believe this flimsy structure has lasted 30 Idaho winters. I also find myself wondering how many of the couples are still together. Between the soothing heat and hypnotic trickle of water, I close my eyes. Forgetting about those who came before, I nod off only vaguely aware of Jamie’s head on my chest as she too slips into a level of contentment bordering on unconsciousness.
Eventually, we are forced to remove ourselves from the therapeutic bath. We open the door to let steam escape before drying and getting dressed. Jamie hands me strips of jerky while we lethargically lace our boots and take in the isolated surroundings. Even during winter, I am constantly surprised we don’t find more backcountry travelers taking advantage of the fact Idaho has more geothermic pools than all our neighboring states combined.
Jamie and I return to the truck and debate whether to drive on or locate another campsite. The temperature is already dropping, so we decide to find the closest available site. We locate a large primitive camp almost immediately after returning to the highway and Jamie selects a spot close to the river. While she unrolls our bed, I pick through tree wells for a meager load of dry wood, pine needles, and brown moss.
I build a small fire and attempt to coax Jamie into trying a chilidog instead of her usual no-frills hotdog. I guess she had a bad experience as a youngster and never gave the dish another chance. Finally relenting to the peer-pressure, my wife agrees to sample the classic culinary delight.
“You sure know how to show a woman a good time,” she says doing her best hillbilly impression. “I'm surprised you ain't fryin' up road kill on a hubcap.”
“Yeah, well this trip isn’t over yet,” I retort.
As predicted, the spicy chilidog is a hit. Jamie wolfs through a second portion as quickly as I do, a rare feat in our house. Climbing into the frozen bed after supper, she jokingly laments the lost time in her life that could have been spent eating chilidogs.
We awake at the first hint of light to a shrill chattering. On the spruce next to the truck bed's sliding window is a gray squirrel vocalizing his discontent to the entire forest. After the long string of what has to be expletives, he fixes us with a menacing cock-eyed stare and then vanishes up the trunk. A moment later there is a loud “thunk” on the shell overhead. The little bastard is dropping pinecones on us.
“Alright, alright, we're up already,” I snarl and detach myself from the layers of warmth. There is no evidence of the delicate frosty kingdom from the morning before. Before going to bed, we opened the side windows to allow the condensation from our moist breath a chance to escape. The squirrel descends into sight once again and unleashes another barrage of insults before racing up the tree and into his hole.
The skies hold as we travel up and over Banner Summit. Coming down the other side offers a panoramic view of the distant and snow covered Sawtooth and White Cloud Mountains, as well as the expansive meadows bordering each side of the highway. By the time we reach the snowed-in turnoff to Stanley Lake, both of us feel the need to remove ourselves from the vehicle and exercise. Pulling over, we prepare a lunch, unpack our snowshoes, and agree to make the six mile trek into the lake.
Stepping out of the warm truck and into Stanley basin, we realize we are in another climate, possibly on a different planet altogether. Against the brilliant blue backdrop of sky, the bright sun offers no warmth. Gusting winds tear across the snowfields peeling off the top layer and sending it airborne in white tornados. Protected by snowboarding gear and goggles, only my nose is exposed to the elements. The inside of my nostrils seem to harden with every breath of dry, frozen air.
In a world where even the hardiest mammals have sense to flee the winters, we see no wildlife other than the small, dark birds that inhabit this region year round. The last snowstorm must have been one massive dump of dry powder. Even in snowshoes, it’s like stepping through a knee-deep sea of foam packing peanuts. Progress is slow and we are sweating by the halfway point.
When we finally make out a faint trace of the frozen shoreline through a gap in the distant trees, Jamie and I give up on further progress. Technically, at least our vision reached Stanley Lake. Ravenous and thirsty, we sit on a fallen log and eat every snack in our pack. We also drink what’s left of the water that hasn’t frozen solid.
It isn't long before inactivity has us feeling the biting cold, gusting winds finding the tiniest seams in our clothing to send uncontrollable shivers down our spines. We climb grudgingly to our feet.
“Sunbeam,” my wife says, her worn expression vanishing in an instant.
It takes my weary mind a moment to realize she is talking about our next stop. Ahh, Sunbeam. One of my all-time favorite hot springs, at least when it isn’t overrun with travelers. The very idea has me recharged as well.
Despite the building fatigue with each heavy step, the trek back feels more like a struggle with anticipation than one of physical hardship. We maintain an astonishing pace and in half the time it took to walk in, we are back inside our vehicle to thaw once again.
“On to Stanley!” Jamie commands.
Stanley, Idaho is the proverbial Rocky Mountain town, located in the pristine wilderness of central Idaho and serving as a gateway to the Sawtooth Mountains, Frank Church Wilderness, and famous Salmon River of No Return. This picturesque community, nestled between river and mountains, is oftentimes referred to as the American Alps. The towering and jagged southern skyline is arguably the most impressive in the northwest.
We pass through the small town with equal resolve to reach Sunbeam. Jamie and I force ourselves to ignore the always intriguing outdoor retail and rental shops lining the main strip. The variety of activities offered by the nearby wilderness, unparalleled in the lower 48, combined with the mighty Salmon ensures Stanley will forever be a destination for those afflicted with adventurous compulsion.
I have the pedal down outside of town when I remember another hot spring. The locals still refer to it as the “boat box” although there is nothing currently boxy about it. On the outskirts of Stanley, a gigantic wooden barrel sits beneath a boiling seep flowing from the southern bank of the Salmon. There is a small pullout on the highway just large enough for one vehicle to mark the location. Because of its proximity to town, the big barrel is usually occupied.
Reading my mind, Jamie asks, “What about the boat box?”
“Tomorrow,” I say. “If we don’t get to Sunbeam tonight, I’m not sure we’ll make it at all.”
The highway is endlessly winding as it follows the river and our anticipation grows by the mile. Never smelling so good, we detect the strong sulfuric aroma long before rounding the final bend. Looking like we took a wrong turn into a dragon’s lair, our truck is swallowed by a wall of billowing steam upon our arrival.
Sunbeam emerges from its main vent 60 feet up the sloping hillside north of Highway 75, staining the rocks below in a cone shaped pattern of yellow and orange from eons of accumulated algae. A culvert channels the water beneath the road before fanning out across the riverbank. As with Kirkham, there are a variety of pools at the river’s edge changing almost daily due to runoff and ever-present opposable thumbs. Unlike Kirkham, the water here will scald flesh unless blended with the river.
Forming a figure-eight, the two main pools sit next to each other; channels of geothermic water, and a stream of diverted river, mix in one and flow into the other. These two soakers are a constant amongst the perpetually rearranged shoreline. Swinging into the parking lot, we notice a small group of people with fishing poles standing in the larger pool. Rubber pants cover their lower halves. What the hell? Who stands in a hot spring wearing waders?
Screw it. Sometimes, the world of soaking calls for a little aggressiveness. We'll take the smaller pool. They can just stand there and watch. While my wife readies the usual supplies, plus a plastic jug of wine, I change into my swimsuit and step outside to claim our territory. The digital thermometer in our truck shows an outside temperature of zero degrees and the cold rips through my bare torso; the slight midday breeze feels like sharp icicles raking my skin. Already shivering, I close in on the fishermen. They are three kids and what looks like their grandfather. All four watch my approach with curious expressions.
“I don't think you can lie down in...” a boy with blond hair begins to say as I make three quick hops on dry stones across a boiling stream.
“Oh, sure you can.” I reply as I step around them and flop my body into the lower soak. It’s a slight gamble on my part, not checking the water before diving in, but I'm fairly certain it’s safe, and besides, it makes me look tough in front of the tourists. They stare in surprise as I submerge myself within the rock walls. The water is extremely hot, but not intolerable. Compared to the biting cold, even the receding pins-and-needles sensation of thawing flesh feels like paradise. I offer the gawkers a victorious grin.
Jamie arrives wearing a plush hooded robe concealing her face. She carries a white bag with strange black symbols all over it. The markings are actually legendary Wyoming cattle brands, but our neighbors must think my wife is some sort of hot spring druid, here to practice crazy rituals in the reek of hellish brimstone. Setting the bag on a dry rock, she throws off the purple robe revealing her lean, tattooed body clad in skimpy black bikini. Slipping into the pool, Jamie winks at me before wincing slightly from the burn. I almost laugh as the elderly gentleman stammers a halfhearted, “Guess we ought to be going.”
Rounding up their tackle boxes, the two brothers and their younger sister stare back at Sunbeam's free glory with envious eyes. The last thing I hear as they make their way up the trail is the blond boy saying to his siblings, “We should have brought swimsuits.”
Already exhausted from our snowshoeing adventure, and now subjected to the soothing sounds of the Salmon, Jamie and I drift off into a divine coma where we are conscious of our surroundings, but feel paralyzed from the neck down. The dozen or so nagging aches from injuries over the years dissipate into a memory of when I could play all day without breaking down.
At some point during the steamy dream, we pound the wine and eat apples with sliced cheese before melting back into the water. We are dimly aware of the occasional passing car, but not a single one stops. Our luck is holding. However, in the back of our minds, we know we'll soon have to stand up soaking wet in arctic conditions, the cold hovering over us like an evil presence biding its time. Three hours after first slipping into the priceless soak, and feeling more malleable than boiled hotdogs, my wife and I are ready to face that reality.
Standing up, and in a split second, dropping the outside temperature by over a hundred degrees has a profound effect on my wet and mostly naked body. It feels like having a severe sunburn blanketing my skin and being slapped everywhere at once. The icy air feels as if it could freeze my lungs solid in mid-breath. Gnawing into our flesh, the undisputed king of winter sens us scurrying for the truck where we must frantically dig through Jamie's branded bag for keys. Our panicked haste and fumbling fingers only prolong the suffering, but we finally manage to work the lock and jump inside the cab.
We scramble into clothes and the heater starts pumping hot air just before the chronic shivering and tense muscles set in. Soon we are relaxed once again, able to stare out into the frigid scene without feeling its sharp teeth. Between the soak and the hike, Jamie and I are spent. We decide to drive back towards Stanley and stay the night at Mormon Bend campground. Normally, we wouldn’t consider the developed site, but the extent of our evening’s plans consist of eating leftover pizza from our cooler and then burying ourselves deep in bed before the nighttime temps become unbearable.
When our bodies begin to feel as if they are developing bed sores, we cautiously emerge from our frosted, fiberglass cocoon and take note of the grey skies. We might see a storm today. The truck’s digital clock indicates we have slept until noon. I feel like a stiff bear trying to shake the atrophy of hibernation. With numb, clumsy fingers I make coffee on our propane stove. With caffeine pumping through my veins with warming, waking goodness, I feel rejuvenated.
“How about we check the Boat Box this morning… er, afternoon?” I ask.
“I was just going to suggest the same thing.”
Continuing our remarkable streak of good fortune, there is nobody parked at the Boat Box. However, as we pull in, we notice the old barrel has been replaced. This already misnamed hot spring is now not only not a box, but the “box” has been replaced by a colossal metal cauldron looking like something straight out of a witch’s lair. I can imagine carrots, onions, and human appendages floating in the giant pot.
“What the hell is this thing?” I ask.
Jamie shrugs. “I think it’s an ore bucket they once used in mines, but if the old barrel was always too hot, what’s this gonna be like?”
“I don’t know. Just how badly do you want to stew in rusty metal,” I say, eyeballing the soaker suspiciously. Already shivering in the freezing breeze, Jamie nods her head in agreement.
“Yeah, I don’t think I’m climbing in there.”
The volatile nature of geothermal flows, and the unpredictable human hands constantly manipulating those springs, means every trip to one is subject to surprise and sometimes, disappointment. All too often, efforts made to improve hot springs only wind up compromising the quality of the soak, or ruining one altogether. Feeling slightly defeated, we retreat to our truck, where Jamie throws a curveball into our itinerary.
“I want to go sledding and get dinner somewhere other than our cooler, and then I want to reserve a room at the Mountain Village Resort. It has its own hot spring, so we wouldn't be cheating... that much”
I immediately recognize the plan as a cop out, but can't say I didn't plant the thought in her mind. It's the last night of our vacation and we deserve to spoil ourselves after all this camping in hostile conditions.
“Yeah, back by Stanley Lake turnoff; on that hill we walked back on. Perfect spot and we have the toboggan.”
She’s right. We do have a child’s plastic sled we occasionally use for pulling gear through the snow. Why not? For the next two hours, Jamie and I are kids again. It takes a few runs to get the dry powder compact enough to form solid runs, but once it does, the red toboggan flies down the sunken channel. The challenge, we discover, is staying anchored to a sled designed for much smaller bodies as it hits bumps at high speeds. Eventually, our snow pants begin to soak through and we are exhausted from climbing the small hill.
Back at the truck, we change into our cold weather gear most resembling normal clothes and drive back to Stanley in search of a restaurant. We choose the diner closest to the hotel so Jamie can secure reservations while we wait for food. Between drinks of amber ale and bites of cheeseburger, Jamie informs me our room is reserved, as well as the latest timeslot for the private soak.
“Nice work,” I say.
“Oh, and I also reserved the first available soak in the morning at seven.”
“Seven? Why'd you do that? I'm getting used to sleeping 'til noon.”
By the time our scheduled hour arrives, we are chomping at the bit, spurred on by free hotel coffee. Jamie returns from the office with a key tied to a stick and we set out, each carrying a towel and bathrobe. I also hold another plastic jug of red wine. While walking, we take note of an unsettling energy, a sense of building static in the dead air. The eerie calm defies roiling pink clouds descending over the basin, lights from Stanley setting off the approaching mass in vivid highlights.
A quarter mile from the hotel, at the edge of an otherwise deserted meadow, there is what looks like a small barn built over the cemented pool. Double doors swing open to reveal what is usually a stunning scene of river, meadow, and mountain. As we unlatch the heavy doors, a sudden wind tears them from our grip and we notice the clouds have swallowed the distant silhouette of the Sawtooths. The first thick flakes of the snowstorm charge through the opening only to be met with instantaneous death on the surface of the pool. We secure the doors with heavy rocks, rip off our clothes, and plunge into the steaming water.
Submerged in superheated ecstasy, we watch the storm descend over our shelter. Impervious to nature’s fury, we welcome her arrival with a toast of wine. Few sensations compare to the synergistic mix of a relaxing soak while chaotic weather rages overhead. In the middle of a blizzard, shutoff from the rest of the world, my wife and I have discovered our natural element. We are home.
Our soak drags on past the scheduled hour, but as the last time slot, the hotel owners don’t mind. We wait for the storm to relent, but mother earth isn’t cooperating. Eventually, Jamie and I emerge from the pool and prepare for the quarter-mile trek across a windswept field of sideways snow where we can’t even see the lights of our destination. Neither of us cares. After drying off, we don only our robes, fleece pants, and boots for the walk back.
This time, both of us look like hooded druids as we set out for the hotel. Wind whips snow all around and visibility outside of a ten foot radius is virtually impossible. I can barely see my wife floating through the whiteout in front of me. Wrapped up tight in my robe, I hardly feel the freezing Stanley night. I am warm inside and overjoyed to be out in the storm.
“I don’t wanna go back!” I shout over the wind. Jamie stops and I almost walk into her.
“You should have thought of that before. Besides, we have to give the key back.”
“No, I mean, I don’t want to go home tomorrow.”
My lovely wife smiles. “Me neither, but we still have our morning soak. And maybe we can hit Kirkham again on the drive back. Who knows, maybe we’ll see our wolf.”
I grin wildly, buzzed on adrenaline and wine. “If we do, you and I are running off with it and forming our own pack.”
Jamie laughs as I throw back my head and howl into the storm. Our vacation has seen us endure a barrage of fluctuating temperatures, experience private extravagances, stare unflinchingly into the eyes of Idaho’s most brutal winter climate, and from it all, emerge revitalized, if not victorious. Another hot spring break may be nearing its end, but knowing us, we’ll have next year’s itinerary worked out before we even get home.
Hot Springs Article Author/Contributor: Daniel Claar