Idaho Hot Springs

Naked, Wet, and Wild in Idaho - By Daniel Claar

What possesses an otherwise sane individual to remove their clothes in the middle of a freezing mountain wilderness? Good question. I can think of two scenarios and the end results are radically different. The tallest ice covered peaks in the world are littered with half-dressed and frozen corpses of unlucky or unprepared mountaineers. In what might be the brain's last ditch effort to end its own suffering, one of the final symptoms of extreme hypothermia is a burning sensation. In the coldest conditions imaginable, delirious people become convinced they are overheating. As the clothes come off, death comes mercifully quick - at least compared to the alternative.

The other situation might require you to freeze for a minute, but the rest of the experience is worth any momentary discomfort. I have crossed icy rivers with bare legs aching so bad I wanted to scream and all of it done to reach one singular, glorious destination. All across this great planet, super-heated water within the earth's crust is forced to the surface, forming hot streams and pools in which people can soak; a pastime our species has enjoyed for thousands of years. Actually, human beings are not entirely alone as those red-faced Macaques in Japan embrace the hobby as well. And who can blame them? Hot springs are Earth’s natural Jacuzzi’s and everyone should experience one of the great pools. Those who do locate a prime soaker also find any excuse to return for another dip. Soaking in hot springs is positively habit forming. Trust me; I’m a full blown junkie.

Yellowstone National Park is the world's most recognizable location for such geothermal activity, but even if the park’s pools were accessible, a dip in those waters would leave a person feeling forever empathetic towards lobsters. The trick with hot springs, much like Goldilocks’ porridge dilemma, is finding a pool that is just right.

There are other factors to consider. A crystal clear pool with the perfect temperature can still be infested with red spider mites, flat worms, or in rare instances, even brain amoebas. Algae build up and the sulphuric reek of some water is a consideration and the chemical content of every hot spring is different. I have been driven off by the rotten-egg funk at some locations and soaked in pools so rich in lithium they can sedate a mini-van full of spastic children faster than an ether soaked rag. I suppose there is also a chance the plate-tectonics suddenly shift, unleashing a flood of boiling water, or even molten lava into the hot spring. Alright, outside of Hollywood, that last one never happens. Ultimately, sitting in geothermal pools requires a small leap of faith, but for the most part, the water in your friend's hot tub is a lot more frightening.

Potential risks aside, there is no sensation like immersing yourself in a hot pool while surrounded by pristine, snow covered wilderness and letting your mind and body relax. All your tension, all your aches, your cares, that mounting pile in your in-box, the traffic, the noise, the bills and bottom lines, all of it just melts away. Of course, you can unwind in a hot spring at any time; I just prefer taking a plunge when the weather is cold.

I am also spoiled because Idaho has more pools fit for soaking than all of our neighboring states combined. There are well over 100 frequently visited public hot springs in the Gem State and I have ventured to well over half of them. In fact, I proposed to my wife at a perfect pool somewhere on the narrow, windy road to one of Central Idaho’s most isolated towns. Once, while soaking there, a golden eagle floated overhead as we sat dumbstruck watching the magnificent raptor work its way up river. Another time, as twilight was blurring into actual darkness, we noticed a large shadowy form and flashing pair of eyes from a nearby rocky outcrop. It could have been our imagination, or some illusion in the billowing steam, but we both saw it and choose to believe it was a mountain lion blessing our soak.

Oh, and nothing personal, but I rarely mention hot springs by name or describe how to find them. Planning trips and locating them is part of the obsession. Besides, there are plenty of resources readily available on the subject. The sad truth is - there are way too many abused hot springs in Idaho for me to feel responsible about providing specific directions. Unfortunately, this leads me to the greatest threat you are likely to encounter in your soaking adventures.

There is a creature living amongst us, a creature so ugly and vile, I am reluctant to speak its name. This disrespectful beast has zero consideration for the planet and even less for those of us sharing it. Hot springs are frequently ambushed by these monsters and left in such a state of filth one might believe a landfill had started. Broken bottles, aluminum cans, dirty underwear, cigarette butts, condoms, diapers, tampons, and every other piece of trash you can possibly imagine is left in their wake. So intent on spreading waste, they do not mind if a location is ruined for their own possible return. I cannot figure out from what foul stench they might have spawned, but their ignorance and self-loathing is inflicted on everything in their path. I call this abomination, which bears a striking resemblance to ordinary humans, a "Jackhole." Unpleasant, I know, but what good is a writing degree if I can’t invent my own neologisms?

More and more frequently, pools all over the northwest are being shutdown, torn apart, or otherwise access denied because of these jackholes. Their calling card is the late night drunken raid which ends with an overabundance of scattered refuse, vandalism, human waste, and sometimes, even violence. More than one person has lost their life, or been hospitalized, from what should have been a simple and relaxing trip to an Idaho hot spring. Idiocy and alcohol, always a dangerous combination.

In order to avoid jackholes, my wife and I precisely time our hot spring visits, and we always take trash bags. We clean up after ourselves and almost always have to clean some jackhole’s mess as well. For the record, I do not take pleasure in picking up the trash of others. However, I cannot enjoy myself while wallowing in filth either. I will never understand how anyone could purposely trash our forests, mountains, campgrounds, and these natural hot springs which Native Americans long considered sacred. They managed to utilize these pools without destroying them for thousands of years. What happened?

Anyone fortunate enough to have soaked in Rocky Canyon hot spring, prior to its destruction in the fall of 2009, can tell you firsthand about the heartache caused by jackholes. In this case, even their perceived presence prompted the Forest Service to bust out sledgehammers and destroy a work of art and ingenuity. Rocky Canyon was amongst the very best public hot springs in Idaho, mostly due to the sheer number of brilliantly constructed pools. Technically, it was illegally built, meaning someone took the time to mortar in rock walls and plumbing. As Idaho hot springs are still considered sacred land to Native Americans, making permanent improvements is officially frowned upon. That being said, there are dozens of mortared pools throughout the state not garnering anyone’s attention and we should strive to keep it that way.

Forest Service employees watched the builder of Rocky Canyon work on the project for a couple of years, which leads me to believe it wasn’t the improvements at the heart of the issue. They focused on the legality angle when discussing the matter with the press and those who fought to preserve it, but if that was the case, why not shut down construction from the very beginning? Behind the scenes, Forest Service employees referred to the hot spring as an "attractant" and that was the reason it had to be destroyed. Bet you can’t guess what they were worried about attracting?

I will not suggest Rocky Canyon was free from jackholes, as I doubt any such haven exists, but the pools were built in such an aesthetically pleasing manner, people seemed reluctant to abuse the area. In addition, several individuals took it upon themselves to clean the hot springs on a regular basis. There was a sense of camaraderie and respect missing from the vast majority of Idaho pools. Rocky Canyon was the best maintained public hot spring I had encountered and that was only after improvements had been made.

Prior to the construction, the area had been a stronghold for jackholes. Mountains of trash were routinely left behind and pools were built using unsightly plastic tarps that were left at the river’s edge to build up algae harmful to fish and rot slowly. However, thanks to the hard work of one man, and those who sought to preserve his efforts, Rocky Canyon became one of Idaho’s most precious gems. Regrettably, it did not last long; the pools were too visible, too utilized, and the people in charge assumed it was attracting too many jackholes.

There are many hot springs throughout Idaho facing a similar fate as Rocky Canyon. Many of the pools are already legitimate attractants for an endless supply of jackholes and in such a state of abuse, I understand why someone might want them removed. As such, we have to take it upon ourselves to clean and care for these wonders of nature. We have to be even more zealous about preservation and protection than the jackholes are dedicated to destruction and disrespect. No easy task, but certainly manageable if we all pitch in.

Hot spring care is not rocket science; there are just a few items to keep in mind. First and foremost, as it is with any outdoor activity, always practice the leave no trace principals. If trash is brought in, it can easily be bagged up and packed back out. I am a born and raised Idahoan and my parents taught me to leave recreation sites in better condition than I found them. Imagine if everyone treated our public lands with similar respect.

In addition to taking care of trash, there are certain items that should never be brought in the first place. This seems like common sense, but based on ample findings over the years, it cannot be repeated enough. Do not bring glass to hot springs. I am well aware of the fact wine, liquor, and great beer comes in bottles. As a beer snob, I too, am forced to make sacrifices. However, anything originally packaged in glass can easily be poured into a portable, plastic container. We might have to sacrifice on presentation, but this way nobody’s child, mother, or family pet risks a serious laceration and possible infection.

If we clean up after ourselves and avoid bringing glass, the only item left is the care of the pool itself. I bring a 5 gallon bucket and long handled bristle brush. Often times, the pool is ready for soaking, but if I do need to clean one, at least I have the tools. A thorough scrub down of the algae covered walls followed by a draining of the pool will be enough to clean most hot springs. Sometimes the process might need repeated, but remember, never use cleaning chemicals, or soap of any kind.

The five gallon bucket comes in handy if you need to rinse the walls or adjust the temperature by porting loads from another water source. I also use mine to carry out trash. For the most part, the geothermal water takes care of itself, but we take the time to care for the actual pools and their surroundings.

In addition to maintenance, I want to touch upon the general principles of hot spring etiquette and hopefully we can reach some kind of accord. I base these policies on thousands of man hours soaking and very little else. For example, what should you do when arriving at a hot spring and there is already someone soaking in the pool? For starters, do not pull up a perch, or circle the area like a pack of wolves. Instead, just wait patiently for your turn, or try to find another soaker. Where there is one hot spring, there is often times another nearby.

Now, if the pool is large enough to accommodate multiple parties, it is absolutely permissible to approach and ask to join. Bear in mind, there is nothing worse than having a relaxing soak interrupted by obnoxious people who assume everyone enjoys their boisterous company. You take your chances when intruding on another’s soak. Most hot-springers are cordial towards strangers and generous with their personal space. I, on the other hand, am a paranoid, pistol packing whacko who doesn’t like anyone coming within 100 feet. You just never know…

My surliness aside, and in the spirit of generosity, hot spring etiquette also suggests you should not hog a pool unto thine own self, especially when you know others are patiently waiting. We should reward those who wait their turn by spending a reasonable amount of time in the water and not treating it like a camp site. In other words, share just like our kindergarten teachers taught us.

So, clean up after yourselves, do not bring glass, take care of the hot springs, and be tactful and generous towards your fellow soakers. That pretty much encompasses hot spring care and etiquette with the exception of one large, naked elephant sitting in the middle of the room. Or, in the pool, as the case may be. Should you wear a swimsuit, or is it ok to enjoy a natural hot spring au’ naturale?

I have long joked that if nobody really wants to see you naked, then it is perfectly acceptable to be naked at hot springs. It is easy enough to avert the eyes from a sight you do not wish to behold. Some people, mostly large men, even try to utilize brazen nudity as a tool to keep the more prudish population at bay; a technique that works surprisingly well.

On the other hand, how do you refrain from looking at someone you do find attractive, especially when they are naked? Some primitive aspect of human evolution probably dictates that we sneak a peek; however, we can keep ourselves from gawking or making comments. If I caught someone blatantly staring at my wife and showing no tact whatsoever, I’d probably stab them in the eyes. Again, that’s just me. You decide for yourself at what point a stabbing seems appropriate.

Ultimately, you have to determine how comfortable you are being naked in public or seeing other people nude. Many hot-springers subscribe to the idea all human bodies are beautiful regardless of shape, size, and percentage of body hair coverage. I think that is a wonderful and enlightened philosophy, I’m just not convinced it’s true.

If nudity is a concern, you will want to familiarize yourself with different hot springs. At certain pools, you are almost guaranteed to see naked bodies, while at others, it is fairly uncommon. Typically, the more isolated and harder to reach, the more commonplace skinny dipping becomes.

I tend to wear a swimsuit during the day and at heavily trafficked hot springs. Experience has taught me how common interruptions are, and frankly, I have no craving to be naked around someone’s grandparents and appreciate the same consideration in return. Then again, maybe that grandma would like to see a young buck like myself naked. Who knows? See what I mean? It just gets a little awkward.

Speaking of weird, you also never know what critters might inhabit the pool and in my opinion the less exposed entry points, the better. I’ve witnessed a few scary worm-like creatures, about a billion spiders, and once saw a guy get stung by a wasp on an exposed testicle. That memory, in particular, probably influences my swimwear decisions more than I care to admit. It really looked uncomfortable at the time. I even felt bad for laughing.

Swimsuit or birthday suit, it really doesn’t matter, the geothermal water is the important thing. The hot, healing, therapeutic, calming liquid is what the experience is all about and Idahoans should celebrate this natural phenomenon. These pools are all around us and we can ensure they remain available for public use. Tragically, I am reluctant to share my joy of hot springs because I fear advertising will attract the wrong people. This is my experience with our wilderness, cemented and reinforced after cleaning up countless acts of vandalism and environmental disrespect.

If jackholes continue to trash these precious gifts, they will all go the course of Rocky Canyon and once again, the bad guys will have triumphed over decency. If you love soaking in miraculous pools in some of the most beautiful country on earth, or even if you love the idea, get out there and do it! Enjoy yourself, but please take care of the land, the hot springs, the wildlife, and each other. We can make it work. These pools can still exist for our children and their children, especially if we teach them the way my mother taught me. Clean up the mess others leave behind, but even better, spread the word of ecological responsibility. These are our public lands and we should not tolerate anyone destroying them. The vast wilderness of Idaho and its numerous hot springs are a treasure, a birthright, let’s keep it that way forever.

Happy soaking!

Hot Springs Article Author/Contributor: Daniel Claar