Review of six natural hot springs by a motorcycle rider

Motorcycle riders are a sore bunch, so soaking in hot springs during our travels is practically a medical necessity.

We riders are a sore bunch, so soaking in hot springs during our travels is practically a medical necessity. To help motorcyclists visiting the geothermal state of Idaho, I planned a three-day tour to check out a few mineral pools and report back on their quality. I would pickle myself in the name of responsible journalism.

Considering that Idaho has more than 100 hot springs, it was easy to find six developed and undeveloped ones to visit within a day’s ride of Boise. Four of them are on public land so sitting in them is free. I find that, um, refreshing.

As an added benefit to riders, the roads to these six are mountainous and exciting. So is the subsequent walk sometimes. To sample one, I clambered up and down a steep dirt path (skirting the poison ivy) in my motorcycle boots and then, sans boots, waded along a frigid river. Fortunately, there weren’t any nudists in the pool, as stumbling upon them is another hazard of this assignment.

My guide was Marjorie Gersh-Young’s book Hot Springs and Hot Pools of the Northwest which provides directions (including GPS coordinates) to most known hot springs in Idaho and surrounding states. Talk about prune skins—the author and her friends regularly soak in hundreds of U.S. hot pools to keep the book updated.

I hopped on my Honda Transalp and my husband Lynn joined me on his Yamaha TDM. We set off in early July with towels tied to our handlebars. The mercury on the thermometer was bumping 100 degrees F. when we left town. To report authoritatively on each spring, I had to sit in them. When the air is that hot and water temps are even hotter, it’s a real butt-burner.

North to Challis

From Boise we planned to ride to Challis, about 190 miles northeast. The route includes two national scenic byways—the Ponderosa Pine and the Salmon River. I wanted to visit three hot springs along the way: Kirkham and Bonneville on U.S. 21, and Challis, which is within a campground close to the junction of U.S. 93 and ID 75.

Every good ride starts with breakfast, and before leaving Boise we stopped for a hearty one at the Trolley House, a restaurant housed in what was the last stop on the old Boise trolley-car line. From there we aimed east, picking up ID 21 just before it passes the Diversion Dam, built in 1909 to allow water from the Boise River to irrigate the fertile valley and its famous Idaho potatoes.

This highway winds around the 340-foot-high dam that holds back Lucky Peak Reservoir, the largest body of water in these parts, and then gets curvy. It’s now the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, which is a favorite among local motorcyclists for its hairpins and switchbacks between Idaho City and Lowman, and then over Mores Creek Summit (6,118 feet) and Banner Ridge Summit (7,056 feet).

It’s worth touring the historic structures in Idaho City, which became the largest city in the Northwest after gold was discovered nearby in 1862. The town was totally lawless; local lore has it that only 28 former residents (out of 200) who died of natural causes are buried in the first cemetery.

Kirkham Hot Springs

About 38 miles north of Idaho City, we came upon our first soak of the day. Kirkham Hot Springs sits on the bank of the South Fork of the Payette River four miles beyond Lowman. From the highway, you can see the rising steam.

Locals built several pools to capture hot water trickling out of fissures along the vertical river banks. The water leaves the ground at about 120 degrees F. and cools while flowing into the pools. Some are hotter than others, and in one there’s a waterfall. Bathing suits are required, and it costs to park while soaking (the fee is waived if you stay in the adjoining campground).

Kirkham offers great scenery and ambiance and is relatively safe because it’s visible from the road. I give it a “soaker score” of 8 (on a scale of one to 10).

Bonneville Hot Springs

All this research was making us hungry, so we refueled our stomachs at the Sourdough Lodge a few miles north of Kirkham. Then it was on to Bonneville Hot Springs, located close to Bonneville Campground 19 miles north of Lowman. It’s popular on weekends, and I was curious to know why.

To find the place, look for the sign on 21 that says Bonneville Campground. After turning in, we followed a gravel road through the campground and parked in a lot next to a path to the springs.

While signs say it’s a 1?4-mile walk, it seemed longer in our riding clothes. It’s semi-remote and I didn’t see a soul, which made me a bit nervous. Still, surrounded by forest and next to a stream, the setting for the volunteer-made pools is lovely. Bathing suits are optional, Ms. Gersh-Young notes in her book. I kept my suit on.

Bonneville has great ambiance, but the springs are isolated. If you visit, take a pal for safety reasons. Soaker score: 7.

Challis Hot Springs

We continued north on 21, and soon the Sawtooth Mountains loomed ahead. Craggy and tall, they’re like a small version of the Grand Tetons. Snow remained on their peaks, even in July. We gassed up in Stanley, a crossroads where three national scenic byways meet: the Ponderosa Pine, the Sawtooth and the Salmon River.

Challis is 55 miles north on ID 75—the Salmon River Byway. The highway offers sweeping curves as it hugs the river to Challis, and we took full advantage of them. At U.S. 93 it’s just 4.5 miles south to Hot Springs Road, which dead-ends at Challis Hot Springs and Campground.

The springs were developed in the 1880s to serve gold miners in central Idaho; Bob and Lorna Hammond are the fourth generation of family members to own it. We pitched camp, rode two-up to dinner at the Village Inn in Challis and returned to test the outdoor hot pool, which cools to a comfortable 100 degrees F. when the artesian waters join cold water piped from the river. We soaked and talked and before we knew it, it was 10 p.m. and staff were telling us it was closing time. That’s what I call being relaxed.

An adult day pass here is .50, while overnight camping including use of the pool for two people costs .50. Changing rooms and shower facilities are provided. Staying at the resort’s bed-and-breakfast inn is another overnight option. My only complaint is that the high wooden fence around the pool obscures the view. Soaker score: 9.

Pine Flats Hot Springs

The next day, we retraced our steps back to Lowman and followed signs west to Banks on what’s known as the Banks-to-Lowman Road (it’s also called the Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway). I wanted to visit the natural springs near Pine Flats Campground a few miles west of Lowman. The waters emerge from a hill above the Payette River not far from the campground.

The setting is spectacular, but getting there can be a challenge. I followed a path from the campground to a rock-and-sand bar on the river, paying close attention to the poisonous “leaves of three” that proliferate around here. When the river level is low, it’s a short walk along the bar to the spring. The pool is within easy climbing distance above the bar.

If the Payette hasn’t receded, bathers must wade in shallow river water for about 15 feet. Ooo-wee, that water is cold! My legs ached after just a few seconds in the frigid river.

But the walk is worth it. A waterfall cascades at 104 degrees F. into the pool and you can soak luxuriantly while watching the kayakers and river rafters drifting in the current below. And it’s all free, except for the parking fee. Soaker score: 8

Gold Fork Hot Springs

With the thermometer rising, we hurried west to Banks and then turned north on U.S. 55 toward Donnelly. There’s no lack of good scenery on this road, yet another national byway—the Payette River. Forest grows to the road and alongside, the North Fork of the Payette River tumbles southward over huge boulders.

Our destination was Gold Fork Hot Springs, southeast of Donnelly. We turned east onto Plant Lane and followed blue-and-white signs directing us 6.5 miles on hard-packed dirt roads. In the midst of woods we spied an incongruous group of beach umbrellas and knew we’d found the place.

Once an untidy local hangout, Gold Fork is now a top-notch private destination that boasts attractive pools, a waterfall and changing rooms. As the late-afternoon sun cast long shadows, we slipped into the mineral-rich waters, starting with the largest and hottest pool and moving to smaller river-rock-lined pools below. For us riders, life was indeed good.

With umbrellas providing sun protection, you can laze in lounge chairs between dips. Admission is for adults. No camping and no credit cards. Soaker score: 10.

Molly’s Tubs

I had one more soak to go: Molly’s Tubs just east of Cascade near Warm Lake. We had spent the night at the Super 8 in McCall, a rider-friendly place which serves up a good free breakfast. In the morning, cooler temperatures riding south on 55 were a welcome relief. Just before Cascade, we followed Forest Service 22 east to FS 474. Molly’s Tubs are 1.5 miles on the right, below a pullout. If you can’t find them, stop and ask someone.

That’s what we did, and soon we were gazing on a strange collection of old cast-iron bathtubs resting at the bottom of a steep bank on the South Fork of the Salmon River. Using a hose, bathers fill them with hot water from the spring and then add cool river water to produce perfect soaking temperatures.

I have to thank a certain rider friend for hauling in the tubs years ago and then bringing them back after the Forest Service carted them out. Bring a tub stopper and a bucket, fill the tub and then sit back and enjoy the sound of the river. This place gets high marks for funkiness and ambiance. Soaker score: 6.

You can’t beat Idaho’s hot springs for their beautiful settings and absurdly low admission fees, if any. My hard research was done, and boy, had I suffered, pickling myself for you, fellow rider. Let me know when you want me to do it again.

For more information: Hot Springs and Hot Pools of the Northwest, Marjorie Gersh-Young, Aqua Thermal Press, www.hotpools.com. Campers at either Bonneville, Pine Flats or Kirkham can get a free pass to park at the other campgrounds from the camp host.

— Perri Capell

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