Word on the street has it that the water from a natural hot springs comes out at 170°F. To put that in perspective, water boils at 212°F, but it only takes 1 second to get a third degree burn from water at 156°F. Water at 110°F can be dangerous, and the upper safe limit is considered to be 104°F. Thus, “hot” springs is not synonymous with “hot tub,” such as are commonly found in backyards. That is why most natural hot springs are utilized by having an input of cold water to bring the temperature down to comfortably warm.
We visited four hot springs on our camping trip past the Cliffs of Despair. Two of them were “natural” and two of them were “developed.” We only felt the water of three of them, and only got completely immersed in two of them, because there is only so much time to have fun on the weekend! (click on any photo to enlarge)
Bonneville Hot Springs
Bonneville Campground is just under 20 miles northeast of Lowman, Idaho. You can visit the hot springs without staying at the campground, but there is a $5 parking/all day entrance fee. It is a short hike up a classic woodsy trail to reach where the hot springs flow into the Warm Springs Creek, a tributary of the Payette River.
The campground host did his best to scare us away, partly in jest, wondering why people wanted to soak in “hot” water in 90°F weather. But he also really wanted us to be careful of the rivulets of the hot springs that flow down the side of the mountain over the hiking trail. Some of them were still quite hot. He also wanted to make sure that if we had a dog we understood the potential danger of the hot water. If a dog jumped in unaware, it could be quite devastating.
He also told us the story of the “tub in the shed on the side of the mountain.” Apparently, a woman rancher had lived near there 40 years ago and this was a good place to get a bath. She got someone to bring a claw foot tub to the hot springs. Presumably, buckets of cold water from the lower creek were brought up the steep slope to mix with the hot springs that were being guided into the tub. Currently, there is a plumbing set-up with two pipes, but the options are only hot and hotter. When Wild Greg felt it, he was said it was far too hot to use the tub. There is an antique looking wooden shed around the tub now, that the campground host seems to think was brought up at least 20 years ago by some University of Idaho students. On the outside, it looks like a sneeze might send it flying, but inside it is a quaint dressing room and the upper tub edge is positioned at floor level.
I have never met a more talkative campground host. And it was amazing to think that he might be repeating the whole information package multiple times a day! But he was the man for the job. He expounded on how the force of winter weather and spring water flow altered the arrangements of the “soaking tubs” adjacent to the creek every year. According to him, small brigades of hot springs devotees arrive every spring with shovels and buckets to do the necessary repairs. This involves digging out sand that has been piled up and rearranging rock perimeters of the soaking pools that have been messed up.
All we had to do was try to determine where to get in the water. The path did intersect with the soaking pools near where a strong current of rather hot water was entering, but it was not scalding hot, having had some time to cool as it came down the mountain. Still, it was definitely not a temperature to be comfortable in for more than a couple seconds.
The bottom of the comfortably warm soaking pools was covered in small pebbles and sand. The water was clear and clean, with a constant flow mixing the hot springs with the cold creek water. We saw three main pools where we sat. I stayed in the one closest to the warm input, which was probably around 85°F. I would assume the lower pools were cooler.
After a while, Wild Greg went exploring. He came back to report that there was another larger pool upstream from the area I was enjoying. I probably should have gone to see it, but right then I was very comfortable where I was and we were talking about coming back the next day. As it turns out, we went to see some other hot springs, somewhat accidentally.
We were on our way up the wide graveled forest service road to GrandJean when we saw Sacajawea Hot Springs. It was free parking, but that’s because there really wasn’t anything except the side of the road. The hike down was quite steep, even if it was only about 50 yards, but we had places to go see. It was easy to see the rock lined pool at the river side, this time on the Payette River. The water was very clear and clean, and the bottom looked just like those at Bonneville. If we had only known this free hot springs was just a bit up the road from our remote camp site, we probably would not have driven farther and paid for the other. But, then we wouldn’t have gotten all those stories, either.
The Sawtooth Lodge was on our way to a trail we hoped to run on that morning. (story pending) Wild Greg was humoring me and my attempts to show him potential cabins to rent. We had seen signs to it when we were looking for our camp site. The folks at the lodge were very friendly and showed us inside one of the older, circa 1920’s construction, log cabins. We were told that some of the cabins had bathrooms, though not all with warm water. Some had double beds and some had queen beds. The main building had a restaurant which served three meals a day, but it was perfectly acceptable for people to bring their own camp stoves or use the outside bar-b-q to prepare meals.
What was a surprise was the hot springs fed swimming pool! They don’t strictly monitor the pool temperature, but we were taken in to feel the temperature and it was very inviting. Anyone can pay a fee, currently $7 per person, to use the pool, but if renting a cabin or any of their RV or camping sites, it is included.
The Springs in Idaho City
We stopped at The Springs in Idaho City on the drive home based on the recommendation of a friend. I have never ended a camping trip like this before. It wasn’t cheap at $16 a head, but it was fun and the facilities were excellent. The locker rooms were clean, and a locker was included in the price. We were provided with a towel. There was soap in the shower, so a post-camping arrival was completely acceptable. I floated and swam gently in the pool for a while, mostly with the kids, but it wasn’t at all boisterous or crowded. It seemed the “adult thing to do” was sitting around the edge, in the soothing gravity chairs, or in the hot tub. Once I settled in next to where Wild Greg was lounging, I had a mimosa, but I should have checked the price more carefully… thanks, honey bear…
Hot springs have not been a frequent experience for me in the past. We did get to visit one in Taipei, which was absolutely not remote and not private. It was almost standing room only. We went to an undeveloped one near Cascade, Idaho about three years ago. I don’t know if we didn’t have them in Oregon, where I grew up and went camping as a kid, or if my parents just avoided them. I definitely didn’t associate them with camping and this has given camping a while new twist for me. Wild Greg is very pleased with himself.