Spring Fever '99



Where the Hot Spots Are

An informal guide to the coolest hot springs


Sure, everyone has their own ideas about how to savor the great outdoors now that spring is here. But who doesn't enjoy a good soak? From young frolickers looking to commune with nature to more established sorts who just want to rest their weary bones, anyone can appreciate the bounty of natural hot springs that we have in these parts. And truly, we have plenty of geothermal blessings to be thankful for. With that in mind, we dispatched a legion of Independent staffers to sample the waters at some of the more prominent local hot spots. It's by no means an exhaustive list, but we bet it'll help the uninitiated among you, um, get your feet wet. Among other parts. So read it, save it, try to keep it dry. And remember: When you get all wrinkly, that means it's time to get out.

Kids plunge into the healing water of Hot Springs’ famous Corn Hole.
Photo by Sarah Schmid

Wild Horse Hot Springs
3 miles north of Hot Springs on MT 28
$5 per hour per person

For purists, macerating one's body in natural hot water is an unequivocally outdoors experience, a languorous moment to be savored in the star-streaked womb of Mother Nature-and not, for example, under the fluorescent lights of a wood-paneled private bathing suite.

Well, too bad for the purists. The medicinal waters of Wild Horse Hot Springs are primarily about therapy and rest, and not an all-comers broth of haphazard thrill seekers. For $5 an hour, bathers at Wild Horse can rent their own "plunge room" with private pool, steam room, shower and changing room.

It should be pointed out that "hot spring" doesn't fully describe the therapeutic effects of Wild Horse's super-soft, mineral-laden waters, which spring from a small semicircular aquifer unique to the facility and separate from the larger one that supplies the town of Hot Springs. Proprietor Buzz Seely, a former rancher and rodeo bronc rider who runs Wild Horse with his daughter and son-in-law, shows me a three-page testimonial from a 68-year old Canadian man who swears by the curative properties of the waters to alleviate a crippling triad of rheumatoid, goutish and austoarthritis. The man, who has been visiting Wild Horse once a year since he was diagnosed in 1968, takes the plunge for 21 days and drinks six to eight glasses of the water per day. He minces no words about the effectiveness of the regimen: "I can lead a near to normal life since I started coming to Hot Springs."

I took the plunge in two different rooms on two different days. Some of the suites are paneled in wooden decking, which makes the air sweetly redolent of a sauna, but the more spartan design of the rooms I took gave them a kind of Soviet vibe, oddly suggestive of the kind of place an exhausted miner might visit on a state-subsidized vacation to the Black Sea. Water temperature can be regulated by adjusting hot and cold water feeder pipes in the basin-something I got better at on my second visit.

It also took me two tries to get the steam bath right. Prejudiced as I am toward the bone-dry heat of a proper Finnish sauna, I wasn't especially fulfilled by my inaugural experience of sitting in an eggy miasma of lukewarm vapor. On my second visit, Buzz explained that the steam comes from a half-inch pipe drawn on by all the suites, meaning that the peak time to take the steam bath is when no one else is.

The water itself has a sweet, slightly metallic tang. The affable Buzz sent us packing with two gallons of it. "It'll loosen you up," he chuckles. Refreshed yet pleasantly fatigued, I couldn't have agreed more. (AS)

Goldbug/Elk Bend Hot Springs
23 miles south of Salmon, ID on U.S. 93
No hourly restrictions

Goldbug Hot Springs is not the most practical of day trips, located some 23 miles south of Salmon, Idaho. The drive from Missoula can take two to three hours, depending upon road conditions at Lost Trail Pass, highway law enforcement and/or whether your driver is a bladder fascist. However, Goldbug is a popular spot for overnight backpackers looking to make a weekend of geothermal, butt-soaking fun. Though the Forest Service discourages camping at the springs themselves, a few camp sites are situated along the creek on the hike up.

Nor is Goldbug a suitable destination for anyone seeking a leisurely saunter up to the pool side. The four-mile, round-trip hike is not for the flabby, the bum-kneed or the aerobically challenged. The brisk climb up a craggy desert canyon rises 920 feet, and the last half mile or so is very steep, slippery and potentially icy in winter. Hiking boots are strongly recommended, but carry a pair of sandals or water shoes for the pools themselves.

That being said, Goldbug offers some beautiful scenic views, of both the rocky, moss-covered waterfalls and the snow-covered mountains beyond. Upon reaching the lush, green oasis, there are a number of different pools to be had, including a few situated under warm waterfalls that offer some privacy. On a recent excursion, the lower pools were tepid and unsatisfying, which we surmised was due to snow runoff, but the upper pools were very toasty, albeit shallow. The water reportedly runs coolest in April and May, with conditions at their best from early summer through the fall.

To get to Goldbug, drive south on U.S. Highway 93, 23 miles south of Salmon, Idaho and look for mile marker 282. Turn left (east) onto a short gravel road that ends at the trailhead parking area. Be advised that the first half-mile or so traverses private property until you reach the gate that enters BLM land. (KP)

Camas Hot Springs
Hot Springs, MT
Closed to vehicles at dusk and people on foot at midnight

How would you like to live in a town of 600 people and have a year-round public, undeveloped hot pot right down the road? The folks in Hot Springs, a mellow hamlet located on the Flathead Reservation northwest of Ravalli, know the pleasures of soaking in the 100 degree, sulfuric-smelling geothermal water.

Citizens like to amble up to the pool and lounge around. The atmosphere is friendly and the crowd is diverse. But keep in mind the point is to relax in therapeutic water, and therefore alcohol and nudity are among the prohibited activities.

The town's motto is "Limp In and Leap Out," and the area has been known for its healing hot springs seemingly since time immemorial. Leslee Smith, owner of the Symes Hotel downtown, says that the region was a popular stop for the somewhat nomadic tribes indigenous to Western Montana.

Then the settlers discovered the wells, called The Plunge by locals, although the proper name is Camas Hot Springs. During the homesteading era they built a tent city around it, the descendent of which is modern-day Hot Springs.

Across the field behind Camas is The Corn Hole, a murky pool covered with a sort of wooden plank grid. Smith says the name comes from the days when people would visit fully clothed and dip their corn-ridden feet into the supposedly rehabilitative mud. There's a second pool that is more of a full-blown mud pit, and people don't hesitate to slather themselves in the mineral-rich muck.

Smith says a high mineral content is also what makes the water special, and in the days before penicillin, doctors often recommended 21-day soaking treatments. People have been known to drink the water as well in hopes of beneficial results.

"There are stories of people arriving in wheelchairs and walking after a few weeks here," Smith says.

A large, abandoned, burned-out former bath house stands next to Camas Hot Springs, and the current smashed-out windows and padlocked doors mask what was once a popular spa.

"The building was dedicated in 1949," Smith explains. "They had a big grand opening. Olympian Jim Thorpe was there and so was Chief Charlo. They roasted a big buffalo."

The legacy of that celebration is Homesteaders Days weekend, she says, held annually each June, which might be the perfect time to enjoy Hot Springs. (SS)

Lolo Hot Springs
25 miles west of Lolo on U.S. 12
$5 admission

I think it was Wordsworth who said, "Let nature be your teacher." Good advice, especially if you're looking for some hot springs to give you lessons in health and relaxation. But old Willie's philosophy doesn't seem to have taken at Lolo Hot Springs.

Set in a broad swath of mud by the highway some 25 miles west of Lolo, the Lolo Hot Springs Resort features three scattershot options: a motel, a restaurant and a ramshackle cinderblock building that introduces you to two springs, one indoors, the other out. Both of them, somewhat regrettably, are simply cement swimming pools filled with spring water, which gives the whole thing the feel of a municipal kiddie pool. But if that's where your head is, Lolo is the perfect place to relive the childhood-public-pool encounter. The experience comes complete with noisy bathers, bouncing inflatable beach balls, frisbees flung overhead, stern No Diving signs, and screaming, pants-shitting children. You are invited to make of this what you will. But hey, for five bucks and a round trip that totals scarcely over one hour, what more do you want? (BdeP)

Jerry Johnson Hot Springs
58 miles west of Lolo on U.S. 12
8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily

If organic splendor is what you're hankering for, then you should consider yourself obligated to go to Jerry Johnson Hot Springs, the lore-laden mineral springs that put the "nature" in au naturel. Tucked away in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness about 20 miles across the Idaho border, Jerry Johnson is famed for its breathtaking scenery, its well-traveled trails, and its discreet but decidedly clothing-optional policy for bathers.

It's easy enough to find. After taking U.S. 12 through Lolo, Lolo Hot Springs and finally over the pass, it's just 22 miles through semisteep grades and hairpin turns until you see a sturdy wooden footbridge that spans the white-knuckle waters of the Lochsa River. There's a parking area just off the highway. Tramp across the bridge, and you'll see a marked trail to the right that flanks the river and winds its way through tall firs.

After a mere three-quarters of a mile, you're sure to spot steam rising from a waterfall some 30 feet below you, where the first hot spring burbles up into the river. Stones catch the waters to form pools for much of the year, providing enough room for a few ample bottoms. Another half-mile along the trail, the canopy of trees overhead opens up, and a clearing offers you a group of land-locked pools, safe from the river's strong current. And after another quarter-mile jaunt, there are two more pools on the sides of a lush, green meadow, where, in my estimation, the best soaking is to be had.

Of course, Johnson's unwritten nudity clause has made the springs a source of much speculation, conjecture and bawdy anecdotes. Some of them are probably true. In fact, on your trip to Johnson, you may expect to find any combination of the following features, all of which I encountered in a recent weekend foray: a bloodhound wearing a studded collar; a pair of flame-red underwear draped in a tree; nubile co-eds (in surprisingly modest bathing suits); overweight dowagers (regrettably nude); and a creepy, barrel-waisted businessman from Bozeman with a peculiar interest in your personal history. What you're most certain to find, though, are idyllic landscapes and waters the color of Coke bottles that will wick the anxiety right out of you. And, in the last analysis, that's what it's all about. (BdeP)

Go Take a Hike

Nearby hikes for the city-bound trekker


So it's a stunning Garden City blue-sky day and you're looking to get out with Fido for a jaunt in the sun. But you only have a couple of hours. The Bitterroots are too far away, and it's still snowy up on the Blackfoot. Don't fear-the Missoula Valley offers a multitude of outdoor options right out your back door, side door and front door.

For instance, the trail starting at the University and leading up Mount Sentinel takes even a couch slug less than an hour to walk, and it offers an above-the-smog view of Missoula. At about 1.5 miles round-trip, the M Trail is the most popular hike in the valley, and the one many people embark on when they first come to town. The trail, which switchbacks up the sunny side of Mount Sentinel, is a short, vigorous route, leading up to a great view of summertime sunsets. It's also a fine place to watch Grizzly football games for those unwilling to pay for a ticket. Great views of the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers as well as downtown Missoula offer a fine backdrop.

Looking for a quick trip up a close-to-town mountain? Head up Waterworks Hill, an easy 30 minute loop hike to the Peace Sign where dogs are as numerous as people.
Photo by Chad Harder

If you're looking to stretch the hike a bit, continue up Sentinel to the 5,158 foot summit, a common launching spot for local paragliders and hang gliders. After reaching the M, the trail splits into two paths, neither of which are switchbacked, but rather head straight up. It's about 2,000 vertical feet from the valley floor, and you should allow up to three hours for the hike. The view from the top is extraordinary: To the north you can look down on Mount Jumbo and further on to the 60,000 acre Rattlesnake Wilderness. To the south, look for row after row of rugged Bitterroot peaks. On a sunny day you can see as far away as Saint Mary's Peak.

Once you reach the summit, you'll realize that the top is actually just the front point of a ridge that leads to University Mountain. Here you are afforded three options: You can tap into the dozens of miles of trails in Pattee Canyon, you can retrace your steps down the Missoula side of Sentinel, or you can trot down the Hellgate Canyon Trail. This nicely switchbacked descent quickly drops you onto the Kim Williams Trail. From there it's a quick, flat loop back to the M trailhead.

The Kim Williams Trail is another great option for winter couch slugs, or anyone looking for a place to run or walk on a level surface. The 2.5 mile trail extends along the Clark Fork River from the Van Buren footbridge east towards East Missoula. It's situated on an abandoned railroad bed, offering a great place to view birds close to town. Bald eagles, osprey, great blue herons and lots of other winged ones make their way along the river here. Horses, dogs and bicyclists share the trail with hikers and joggers.

Waterworks Hill has a rare microcosm of alpine flowers growing near its summit.

Right across the Clark Fork lies Mount Sentinel's northern sister, Mount Jumbo. Great hiking trails cut through the endless knapweed on Mount Jumbo, although hiking restrictions close the northern half of the mountain until May 1 due to a visiting elk population. If you know this mountain solely as "The one with the 'L' on it," put down this paper, slip on your tennies and head over to Poplar Street in the Lower Rattlesnake. Here you'll find the trailhead leading both up to the "L" and to the top of the mountain. There are numerous paths that lead in different directions, but it's easy to find your way to the "L." The hike is just about as long as the one to the "M," but not as steep. More importantly, it's less crowded than its southern neighbor.

The other truly urban hike in Missoula is the hike up Waterworks Hill to the Peace Sign. This is the mellowest of the I-only-have-an-hour-to-go-up-a-mountain hikes, and it can be done as an easy loop. The trailhead is on Greenough Drive, the first left after passing under I-90. From the trailhead, you can either head straight up the ridge, or take the flatter valley to the right. Either way, within 15 minutes you'll see the Peace Sign. In about 20 minutes you'll be standing under it, surprised at how big it is. This is a great hike for your dog to meet lots of other dogs, and is tied with Blue Mountain as the premiere dog-walk destination in the valley.

Of course, there are plenty of other places where you can keep your feet busy and your mind clear, like Pattee Canyon, Blue Mountain and Rattlesnake recreation areas. But if nothing else, the quick, convenient urban hikes mentioned here can make for a good start. Just be sure to do yourself a favor and take advantage of all that Missoula's trails have to offer. A friend of mine once said, "When you live in Montana, the scenery is half of your paycheck." So keep in mind why you still live here. Go take a hike.

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