I would like to preface this blog post by letting you all know: I really don’t like winter. I’ve met people who get super excited at the prospect of things like snow. And cold weather. And ice. I’m not one of those people. Growing up I loved winter because I loved to ski (and it also meant I had an excuse not to run). But as I’ve gotten older, and my knees have decided they no longer want to function like they did when I was 16 (I haven’t been skiing in almost five years), I’ve really started to dislike winter, and I view all people who love winter more than other seasons with a healthy dose of skepticism and apprehension.
All that aside, I made a goal last year to get outdoors more, even in the winter. I knew summer would not be challenging at all: I ONLY want to be outside in the summer. But what were we supposed to do in winter outside without freezing? And then we had an epiphany: hot springs. Better yet, snowshoeing to hot springs. And with one simple decision, my strong hatred for winter simmered to a mild discomfort during the cold months, because cold months mean Idaho hot springs.
Emily and I have made it our mission to explore as many hot springs in Idaho as we can. And through our exploration, here is what we have discovered: we enjoy hot springs so much more when we have to work to get to them. Even if it’s just a short mile hike through the woods, there is something so rewarding about jumping into natural hot springs after a hike (or snowshoeing). Idaho has several easily accessible hot springs; we are more interested in the not-so-accessible. I love the solitude that accompanies finding a secluded hot springs in the middle of the mountains; it’s like rolling into a campsite late on a Friday night and finding an open spot away from the toilets. Those tiny, indescribably happy moments.
Along Highway 21 in Idaho, you can find several hot springs: some are right off the main road (like Kirkham) and others are a bit further back. I read about Bonneville Hot Springs this past summer while researching camping grounds off Highway 21. Bonneville Hot Springs are a very, very short walk from the Bonneville campground, which is open May-September. In the winter, the road leading back to the campground is closed; therefore, you’ll need to park either right near the gate to the campground, or you can park where we did: at the Warm Springs trailhead, which is about 1,000 feet before the campgrounds.
A few of our friends met at our place, and we left early in the morning on Sunday because it’s about a 2-2.5 hour drive from Boise, and we wanted to beat the crowds, in case there were any. We have noticed that (most) Idahoans don’t seem to be early-in-the-morning people. Meaning most public places are pretty deserted the earlier you arrive. If it’s between having to listen to unruly, drug-fueled teenagers at a hot springs and sleeping in, I’ll drag my ass out of bed to get someplace at a reasonable hour.
On the way to Bonneville, we took Highway 55 to Highway 17 to Highway 21 (through Grimes Pass). The roads were a bit hairy along 17, and we had the truck in 4-wheel drive for a good portion of our commute. On the way back, we took 21 all the way through Idaho City; I’m fairly certain this took just as much time due to the incredibly windy road, though we didn’t come across too many icy or snowy patches. As we were parking at the trailhead, a group of older gentlemen in their truck were pulling out. The driver rolled down his window to let us know that the hot springs were empty and if we hurried, we could have the pools to ourselves. He told us to follow their trail up and over the hill to get to the road (the one which leads to the campground), and after we strapped on our snowshoes and fastened our backpacks, that is exactly what we did. And probably shouldn’t have done.
We followed the trail the guys had left, which led us up a super steep hill. As we were climbing, the footsteps became more erratic, as if the previous hikers couldn’t decide which direction to go. Then, the footprints stopped (I think they turned around, but I couldn’t tell. I definitely don’t have a career in tracking). Being me, I led our group up the rest of the hill, because there had to be a way down to the service road below. As it turns out, there was not. We tried to switchback down the hill, but it mostly resulted in me flailing about before falling face-first into the freezing snow. We finally made it across the steep part of the hill and found a way to shuffle very slowly down, most of us tumbling at the bottom. It was then we came across the path that all the smart people had been using from the highway, and we continued about a mile along that trail to the hot springs. (As a side note, we brought our snow shoes because of the heavy snow fall in the area during the previous week. Because this trail from Highway 21 to the hot springs was so heavily used, snow shoes probably wouldn’t be necessary–just a really decent pair of winter hiking boots).
We hiked about 1.1 miles through the woods next to Warm Springs Creek and the views were spectacular. We passed through the campgrounds and could smell the sulfur from the hot springs, which is the most reassuring smell when you’re hot springs hunting in the mountains. As we stepped into the hot springs clearing, it felt like stepping into a scene from “Lord of the Rings.” The ground was moss-covered and so green; a waterfall poured steaming hot water down the hill, over rocks, and into the pools below. A small hut with a bathtub continuously being filled via a pipe from the hot springs offered a place to change. It was, in a word, incredibly picturesque.
Everyone else quickly descended on the pools below; I decided to change my clothes at the top of the hill, which I would NOT recommend. Swimming suit and snow boots on, I attempted to maneuver my way down the wet, moss-covered path below and ended up eating shit hard. Like feet flew out from under me, towel and bags went flying through the air, and I landed flat on my hands and ass. No one saw me fall; everyone heard me fall. So I would definitely recommend either having your suit already on, or changing down by the pools (if you’re alone).
My other piece of advice? Definitely bring river shoes. The snow boots/snowshoes will get you there, but in order to walk around the multiple pools and waterfalls in the area, you will want river shoes. Our lack of shoes was probably the only complaint any of us had about these hot springs. There were several designated pools in the area, with the water flowing from the waterfall down into said pools. We chose the pools that were a bit further away from the waterfall, and those turned out to be the best pools. The water was absolutely perfect, the pools were deep enough you could sit and pretty much be entirely covered by water, and the babbling creek next to us added a nice bit of ambiance.
At one point, we decided to go sit in the sizeable pool under the waterfall because it looked larger and deeper. The water in this pool, unfortunately, was incredibly hot. All the pools that were close to the scalding water running off the rocks were incredibly hot. We found we could only sit in the pool for maybe ten minutes before I started to get a migraine and everyone’s skin turned an unhealthy pink color. So if you have time and you’re all alone at the hot springs, definitely soak in the smaller pools further downstream. I can promise you will never want to leave (especially if you remembered beer, snacks, and your selfie stick).
Our hike back was much faster and much easier than our excursion to the hot springs, and the trail from the hot springs led all the way back to Highway 21, at which point we walked along the road back to our truck. We made it home around 7:00 that night, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday. We definitely recommend Bonneville Hot Springs for an excellent winter-soaking experience.