My life had taken a detour as I fell, well- happily jumped off the graduate school train. I was crashing on a friend’s couch and was happy for the hospitality but not for the horribly unventilated and non-air conditioned conditions. Temps were well into the hundreds and I had had enough, so I threw my tent and sleeping bag into the car and headed to a land I knew very little about.
Around that time I had discovered this little band called Yonder Mountain Stringband and their tune “Idaho” played in circles inside my head. There song about “cold mountain creeks” and “beds of wild grass” was enough to get me out and explore those lands “from Stanley up to Sunbeam.”
I sang the catchy chorus as I passed through Hailey and Sun Valley and started the climb into the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. As the outside temp meter happily dropped a few degrees I sang of “saw-toothed ridges” as I headed up into the sky. I passed through Stanley and found a camp spot along the Salmon River before heading back to town to check out the local culture at the Rod-N-Gun Saloon.
On the way back to camp, my headlights caught something that looked like steam rising from the river below. I stopped to see what it was and lo and behold- hot, bubbly waters flowing into the Salmon River. A bunch of wild Texans with PBR cans filled the pool and yelled at me to “get on in!” I didn’t have a swimsuit in which they replied in unison, “not a problem!”
This was the first time I had ever experienced a natural hot spring in the wild and ever since that moment I’ve been obsessed with natural pools. I love their often times obscure locations, the eccentric characters they attract, the strange geological formations they create, and the way the waters relax the soul after an intense day of activity. My search for the perfect hot spring has sent me bushwhacking outside of Bozeman, exploring under oil derricks in Wyoming, and trekking into absolute nowhere Nevada, but as it turns out the best springs I’ve ever been to were those first ones in the Salmon River.
Now whenever the hundreds start creeping into the forecast the Sawtooth’s craggy peaks, crystal clear pools, and cooler temps start calling my name. We had an extra long weekend coming up with Chris’s birthday so we decided to head up to Idaho with the plan of playing by day and soaking by night.
We left Salt Lake a little too late in the day to make it all the way to Stanley so we opted for a night at the City of Rocks. Why not start out the trip with a bit of climbing? We rolled into Almo and headed straight to Rock City (aka the Red Barn) where you find a huge selection of non-Utah microbrews sold cold including growlers of Rogue’s Deadguy Ale. Well the Red Barn looked awfully dark and Chris panicked and said, “I swear they are open until 9.” A sign on the door read, “Sorry! Water main broke. Store is flooded. Hope to open by Sunday.”
Sad, dejected, and beerless we had no need for a campfire so we crashed in the car at the Steinfell’s Dome trailhead to avoid the $12.72 campsite fee. With the way our luck was going I thought for sure some ranger would shine a light on us in the middle of the night and slap us with some ridiculous fine. Truth is we had the $12 but couldn’t find the 72 cents and I wasn’t going to throw a twenty into that envelope.
We rose early and watched the sun rise and cast all sorts of colors on the granite towers that make up the City of Rocks. Giant monoliths and clusters of granite spires shoot abruptly out of the sagebrush valley giving the illusion that they are the ruins of some ancient rock city. With a name like City of Rocks, it is no surprise that rock climbers frequent this Southern Idaho reserve. The City boasts over 500 sport and traditional climbing routes established on smooth granite faces as well as many miles of biking and hiking trails that weave in and out of the unique rock formations. In places, the granite looks as smooth and curvaceous as the sandstone characteristic of Southern Utah slot canyons.
Without seeing another soul, we took a run up the Theater of Shadows, a 4-pitch, slabby sport climb with stellar views of the City. Perfect for a first time multi-pitch adventure, the route is super fun without a whole lot of exposure plus it’s well protected, has an easy descent, and plenty of incredible panoramic photo ops. The climb sits above the Circle Creek Overlook, which is an amazing point for looking out and over the entire City. The hike to the start of the climb was by far the most difficult part of the route – the rest was just long, cruising, enjoyable low-angle climbing with a rad airy rappel off the top. The route was perfect since we really didn’t want to overexert ourselves since we had a long night of hot spring soaking and beer drinking ahead of us.
I had heard rumors of primitive hot springs in the area so we stopped by the ranger station on our way out to inquire. The hippyesque ranger said he knew nothing and politely recommended a nice commercial hot spring down the road. I’ve found that some people can be very protective of a spring’s location so I was slightly mistrustful. Who knows if he was keeping anything from me or not? I guess I understand though. It must be like secret powder stashes or that perfect hidden camp spot. You don’t want the crowds moving in and ruining things for you.
Each hot spring typically has an unofficial caretaker who takes on the responsibility of general maintenance of the hot pot. People pour their heart and soul into caring for these springs and a few inconsiderate drunkards can trash them in seconds. If you have ever been to Fifth Water Springs outside of Spanish Fork you can see what crowds can do to a lovely spring, the amount of trash and broken glass around those springs is quite appalling.
We planned on making camp somewhere near Stanley so we hightailed it to the Sawtooths, but making the time to stop by one of my favorite springs. More of a warm spring than a hot one, Russian John is right off of Hwy 75. With an average temp of 86 degrees, Russian John is cool as far as hot springs go, but it is certainly warmer than a dip in the Salmon River.
The pool has been reinforced by some cement work and the water is as clear as can be. Incredibly popular with locals, we were surprised to find ourselves alone at the spring. You always know you’re in for something good when there is a giant tie-dye painted veggie oil bus with Oregon plates at the spring’s trailhead. I was almost disappointed that no one was around.
That reminds me of the time I took my parents to a natural hot pot outside of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. I had warned my parents that anything really goes at these places, which was good since the pool was filled with a bunch of nude bathers. My mom she sat down to soak her feet right next to a naked man who tried to cover himself the best he could with a local tourist brochure while my dad discretely snapped photos in the background.
We rolled into Stanley at dusk and stopped by the good old Rod-N-Gun Whitewater Saloon for some high point beer on draft, greasy eats, and the word on local happenings. On the advice of a local cowboy we found a free camp spot somewhere off the Nip-N-Tuck Road, which was great because our bike map showed a trail right from camp.
Turns out we can connect with the Nip-N-Tuck/Joe’s Gulch Loop right from camp and head out around noon the next day. This 14-mile loop has none of that killer singletrack Stanley is known for, but does get high scores for views. We traveled across old Forest Service roads rolling up and down with one steep climb before descending some challenging rocky terrain into Joe’s Gulch. The views varied from thick forest to wide-open meadows with rolling sagebrush hills and incredible panoramas of the jagged Sawtooth Range.
Back at camp, we threw on our suits and headed on down to the Salmon River. Considered one of the few wild rivers left in America, the Salmon winds through volcanic rock and sagebrush grasslands without one single dam hindering its flow. Numerous thermal springs feed into the Salmon River and are remnants of the volcanic activity that created this unique topography.
Countless hot spring pools sit alongside the Salmon River from Stanley on to Challis. Elkhorn Springs sits right below the highway, hidden from view. Hot water is piped into a hilarious giant cauldron, which overflows into a series of pools in the river. Not so concealed, a sign right off of ID 75 points to the Sunbeam Hot Springs. Sunbeam has several nice pools right in the river plus it is close to Grumpy’s where you can enjoy some canned Moose Drool on the porch. These hot springs are some of the best in the west since you can pretty much choose the soaking temperature you prefer and then jump into the free flowing river if you need to cool off.
We rose early the next morning, packed up the car, and stopped by the Snake Pit Hot Springs on our way out of Stanley. The temps got down into the 30’s that night so we were still a bit chilled. I highly advise not starting out the day out with a soak especially when you have more biking planned and a 5-hour drive home, but the folk’s at Grumpy’s told us about it and we wanted to give it a look. The Snake Pit was the perfect temp- probably around 105 degrees, with the beautiful snowcapped Sawtooths providing a nice picturesque backdrop to the springs.
Since Chris hadn’t gotten his singletrack fix we stopped by the popular Galena Trails on our way home. Me being not much of a mountain biker, I instead threw on my trail shoes and took off running in the opposite direction. Chris was pretty stoked on the log rides and the steep, windy singletrack descents not to mention an unforgettable run in with a few hundred sheep. I was happy with a few hours to myself with nothing but my feet carrying me through pine forests and high alpine meadows. I took it all in and hummed along to that Yonder song that plays round my head every time I end up in Idaho.