Road Trip: Lava Hot Springs

justin_diversionfalls_CMYK copyAll summer the town of Lava Hot Springs bustles with the hum of tourism. Families in RV’s fish the Portneuf River, high school kids on dates float on rented tubes down the easy riffles. Old people soak in the natural thermal pools–despite the blazing sun–and about 10,000 people cram into the olympic swimming complex. Middle school boys get their thrills daring each other to jump off the high dive platforms.

Then there is March. The town’s economy is hurting a bit because the Portneuf is flooded, the air is cold and skiers tend to stick to the other side of Mt. Bonneville- where the lifts are. The roads are virtually abandoned. The old west tourist photography shop may not even be open. It is a ghost town, complete with a saloon- albeit on a canvas backdrop. To me it is the west as it should be, quiet, snowy and ready for exploration.

In three days you can see the sights and have at least three distinct adventures, if you time it right. The prime season is the end of February to the beginning of March. Opportunity can strike at any time, and checking the river gauge is the best way to decide it is time to book rooms. Watch for 400cfs on the Topaz gauge, then get on the phone. Invite your friends that are down for an adventure, and one that isn’t. Everyone needs a shuttle driver.

Leave work early on Friday. You’ll need time to pack all of the gear, some of which probably hasn’t been used in a while. Bring backcountry ski gear, kayaks and bikes. Head north on I-15. You’ll want to get to town while there is still plenty of light left. You have scouting to do.

On your first day you might want to skip the part where you dress up as a brothel maid for sepia tone photos and get on your bike for a quick scouting trip. You’ll need to be vaguely familiar with the backside of Mount Bonneville for tomorrow, and the river for the next day.

If you have time to do the ski scouting via bike, park at the diversion dam dirt lot at the intersection of US 30 and Blazer Highway. This is also the kayak put in, and the short falls are scenic and easy to scout while you gear up.

Don’t be deceived. At this spot in 2006 my friend James had an epic swim. At 1100 CFS he missed the boof, got towed back and went under for several minutes. He eventually grabbed a rope and was pulled free. His boat emerged 30 minutes later. The entire time his parents were looking on, in horror.

Grab the bikes and head north on Blazer Highway. Don’t forget your GPS, a camera, pictures of Bonneville and a map. The road is fairly flat and parallels railroad tracks for it’s length. At about 12 miles stop at Pebble Creek Road and turn off, if conditions allow, to see how far up the road has been plowed. This is the end point for the ski trip. Take pictures of the mountain, GPS readings and scope out some lines. Turn around and choose some landmarks too. This is the direction you’ll be facing tomorrow.

If you are up to the challenge, the road loops back to highway 30 in 21 more miles. The last stretch into Lava is a wicked downhill with gravel shoulders in early spring and winter. I would not want to be headed down it at night.

luke_campgroundfalls copyIf you get back to town before dark, scout the river a bit. The first big drops after the put in are across from a small campground. These are visible from the highway. A large island splits the current making you choose between a small but clean 15 foot waterfall that come into shape over 500cfs or a longer rocky staircase rapid. Logs sometimes block the entrance to the waterfall but a portage around it is easy and getting in and out is simple.

Next park at the popular Riverwalk Thai Restaraunt at the edge of town and take the well beaten path down to scope out two of the more intimidating, but easy drops. The first is a slide that is best run from right to center and the second is a longer rapid culminating in a 3 foot ledge. The easiest and most obvious line is far left. More complex and interesting lines crowd the middle. Far right has never looked good to me.

Walk along the river as much as possible that evening, taking in the sights. From the bridge in the center of town, directly downriver is the only real playwave on this stretch. Photography from the bridge is excellent as well. The wave has eddy service and can be fun, if shallow at times. It comes in around 400cfs and gets scary above 1000cfs. A few more ledge drops populate the river below the bridge and a concrete path parallels it for the rest of the trip, as do couples out for a stroll and local teenagers headed for the hot pools, which sit adjacent to the river and bridge.

The takeout is a small city park next to the state run olympic swimming complex. One of the easiest spots to take out is hole 9. A disc golf course wraps around the pool complex and another sits just downstream in another park. Both courses are worth playing, try not to land in the river. It is an unpleasant retrieval in March at flood stage.

You really haven’t visited the town unless you’ve soaked in the hot pools. Get some Thai food, get your swim suit and relax. Tomorrow is going to be a long day.

Lava offers a full range of lodging options including campgrounds, yurts, motels, hotels and B&B’s with private mineral pools. When you book your stay remember that this is the shoulder season, you may have some negotiating room.

Pebble Creek Ski Area is everything a local hill should be. Cheap, steep and uncrowded. But the real treasure lies on the backside. The classic lines or Orgasmatron and Strawberry Fields call to locals when the front is skied out. It also happens that the backside faces Lava Hot Springs. It has been a long tradition, when the season starts to wind down, to skin up to the backside and ski all the way to the highway where a waiting car (or bike for the hardcore) shuttles weary skiers to the steaming hot pools.

The route from Lava Hot Springs to Pebble Creek is a surprisingly convoluted one. There are many possibilities. The switchbacks are ridiculously windy and the freeway ramps are miles apart. It’s a good navigation warm up. If you get lost getting to the ski area you should probably not be skiing off into the backcountry today.

The trip really starts at the top of the main triple chairlift of Pebble Creek. Bear left off the lift and climb a small ramp to the traverse trail. Stay as high as possible and the trail terminates in Upper Green Canyon. An obvious, and essentially perpetual, skin trail leads the way to the saddle that separates the front and backside. The trail may appear to continue to traverse to the next canyon over, it does actually. If you decide to bag the backside circuit find a local and ask them to take you to North Bowl. North Bowl is some of the finest lift served backcountry around. Assuming North Bowl doesn’t grab your interest, hop on the skin trail. The uphill portion of the day requires only about 20 minutes of skinning from the ski area boundaries. Boot packing is usually an option for the minimalist because many younger skiers beat a path to the backside to practice inverts that are banned inbounds. There are several possible descent lines. Runs with colorful local names, many adolescent or nostalgic, dot the backside. Fit teams with time to kill should definitely take a few runs before heading out. Factor in about an hour per run. Another perpetual skin trail leads back to the saddle from both directions. For the final line to the car it’s usually best to stick to a ridge line, the gullies can be unpredictable and brushy.

luke_wave1 copyOn your last run, be prepared for a bit of a haul over gently downhill terrain to the snowmobile trail that becomes the road out. Savvy travelers often carry a short rope in case a snowmobiler offers a tow out. If you don’t cross paths with any locals, the skate out isn’t bad and should take about an hour. Moderate route finding and map skills are helpful. Head back to town and buy another hot pool pass.

On day three hit the river. The Portneuf River through the town of Lava is, predictably, made of lava. Basalt tends to have sharp edges, long fault lines and square chunks. For whitewater kayakers this leads to some fun, easy rapids in medium flows and some pretty scary stuff at higher flows. The uniform drops form sticky holes that are river wide. Boat scouting is difficult because the horizon lines are numerous and hard to see over until the last possible moment. The drops seem to come one after another, there are a dozen medium to large rapids in just over 1 mile. Despite the fact that you can see and scout the bulk of the river from the bank there are a few hidden drops that add to the excitement. It only makes things more surreal that the bulk of the run is directly through town, starting at the town hydro diversion and ending at the olympic swimming complex.

When the river pushes above 900 CFS only teams of experienced kayakers appropriately outfitted should attempt the run locally known as ‘the tube run’. A run with a car shuttle takes about 45 minutes, or 75 minutes on foot. It’s worth doing several laps. The main drawback are the gawking locals and tourists that are used to kids with giant yellow tubes making the trek back to the top. Walking main street in full kayaking regalia is sure to draw some looks.

Other kayaking options include the class I stretch from the olympic pool to the highway bridge. The next stretch is the topaz stretch which has a few short drops with loads of flat water in between a long flatwater stretch to finish at the irrigation diversion by the final highway bridge.

If you have more time on your hands the river is littered with small waterfalls, many of which are park and huck, if you can find them. Exploring the river is one of the many adventures waiting to be had in Lava Hot Springs. Personally I’d rather spend a few extra hours soaking the aches away.

Lance works as an outdoor instructor in the Idaho Mountains. When not teaching he is usually learning or traveling somewhere new.

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