Wandering the West
January 7, 2009
These subzero nights this week have me thinking of hot water. Since moving to a new house I’ve been suffering from hot-tub deprivation. The old place had a half-broken-down but still hot tub out on the deck. The new place only has a whirlpool tub in the bathroom and that just doesn’t cut it.
Even better than hot tubs on a cold night are hot springs, those natural springs that bubble out of the ground at random places in the West. They fall into two categories those on private land that have been commercialized into hot springs resorts and those on public or private land that are relatively undeveloped and consist of a natural spring and maybe a few primitive improvements like a wood deck or an outhouse.
The great thing about hot springs is that they pop up in some of the West’s most scenic places where there’s other stuff to do either before or after the soak. Here are some of my favorites.
Yellowstone Park is one giant complex of hot springs but they’re off limits and most of them are far too hot anyway. But as you drive in from the North Entrance outside of Gardiner, Montana, you’ll cross the Gardner River. Look left for a parking area, hike a half-mile upstream and you’ll get to the point where the Boiling River flows into the Gardner. At that point you’ll find a series of pools about fifty yards long of varying temperatures. Pick the one that’s right for you and hop in. It seems to be the one place park rangers are tolerant of "hot potting." At other spots they’re likely to bust you for damaging resources (like the thin thermal crusts that form around springs), and besides, many of the hot pots are too hot to be safe.
Head north out of Yellowstone and you’ll find Chico Hot Springs, Montana. This place is a classic. Weary travelers have stopped here for more than a century, swimming in two large outdoor pools one at 96 degrees and the other at 103. You can also rent private hot-tub rooms, eat in what was (at least when I stopped) a gourmet restaurant, and stay in the old Victorian resort hotel.
Montana’s other large fully developed hot spring is at Fairmont, outside of Butte. Fairmont Hot Springs has a golf course, two Olympic sized pools (88 and 104 degrees), soaking tubs and 153 motel rooms. You could spend hours in the warm outdoor pool just looking at the stars in Montana’s big sky.
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Wyoming has a whole town devoted to hot springs. Thermopolis (Greek for "hot city") has a state park encompassing the world’s largest hot mineral springs. There are outdoor pools and a state bathhouse where the mineral water flows into clean soaking tubs. Some nearby motels also funnel water into their own spas. I’ve met old timers who come to Thermopolis for weeks at a time to soak away their pain and drink the water with its 27 different minerals. The water flows from fountains and those who believe in it take it away by the jug full.
Idaho has Lava Hot Springs near the Utah state line, complete with water slides, lots of kids and an indoor aquatics center. This is a favorite spot for vacationing Utah families, so don’t expect quiet relaxation here. What you will find is a variety of pools running from 102 to an almost skin-peeling 112 degrees.
In Colorado, it seems, half the town names end in "Springs." You can find warm soaks in Steamboat Springs, Hot Sulphur Springs (which has a more rustic, old-fashioned atmosphere), Idaho Springs, with its Indian Springs Hot Springs Resort, Glenwood Springs, with its world’s largest outdoor hot-springs pool, and dozens more.
Utah, of course, has the famed hot pots of Midway, which have kept bathers warm at the Homestead Resort for over a hundred years. The Homestead, with its Crater of warm water inside the 55-foot high beehive-shaped limestone dome, is the only highly developed hot-springs resort in the state. There are plenty of undeveloped hot springs, like Saratoga on the west side of Utah Lake, and Diamond Fork outside of Spanish Fork.
Wherever you go, do your research ahead of time. Undeveloped springs come and go with changing water flows and changing access issues.
You’d be amazed at how much quality time you can waste away just sitting in hot water, looking out at the stars, and having a nice talk with friends or complete strangers.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Insider tip: Undeveloped backcountry hot springs tend to attract clothing-optional free spirits. Best do your homework before you take the kids (or yourselves)!