Guide To Hot Springs In The American West

Guide To Hot Springs In The American West

Of the American West’s too numerous to count attractions, natural and man made, perhaps the least considered in vacation planning are the many natural hot springs throughout the region’s vast expanse.  From the smallest spring flowing on a heavily forested moutainside far from civilization to a spring capable of constantly refilling large pools on the grounds of a modern, full service hotel, soaking in a natural hot springs can be the perfect, relaxing end to days of long travel or vigorous exercise. 

My wife and I learned the benefits of hot springs in frequent soaks in Europe and in earlier western trips so it was only natural for us to plan for at least an occasional hot springs soak as we put together a recent road trip from southern Arizona through Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Colorado, and New Mexico.  Even before we experienced the drive, it was obvious that many miles would deserve some soaking away of soreness, aches, pains, and ‘road dust’!

Identifying developed and undeveloped hot springs is a lot simpler than one might expect.  An internet search of ‘hot springs’ by state is an excellent start, easily offering details about locations, water temperatures and mineral contents, restrictions, near by lodging and other services, and local customs, e.g., a big one …… whether soaking in a particular hot springs is ‘clothing optional’, as many are.  Excellent published directories are also available, e.g., two we used:  Hot Springs & Hot Pools of the Southwest (Marjorie Gersh-Young, published by Aqua Thermal Access) and Touring Montana and Wyoming Hot Springs (Jeff Birkby, Falcon Guides).

Our online search and reviews of the directories identified hundreds of options of all types but comparing the choices with the general itinerary we had already developed …. and knowing we preferred in this trip springs connected to ‘comforts’ ….. we identified four small hot springs inns:  one in Idaho, two in Montana, and one in New Mexico.

Our first soak came after several days on the road so we almost raced to slide into a pre-dinner soak in the hot water pools of the Riverside Inn in Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, about 25 miles southeast of Pocatello and convenient to Yellowstone National Park and Jackson, Wyoming.  The inn was built in 1914 on the banks of the Portneuf River and was referred to as the ‘Honeymoon Hotel’ in its early years.  The inn has 4 indoor tubs in its basement, each roomy enough for 6-8 people, and an outdoor hot tub big enough for 3-4.  Soakers determine the clothing requirement in the indoor pools but the outdoor hot tub is swimsuit required.  The indoor pools were very pleasantly hot and the outdoor tub was almost too hot but it certainly took away the aches and pains!  In my outdoor soak I enjoyed the mouthwatering aroma of BBQ ribs coming from the open windows of the inn’s restaurant, perhaps the best in the little town.  The inn has 18 rooms, some without showers. 

Lava Hot Springs is home to several other small hotels and B&Bs, too, some with their own hot water pools.  There is a walking path through town along the Portneuf and the energetic can rent rubber inner tubes to float along the river.  Melting winter snows in our visit in late May had made the river too dangerous for a float, though.  Skiing and snowboarding in winter are available in nearby Pebble Creek Ski Area and visitors can cross country ski and ride snowmobiles in many nearby areas.  And the hot pools await at the end of each day!  The word on Lava Hot Springs must be out …… we noticed several Chinese tourists strolling along the town’s streets! 

Our next overnight was in the rustic Elkhorn Hot Springs, Montana, located in the tall trees of the Pioneer Mountains about 50 miles southwest of Butte.  The mountain resort is located less than a mile from a major highway but there are no ‘services’ available for many miles so be prepared.  The resort’s large outdoor pool through which one can swim has water at 98 degrees and there is a ‘wet sauna’ in the adjacent bathhouse with water between 104-106 degrees.  An attendant provides towels and robes to soakers.  We were the only guests in this ‘off season’ between the end of winter sports and Memorial Day weekend so we passed on one of the 11 cabins and spread out instead in the 10 room lodge, taking an upstairs room for sleeping and one across the hall for our bags.  The upstairs floor had a single toilet and guest showers were in the bath house.  The downstairs bar, dining area, and gift shop had the only TV so we watched a movie and ‘news’ with the bartender before we went to bed.  I walked around the grounds early in the morning, watching unsuccessfully for bears but did startle three deer as they moved slowly among the buildings.  The pools and lodge manager cooked a hearty breakfast just right for ‘mountain air’ appetites and just for the two of us!          
Having gotten into the ‘hot springs’ mode, we continued northward into the Flathead Indian Reservation for soaks and an overnight in the Symes Hot Springs Hotel and Mineral Baths in Hot Springs, Montana.  The hotel could have been taken from Tucson’s desert ….. a pink mission-style building built in 1928.  We knew we were in the right place when we saw two outdoor pools only a few feet from the hotel’s entrance and the tops of a few soakers’ heads.  Hot water flows from a 250 ft deep artesian well in a smaller, upper pool at 102-104 degrees and it cools slightly as it cascades into a larger, lower pool.  The lobby is filled with magazines, books, and lots of interesting things to peruse.  On one side of the lobby is a small restaurant and on the other is a hallway lined by rooms with small tubs for private soaking and the hotel’s men’s and women’s changing rooms with its only showers.  Guest rooms are upstairs, each with a basin and toilet.  We enjoyed a long soak in the lower pool and an interesting conversation with a local couple who visit Symes often.  My wife enjoyed the lady’s description of the shrubbery and flowers we saw unique to this hot springs area.  In my walk around Hot Springs the next morning I saw more of the most amazing shrubs and flowers, clearly the product of the area’s remarkable geology.  Hot Springs is small but it has all a ‘road tripper’ needs ….. gasoline station, restaurants, and a small grocery store.                     
Our trip continued for the next several days without our soaks, so we were excited when we stayed the last night before returning to Tucson in the La Paloma Hot Springs Hotel and Spa in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.  Located within walking distance of the restaurants, shops, and galleries in TorC’s historic district beside the Rio Grande River, the hotel’s cabins were originally built for the workers who constructed the Elephant Butte Lake Dam in the early 1920s and were moved to their current location after the dam’s completion in 1922.  The hotel has 8 guest rooms, some with kitchenettes, plus a two bedroom cottage, all just steps from its 5 private pools of continuously flowing hot mineral water.  There is also a large ‘conference’ room which is used for meetings, reunions, weddings, and frequent yoga classes.  The pools’ bottoms were lined with smooth river rocks, a most enjoyable sensation.  Massages and other spa services could be arranged through the hotel.  Our room had a small kitchenette and toilet but the shower was in the soaking area.    

Inspired by our four hot springs visits, we are glad to know there are still hundreds on our to visit list in this West of ours.  Now, if our friends will note our healthier, glowing complexions, they will insist upon accompanying us!