This July, I set out to explore the highs and lows of the Idaho Hot Springs Route, a 500-mile loop past 50 natural spas and through countless epic vistas. Although I was initially intimidated by the rough terrain and remoteness of the trip, after a bit of research and the largest tires she could fit on my bike, I found that there really aint no mountain high enough to keep me from getting to a good hotspring. I shared my experiences on Pretty Damned Fast
The Route The Idaho Hot Springs route was developed by the Adventure Cycling Association, a nonprofit that prepares bike touring routes and empowers people to travel by bicycle. The maps they produce are meticulously researched, marking every food store, bike shop and climb along your journey. Over the years I’ve explored much of their route network, often eschewing their careful preparation in favor of cutting my own course. I’ve daydreamed about the Hot springs Route for years, and following Adventure Cycling’s advice to the letter was much more appealing when traveling along unnamed forest service roads through a region with virtually no cell service. Their advice on hot springs is also on point, leading many locals to exclaim ‘How did you hear about that one?!' when we mentioned our soaking itinerary for the trip.
The main loop is 518 miles through occupied Shoshone territory, with a staggering 37,000 feet of climbing through the craggy peaks of the Sawtooth and Salmon River Mountain Ranges, primarily along gravel forest service roads. There are also over 200 miles of single-track mountain biking trails which loop off these roads, leading you even deeper into the forest. With time and vacation days both being limited resources, my partner Brandon and I opted to do just the northern half of the loop and found a DIY shortcut back to our car after 300 miles.
The Springs The Sawtooth range is gorgeous and all, but the real attraction was the hot springs. This region has the highest concentration of hot springs in North America. Here, the earth’s crust has been stretched thin by the intersecting mountain ranges, so that groundwater is heated by our planet’s core and shoots to the surface through fractures in the rock at temperatures around 180 degrees Fahrenheit. People have been drawn to these geologic oddities for as long as we know. The native Shoshone and Nez Perce people celebrated them for their spiritual, cultural, and medicinal qualities, making this region particularly important to their tribes. The route compiled by Adventure Cycling highlights 50 springs, ranging from developed lodges to small rock-walled pools.
What to bring and when to go The high mountain passes are only accessible from June, and snow starts accumulating in late September. The National Forest Service puts admirable effort into maintaining even the most remote paths, re-grading them once or twice during the short 4 or 5 months when the region isn't snowbound, but many remote roads aren’t fixed up until midsummer. This window is cut short by the growing danger of forest fires in August. In early July, we found that most of the roads were well maintained and the effort of each climb was rewarded lavishly with clear skies and epic views (and did I mention the hot springs?). We encountered one stretch of road that hadn’t been re-graded, and these few hours were the only time where I doubted my choice to ride a steel gravel bike. Many people complete the loop on hardtail mountain bikes to be more prepared for these sections, but I found that would have been a bit too sluggish for my taste along the many miles of pavement and generally well-maintained forest service roads. We called the ranger station to check on the status of the roads on our loop before leaving, which was incredibly helpful. If you have any concerns or are considering a ‘short cut’, I would recommend this.
With tightly secured bags and 43mm+ tires, the route is easily traversable with a rigid touring or gravel bike.
It is essential to be prepared for emergencies and bring a pump or tablets to purify water. I made dehydrated meals for every day of the trip, however, we traveled through a town where we could replenish our snacks every day. Given the elevation gain, the best thing you can carry with you is LESS. Considering the relative isolation of the route, you don’t need to worry about folks judging your smelly clothes, using a toothbrush with the handle cut off, or drinking coffee out of your cooking pot. Some key items to add to your usual bike packing list:
Water filter. There are plenty of mountain springs but very few faucets.
Bug spray (and net and hat and screen and…basically there are a lot of bugs)
Whatever your potion to deal with rough roads is. This trip I was very into my 7-year-old saggy Brooks saddle, chamois cream, and two extra layers of gel bar tape over my brake hoods.
Food bag and rope to hang your snacks away from the critters (there are occasional bear sightings but no bear lockers)
Stories from the trip We started our trip from the small town of Crouch, on the fourth of July. My partner Brandon and myself made quite odd additions to the local 4th of July parade, our saddlebags waving behind us. We wove through barbecues and groups of children betting their allowances on duck races before turning off onto a gravel road and beginning the climb to Boiling Springs. The roads in the area are a bright white crushed gravel, which becomes tightly packed and generally smooth, and makes for a striking contrast against the shadows of the surrounding forests. We quickly climbed out of the dirt bike and four-wheeler traffic from the vacationers below, and easily found a campsite right next to the Middle Fork of the Payette with easy soaking access.
Things are heating up at Boiling Springs!
On the second day, we climbed over the North Fork Mountain Range, revealing Long Valley extending almost a hundred miles ahead of us. The route climbs over plenty of craggy peaks, which are perfectly balanced by fertile, boggy valleys at their bases. After bouncing down the rutted-out roads and rocky switchbacks on the west side of the mountain, we arrived on the lush valley floor. The road wound through pastures and past popular tubing spots, leading us straight to Clear Creek Station, the best combination RV park and pizza parlor I have ever experienced. Unfortunately, after ordering a pizza for four, two orders of Jalapeño poppers, and a side of fries, we remembered we still had 30 miles to go to soak in our preferred hot spring that night. After discarding all the empty plates, we revealed our map and realized we could easily knock off 2000 ft of climbing and 5 miles by veering off of the Adventure Cycling Route and following the North Fork of the Payette River through the valley to Gold Fork Hot springs. Gold Fork is the only developed hot springs we stopped at. Being able to grab another ice-cold seltzer water from the yurt/store just a few steps away from the pools made up for the constant squeals of children. Once we were completely sedated by the warm water, we realized we still needed to figure out where we were sleeping that night. The lovely gentleman running the springs offered to let us camp anywhere we wanted on the property and recommended a clearing tucked into the bend of the river.
Beginning the descent into Long Valley
On the third day, we wound through several small towns, all abuzz with summer visitors even though the roads a quarter of a mile outside their limits were almost completely car-free. We pursued the regionally renowned Roseberry Craft Market before stopping for breakfast at a bar primarily catering to the other type of biker in Cascade. From there we continued to McCall and filled up on pastries and cherries from their quaint lakeside farmers market before continuing out into the wild. Temporarily satiated, we looped around Little Payette Lake before pulling off the pavement and beginning the gravel climb up to Lick Creek Summit.
Suddenly, we were in the heart of the mountains.
The road was dusty and hot, earning us pitied stares from several mountain bikers driving past us to start their rides at the top of the climb. It repeatedly pitched up, mandating several snack breaks, and inspiring a truck of concerned mountain bikers to stop and offer us some of their icy cooler water. The climb on the southern slope is nondescript, but after another 2,000 feet of elevation gain, the forest began to thin and open out into rock fields scattered with wildflowers. When we finally reached the top of Lick Creek Summit, the ground below us fell away into one of the most epic vistas of the entire trip. Suddenly, we were in the heart of the mountains. In any direction, there is nothing but steep granite rock faces crashing down into the river hewn crevasses below. The few trees are chiseled from the high mountain winters and cling onto the cliffs in impossibly tiny reservoirs of soil. We stopped to refill our water bottles from a glacial stream cascading through the boulders and wash off the dust from the 2.5-hour climb. Lick Creek Road is perched on the side of a cliff, making for an exhilarating descent. We bounced of huge chunks of the mountain that stuck out of the finely crushed gravel as we careened into the valley at 30 mph. The grade began to level out as we entered the pristine old-growth forests of the Payette National Forest, before bottoming out at the confluence of the Secesh River and the South Fork of the Salmon River.
Approaching Lick Creek Summit with that ‘OMG is this REALLY the TOP?!’ smile
We turned south, following the Salmon River deeper into the mountains. The few cars that passed us had giant poles with hooks and ropes attached to them. It took me a second to realize that the indigenous Shoshone and Nez Perce peoples still camp here, and many families had set up camp for the salmon run. We passed several campsites with tepees and huge family kitchens set up and saw more trucks go buy ladened with coolers full of fresh salmon and traditional fishing and camping gear. Almost 70 miles into a long day, we were relieved to land on pavement again. A thin road barely 10 feet wide carried us the last ten miles to camp. Almost delirious with exhaustion, we dumped our bags at 4 Mile Campground and stumbled one last mile to 16 Mile Hot springs (I know, my math was getting pretty fuzzy at this point too). This soaking spot was one of the gems of the trip. A few rock pools are tucked into the rocky walls of the Salmon River, Just a few feet away from its icy water but over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. After a long soak and a few plunges into the river, the miles practically melted off our quads. That evening we shared our campsite with an extended native family, who were cooking a veritable feast of wild-caught salmon over a roaring fire. When we finally settled into camp at almost 9.30pm, our dehydrated mac and cheese and curry pouches tasted like the most delectable feast themselves.
A dip in a mountain stream will wake you up even after 5k feet of climbing
The next morning, we continued to follow the tiny little road along the Salmon River. The route hugs the shore, before climbing up a few hundred feet to another vista and then descending back into the valley. In another 5 miles, the mountains on either side of us began to open, releasing us into an alpine meadow. Still stiff from the previous days' climb, we were happy to forgo the epic vista for the views of an almost endless field of wildflowers. We stopped at The North Shore Lodge along the extensive shores of Warm Lake, where I had one of the most satisfying grilled cheese sandwiches of my life and at least 5 glasses of cold, icy sweet tea... made only slightly less sweet by the raised eyebrows we got from the car driving folks at the bar when we told them we were heading up to Deadwood Summit. We ordered another serving of jalapeño poppers because we knew there was a big climb coming up.
By this point, it was 90 degrees and the easy rolling and extra speed of the blacktop did not make up for heat radiating off it. We began trudging up Landmark Rock, accompanied only by the eerie howling of the wind through a few emaciated stands of trees. The road wound into the mountain, charting an illogical course which I refuse to believe was the least painful way to the top. After a dozen switchbacks or so, we reached a saddle in the ridge with sweeping views over Warm Lake and across the valley that was funneling the wind into our faces. After an invigorating 1k descent, we turned off the pavement and began the trudge up to Deadwood Summit. Even in early July, the snow at 7,000 feet hadn’t been melted for long enough for the Forest Service to grade this road. The center of the road was worn into a relentless washboard, and the sides were pockmarked by giant potholes. We wove back and forth across the road, failing to find a line that was a bit easier on the wrists, and dodging the RVs which were somehow much more prevalent on this stretch of road than any of the others leading to it. The elevation and the relentless shaking were wearing me down, and Brandon’s supportive reassurances that we were getting close to a snack stop started to seem more ridiculous as my pessimism grew and the shadows in the never-ending woods on every side of us started to get longer.
Fueled by his encouragement (and several packets of gels), we finally passed a rather unremarkable sign reading ‘Deadwood Summit: 6860' and began a rough and rutted descent. The road finally dropped us in front of a 20-foot-tall sign welded from horseshoes reading DEADWOOD OUTFITTERS. When the dust settled, we realized that we had stumbled on a dude ranch that offers wolf hunts along the outskirts of the River of No Return Wilderness, and more importantly DORITOS. After smashing two bags of chips under the glassy-eyed stares of several elk heads, we felt well enough outfitted to take on the next 18 miles of poorly maintained roads to Bear Valley Campground. With no one to be found within ten miles of us, I stripped down and jumped into the cool stream that surrounded our campsite to soak my aching wrists. The next day we veered off the Adventure Cycling route, cutting across the Boise National Forest on a wide road we had verified were well graded with a ranger and the hunting guides at Deadwood. It was a relief to turn on to a road that was level and start moving along at a jauntier clip. We descended back down to the Payette River along a series of white-knuckled switchbacks, drawn forward by the next hot spring and a hefty dose of gravity. For our grand finale, we stopped at one of the most striking hot springs on the route, Pine Flats, which (somewhat ironically) was easily accessible from a paved, well-marked parking lot just off the County Highway. From a series of pools that are built into the side of the cliff above the river, you can peer over the sulfur yellow rocks and watch the turquoise rapids 100 feet below. Refreshed and slightly less dusty, we headed back to the car ready to face the challenges of everyday life again.