Where Hot Meets Cold
Posted as fire lookouts deep in the forests of Idaho, Jim and Caroline Huntley became accustomed to living off the grid, and they were always up for a nice warm soak in a natural hot spring.
In the heart of Idaho, such springs are relatively plentiful, even if they aren’t exactly common—or even known to exist—in the state’s panhandle, where the Huntleys lived when they weren’t working for the Forest Service.
A number of years ago, during one of their visits to Burgdorf Hot Springs outside McCall, the Huntleys inquired about whether the caretakers needed any help. As it turned out, they did, and so the Huntleys became caretakers of Burgdorf in 2013.
“We fell in love,” Caroline Huntley said. “It just worked out so well with our lifestyle.” Now it is their full-time residence, minus, perhaps, two weeks of the year when they can get back to their cabin north of Sandpoint.
“It’s one of those things where it’s all or nothing,” she said.
Natural hot springs don’t abound near Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, but many are within a three- or four-hour drive, worthy of a weekend away. They come in numerous shapes, temperatures, sizes and levels of rustic-ness, and they contain various levels and varieties of minerals, but they are there to be had.
And in an age when word spreads easily on blogs, websites and other online words-of-mouth, hot springs can be found—and enjoyed—by people of all ages. The distance to drive, hike or even snowmobile will vary, though, by the site and by the season.
To the North
One of the best-known hot springs in the region is at Ainsworth, about a four-hour drive and a border crossing away from the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene area, in British Columbia.
The Ktunaxa people (pronounced K-too-nah-ha) have been soaking in the waters around Ainsworth for generations. Pools were built and caves commercialized in the 1930s, according to the resort’s website, and in 2015 it was purchased by the Lower Kootenay Band.
“They’ve made a huge amount of upgrades,” said Matt Brown, pool supervisor and safety director at Ainsworth. “It’s been incredibly positive.”
Guests can keep their experience entirely contained to the full-service resort, which has rooms and restaurants on-site. People can also purchase single-entry or day passes. Temperatures in the pool are kept between 97 and 100 degrees, while the caves are about 10 degrees warmer.
“What sets us apart is the unique nature of having the caves,” Brown said. “It’s kind of like having your hot springs and steam room at the same time.”
To the East
Within the Clearwater Forest east of Lewiston, then along a line north toward Flathead Lake in Montana, there are a number of hot springs. Their level of accessibility varies from those that can only be reached on foot or snowshoe to those that can be reached by car.
Along Highway 12 in Idaho sits, among other natural springs, the Jerry Johnson Hot Springs, which require a 2-mile round-trip hike. There are three main soaking pools that are best accessed in the summer and winter. Other similar, natural, undeveloped pools abound in the area. Just be sure to pack in, pack out, and to follow “leave no trace” principles.
In Montana, less than an hour northeast of St. Regis, sits the Symes Hot Springs Hotel in the town of Hot Springs. The Symes has three soaking pools ranging in temperature from 95 to 107 degrees and can be accessed just for the day or as part of a guest package at the hotel. It also houses a restaurant and coffee bar.
A couple blocks away is Alameda’s, a spa-motel built in the 1930s. Unlike other resorts, there is no common pool but instead each room contains a mineral bath of its own.
“It’s kind of like going to Grandma’s house. We try to keep it that feel,” said Paul Stelter, the general manager of Alameda’s Hot Springs Retreat, which operates using a co-op model. “It’s crazy out there right now. Everything is fast-paced, and there’s not really a lot of places you can go for peace and quiet. People sleep really well here.”
Stelter said the town of Hot Springs boasts amenities that few towns of its size—about 520 residents—can claim, and that its waters are among the best in the world.
“Baden-Baden is the centerpiece of hot springs, the place everyone attains to be,” he said of the German spa town. “Nobody in this country comes close to it, but our water does.” Stelter said the waters at Alameda’s are so soft that they provide this “beautiful, light, silky feeling.”
About halfway between Hot Springs (the town) and St. Regis is Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort, just south of Paradise, Montana. Named after an immigrant and miner, Martin Quinn, it was first developed in the 1880s. Now it contains lodges and cabins of various sizes as well as a tavern and restaurant.
The springs at Quinn’s range in temperature from 89 to 106 degrees and are available to lodge guests as well as walk-in visitors, though reservations are advised.
To the South
Somewhere between a pool that requires a 5-mile hike to reach an all-inclusive resort lies the Burgdorf Hot Springs. It can be reached by car in the summer and early fall, but once the snows come, it can only be accessed by snowmobile.
“It was always really quiet, subdued. Burgdorf is unique in terms of being so rustic,” Caroline Huntley said. “Given that you can do a Google search and Burgdorf comes up pretty easily, that has expanded the business quite a bit. We’re trying to keep it so it still feels like you stumbled upon it.”
About an hour by car north of McCall, Burgdorf is busiest in the summer, Huntley said, and then it closes in late fall, once the road becomes impassable by car due to the snow. It reopens usually just before Christmas, and then can be accessed only by snowmobile. Companies in McCall will rent snowmobiles, or guests are welcome to ride in on their own.
Like many hot springs, Burgdorf was first established as a destination for miners, who would come to take a bath and a break, Huntley said. It was sold in the 1920s to the current owner’s grandfather. It is rare in that it is a private holding amid a national forest, with hiking trails and other outdoor adventures around it.
“It has always been a place people come to soak and stay,” she said. “It’s a really amazing place to recreate.”
About 45 minutes south of McCall—and more accessible year-round by car—is Gold Fork Hot Springs. The day-use only site contains multiple mineral pools of varying temperatures. Closed on Tuesdays, it only accepts cash to pay for admission.
As with all locations, it is advisable to check resort websites for updated information and more about amenities and costs.
Other hot springs can be found around North Idaho and Western Montana, and many can be hiked to year-round. There may be no better reward for a hike through the snow than a soak in a natural hot spring—especially one that was not so easily found by a Google search.