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Clearwater National Forest

Clearwater National Forest

Idaho

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Northern Region

1,722,132 acres (1,679,952 federal/ 42,180 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/nezperceclearwater

Overview

In central Idaho, Clearwater National Forest was established in 1908 and administratively combined with Nez Perce National Forest in 2012.  A great place to start is the Forest Service visitor center at Lolo Pass on the Idaho-Montana border southwest of Missoula, where you will learn about the Corps of Discovery’s visit in 1805.  Elsewhere, the North Fork of the Clearwater River ends in the Dworshak Reservoir where a separate section of the National Forest can be explored on the White Pine Scenic Byway and Elk River Backcountry Byway.  The latter accesses Giant Cedar Grove and Elk Creek Falls, which is three separate waterfalls totaling a 140-foot drop.

Highlights

White Pine Scenic Byway, Lolo Pass, Lolo Motorway, DeVoto Memorial Grove, Colgate Licks, Jerry Johnson Hot Springs, Shoestring Falls, Elk Creek Falls, Giant Cedar Grove, Aquarius Natural Area, Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) National Historic Trail, and Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, Down River Trail, Beason Meadows National Recreation Trail

Must-Do Activity

Most of the recreational activity in Clearwater National Forest occurs along the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway (Highway 12), which runs west from the Lolo Pass visitor center along the Lochsa National Wild and Scenic River.  The legendary dirt road called the Lolo Motorway (see below) can be accessed from several points along this route.  Both the famous Jerry Johnson Hot Springs and the smaller Weir Creek Hot Springs are reachable from roadside trailheads.  Also along Highway 12, short trails lead through the DeVoto Memorial Grove of western redcedars and Colgate Licks mineral springs.

Best Trail

From parking areas on both sides of Highway 12, it is only about a one-mile easy walk to Jerry Johnson Hot Springs where multiple pools can be found creekside and uphill at the source.  The trail continues along Warm Springs Creek into the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and beyond. 

Watchable Wildlife

The North Fork of the Clearwater and the Lochsa Rivers provide habitat for fish and water-loving animals like moose, raccoons, river otters, muskrats, beavers, fishers, ospreys, and bald eagles.  The mountains are home to elk, mule deer, mountain goats, black bears, martens, red foxes, gray wolves, and mountain lions.

Instagram-worthy Photo

A short trail leads through the DeVoto Memorial Grove of western redcedars, named for author Bernard DeVoto.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The scenic 73-mile Lolo Motorway is a single-lane, dirt road that tracks both the Nez Perce (Nee-Me-Poo) and Lewis and Clark National Historic Trails.  Also labeled Forest Road 500, it follows a ridgeline north of the Lochsa River and several steep access roads climb to meet it from Highway 12.  High-clearance vehicles (or motorcycles) are a must and four-wheel drive is required on the rougher western end of the route.  Driving up Parachute Hill Forest Road 569 and down Saddle Camp Forest Road 107 makes for a good four-hour loop with short stops at the Indian Post Office and Devils Chair.

Camping

Although it is close to Highway 12, the pleasant Jerry Johnson Campground is one of several campgrounds found along the Lochsa National Wild and Scenic River and located only a short drive from the trailhead for the hot springs.

Wilderness Areas

Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness (also in Bitterroot, Nez Perce, and Lolo National Forests)

Related Sites

Challis National Forest (Idaho)

Big Hole National Battlefield (Montana)

Nez Perce National Historical Park (Idaho-Oregon-Montana)

Nearest National Park

Glacier

Conifer Tree Species

western redcedar, western larch, grand fir, subalpine fir, Douglas-fir, Engelmann spruce, western white pine, ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, limber pine, whitebark pine, Pacific yew, Rocky Mountain juniper

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, Pacific dogwood, red alder, balsam poplar, paper birch, Piper’s hawthorn

Explore More – What famous group built the 73-mile-long Lolo Motorway in the 1930s?

Learn more about Clearwater and the 154 other National Forests in our new guidebook Out in the Woods

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Challis National Forest

Challis National Forest

Idaho

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Intermountain Region

2,488,105 acres (2,463,471 federal/ 24,634 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/scnf/

Overview

Challis National Forest covers the southern portion of the co-managed Salmon-Challis National Forest in central Idaho.  It includes the northern parts of Sawtooth National Recreation Area and a section of the Salmon Wild and Scenic River, as well as several northwest-southeast running mountain ranges.  In the forest’s scenic Lost River Range, 12,667-foot Borah Peak is the highest point in Idaho.  Further south near Arco, a steep half-mile trail leads to King Mountain Natural Arch in Bridge Canyon, a limestone formation with an 80-foot span. 

Highlights

Salmon River Scenic Byway, Stanley Museum, Sunbeam Hot Springs, Custer Adventure Motorway, Yankee Fork Hot Springs, Lemhi Range, White Knob Mountains, Camas Meadows, Challis Creek Lakes, Hidden Mouth Cave, Sawtooth Lake, White Cloud Peaks, Grover Creek Lake, Borah Peak

Must-Do Activity

The Salmon River Scenic Byway runs 162 miles to Lost Trail Pass, starting in Stanley where it intersects with the Sawtooth and Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byways.  Challis National Forest manages the free Stanley Museum there inside the historic Valley Creek Ranger Station.  Further down the road, the Sunbeam Bathhouse was built in 1937 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) at a hot springs on the Salmon River where people still go to soak seeking the perfect spot between the frigid river and scalding spring water.

Best Trail

We previously covered the trail to stunning Sawtooth Lake in our post on Sawtooth National Recreation Area.  While it is not for everyone due to its strenuousness, we will write here about the route up 12,667-foot Borah Peak.  From its beginning (which we started in the dark) the entire trail is incredibly steep, so much so that we ran back down the final two miles because it was easier on our knees.  The route gains 5,400 feet of elevation in 4.5 miles and often requires the use of your hands, but no special climbing equipment.  Even if you decide to turn around at Chicken-Out Ridge before ascending the Knife Edge, the panoramic scenery is well worth the effort.

Watchable Wildlife

This is a fairly arid portion of the west, so you are more likely to see a ground squirrel or coyote than any other wildlife.  Trout fishing is a popular activity in the Salmon River.  Large mammalian species include elk, mule deer, pronghorns, and black bears.  Ravens and a variety of birds of prey catch the thermals around Borah Peak.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The view of King Mountain Natural Arch’s 80-foot span is arguably better while driving in than it is after ascending the treacherous final mile of road and hiking the steep half-mile trail to its overlook (see below).

Peak Season

Late summer due to snowpack

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The road from Highway 93 to the Borah Peak Campground and Trailhead is well maintained.  The last mile of road to the trailhead for King Mountain Natural Arch requires a high-clearance vehicle, but the nine miles of unpaved roads before that are decent and well signed (although we got a flat tire).

Camping

The campground at the base of Borah Peak is only $5 per night and allows climbers to get an early start.  There are many campgrounds along the Salmon River Scenic Byway and historic Yankee Fork Road/ Custer Adventure Motorway.

Wilderness Areas

Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (also in Bitterroot, Boise, Nez Perce, Payette, and Salmon National Forests)

Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness (also run by the Bureau of Land Management)

Sawtooth Wilderness (also in Boise and Sawtooth National Forests)

Related Sites

Caribou National Forest (Idaho-Utah-Wyoming)

Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve (Idaho)

Minidoka National Historic Site (Idaho-Washington)

Nearest National Park

Yellowstone

Conifer Tree Species

Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, limber pine, whitebark pine, Douglas-fir, Rocky Mountain juniper

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, water birch, Rocky Mountain maple, boxelder, Bebb willow, blue elderberry, chokecherry, curlleaf mountain-mahogany, white alder, syringa, sagebrush

Explore More – How many Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps were in Idaho during the Great Depression?

Learn more about Challis and the 154 other National Forests in our new guidebook Out in the Woods

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Boise National Forest

Boise National Forest

Idaho

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Intermountain Region

2,959,305 acres (2,654,004 federal/ 305,301 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/boise

Overview

Boise National Forest is famous for its gold rush ghost towns and hot springs along the South Fork of the Payette River.  The best way to explore this National Forest is by stopping along three scenic byways: Ponderosa Pine (Highway 21), Wildlife Canyon (Highway 24), and Payette River (Highway 55) Scenic Byways.  Ghost towns dating back to the 1860s include Atlanta, Banner, Brummer, Graham, Pioneerville, Quartzburg, Thunder, and the more-developed Idaho City.

Highlights

Sawtooth National Recreation Area, Payette River Scenic Byway, Big Falls, Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, Kirkham Hot Springs, Sage Hen Reservoir, Dagger Falls, Atlanta ghost town, Trinity Recreation Area, Ardeth Lake, Velvet Falls, Baron Lakes, Kirkham Ridge Trail, Idaho Centennial Trail

Must-Do Activity

Starting in Boise, Idaho, the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway (Highway 21) leads 131 miles northeast through Boise National Forest.  Be sure to stop (and try some delicious huckleberry ice cream) in Idaho City, where wooden board sidewalks and unpaved streets take you back to the gold rush era.  Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway continues to Lowman where it follows the South Fork of the Payette River past the campgrounds at Kirkham and Bonneville Hot Springs (reservations recommended) and up to 7,056-foot Banner Summit at the boundary with Challis National Forest.

Best Trail

Located just three miles east of Highway 55 and Lake Cascade along paved Warm Creek Road is the Eagle Nest Trail.  Look for the parking pullout on the south side of the road across from the big rock that marks the entrance to the Eagle Nest neighborhood.  After crossing the road, the Eagle Nest Trail steadily climbs (from 4,850 to 6,050 feet in the first 2.5 miles) and occasionally opens up for views of the mountains above Cascade Lake.  Located further south, Fool Creek Trail drops 2,728 feet in 4.1 miles to the Middle Fork of the Payette River.

Watchable Wildlife

On a smoky September morning on the Eagle Nest Trail, we saw fresh turkey and mule deer prints in the dirt.  Other common large animals include elk, moose, pronghorns, coyotes, and black bears.  At higher elevations watch for mountain goats, pikas, and yellow-bellied marmots.  In addition to several trout species, chinook and sockeye salmon migrate up the Columbia and Snake Rivers.  Non-migratory Kokanee salmon are native to Warm Lake, plus introduced into Anderson Ranch, Arrowrock, Lucky Peak, and Deadwood Reservoirs.  

Instagram-worthy Photo

In Sawtooth National Recreation Area, 10,190-foot Mt. Regan stands at the south end of Sawtooth Lake marking the boundary between Challis and Boise National Forests.

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

There is a day-use fee at parking areas near hot springs

Road Conditions

Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway is winding and full of switchbacks, so take your time.  Warm Creek Road is paved to the roadside trailhead for Eagle Nest.  The Grandjean Road back to the campground is unpaved, but open year round.

Camping

Most of the campgrounds along Highway 21 take reservations due to their popularity.  We have read good things about the 31 sites in the Grandjean Campground (first-come, first-served) on the South Fork of the Payette River (hot springs are 1.5 miles away) near the western boundary of the Sawtooth Wilderness.

Wilderness Areas

Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness (also in Payette, Salmon-Challis, Bitterroot, and Nez Perce National Forests)

Sawtooth Wilderness (also in Sawtooth and Challis National Forests)

Related Sites

Sawtooth National Recreation Area (Idaho)

Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument (Idaho)

Nez Perce National Historical Park (Idaho-Oregon-Washington-Montana)

Nearest National Park

Yellowstone (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

Conifer Tree Species

ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, whitebark pine, Douglas-fir, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, western larch

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, black cottonwood, narrowleaf cottonwood, thinleaf alder, water birch, Rocky Mountain maple, chokecherry, sagebrush

Explore More – Boise National Forest is full of water with 15,400 acres covered by lakes and reservoirs, plus how many miles of streams and rivers?

Beaverhead National Forest

Beaverhead National Forest

Montana

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Northern Region

2,199,013 acres (2,130,671 federal/ 68,342 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/bdnf

Overview

Co-managed since 1996, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is spread across multiple mountain ranges in the southwest corner of Montana.  The dividing boundaries between the two forests are unclear, though Beaverhead National Forest tends to be more southeast than Deerlodge National Forest and includes portions of the Beaverhead, Bitterroot, Centennial, Gravelly, Madison, Pioneer, Tendoy, and Tobacco Root Mountains.  Bordering Idaho’s Salmon National Forest, 7,323-foot Lemhi Pass is located on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.  This is where the Corps of Discovery crossed the Continental Divide in 1805 and is why the Sacajawea Memorial Area was established here in 1932.

Highlights

Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway, Lemhi Pass, Sacajawea Memorial, Chief Joseph Pass, Pintler Falls, Upper Potosi Hot Springs, Charcoal Kilns, Gravelly Range Auto Tour, Nez Perce National Historic Trail, Continental Divide National Scenic Trail

Must-Do Activity

It is about a 17-mile drive from Harrison, Montana back to the free Potosi Campground, but it is well signed and worth the effort.  From here a 0.8-mile trail leads to Upper Potosi Hot Springs, a clear 100°F pool with room for about six adults.  Further west, about ten miles north of Highway 278, is the privately owned Elkhorn Hot Springs (fee), a great place to relax after hiking around Big Hole National Battlefield (managed by the National Park Service).  If you keep driving north on Wise River Polaris Road (FR 484), there are plenty of dispersed campsites and trailheads for several long hikes into the Pioneer Mountains.

Best Trail

We only hiked less than a mile trail to Upper Potosi Hot Springs, but that trail keeps climbing three miles to the top of the ridge.  We read good reviews for Louise Lake National Recreation Trail (see note on Road Conditions below), Pioneer Lake National Recreation Trail, Browns Lake Trail, Blue Creek Trail, Sand Lake/Lily Lake Trail, and Gold Butte Trail.  Hopefully we will make it back here to go backpacking someday.

Watchable Wildlife

Beaverhead National Forest still has most of its pre-settlement carnivores: grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, Canadian lynx, coyotes, and gray wolves.  Grazing ungulate species include moose, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and pronghorns.  We saw bald eagles and ospreys on our drive out from Upper Potosi Hot Springs.  Mountain whitefish, golden trout, cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, brook trout, lake trout, arctic grayling, and burbot are some of the gamefish sought by fishermen.

Instagram-worthy Photo

The ruins of a developed hot springs resort (located on private land) are visible from Upper Potosi Hot Springs.  Watch for moose downhill in South Willow Creek and a cute little garter snake that hangs out in the rocks by the pool (possibly year round if it stays warm enough not to hibernate).

Peak Season

Summer

Fees

None

Road Conditions

The dirt roads to Potosi Campground and over Lemhi Pass are both in very good condition, but we do not know about all the other dirt roads that cross the Continental Divide.  We read the access road to Louise Lake National Recreation Trail is pretty rough, requiring four-wheel drive the last two miles.

Camping

There are more than 20 spots to set up at Potosi Campground, which is free and located near the trailhead for Upper Potosi Hot Springs.  You will want a high-clearance vehicle to drive across South Willow Creek to the official trailhead, but there are also pedestrian bridges.

Wilderness Areas

Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness (also in Deerlodge and Bitterroot National Forests)

Lee Metcalf Wilderness (also in Gallatin National Forest)

Related Sites

Deerlodge National Forest (Montana)

Big Hole National Battlefield (Montana)

Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site (Montana)

Nearest National Park

Yellowstone (Wyoming-Montana-Idaho)

Conifer Tree Species

lodgepole pine, whitebark pine, ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, subalpine larch

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, balsam poplar, Bebb willow, sagebrush

Explore More – How tall is Hilgard Peak, the highest point in Beaverhead National Forest?

Hot Springs National Park

Overview

The hot springs that give this Arkansas town its name were the first site ever set aside by the federal government for protection way back in 1832.  That was forty years before Yellowstone National Park came into existence, and is the reason Hot Springs National Park was commemorated as the first minted of the America the Beautiful Coin Collection in 2010.  It is also the reason that Hot Springs is unlike any other National Park in the system, checking in at only 5,550 acres on either side of a bustling downtown lined with historic bathhouses.

Hot Springs National Park is not one of the 50 covered in great detail in our guidebook to the National Parks (available on Amazon), but as one of the 63 National Parks it is included with a photo.

Highlights

Fordyce Bathhouse, West Mountain Scenic Drive, Goat Rock, Hot Springs Mountain Tower, Balanced Rock

Must-Do Activity

When you visit, it is best to start at the National Park Service (NPS) museum within the former Fordyce Bathhouse, where you will learn that the water is heated not by volcanic activity but by gravitational compression.  Whether or not you pay to soak in the non-sulfurous waters at a privately-owned bathhouse, be sure to fill up a bottle at one of several mineral rich drinking fountains around town.  Then you too can “quaff the elixir” the same way tourists have been doing here for nearly 200 years.

Best Trail

There are several hiking options in the forested hills around the town, including the 17-mile long Sunset Trail that provides access to Balanced Rock.  The Gulpha Gorge Trail leaves from the NPS campground up to vistas at Goat Rock or you can also park at the top of North Mountain and hike down to it on the Goat Rock Trail.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Inside the men’s locker room, a beautiful stained glass ceiling lets in light on the sculpture of Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto who came to the hot springs in 1541.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/hosp/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm

Fees

None to visit the NPS museum in Fordyce Bathhouse, but there is a charge to climb Hot Springs Mountain Tower or visit one of the privately-owned bathhouses (like Buckstaff Baths or Quapaw Baths and Spa).

Road Conditions

All roads are paved, but there are some tight curves on the scenic drive up Hot Springs Mountain.

Camping

The NPS run Gulpha Gorge Campground offers sites with or without electrical and water hookups.

Related Sites

Chickasaw National Recreation Area (Oklahoma)

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site (Arkansas)

Buffalo National River (Arkansas)

Explore More – In the roaring 1920s, Hot Springs, Arkansas was like the original Las Vegas attracting athletes, politicians, and which famous mobsters?

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