With my inflatable pad shoved under my arm, I dash to the swim hole, toss the pad on the pond and splash into the hot spring. As I sink onto my mattress, I let out a sigh as the 100°F water literally melts all my pre-trip jitters away.
IDAHO HOT SPRINGS
Ride, Soak, Repeat
Bikes are tuned, bags are packed, weather looks cooperative. All that’s left to do is soak. Check. And soak we do for what seems like hours as the moonless sky bleeds into an inky jet black, punctuated by a pulsating display of stars.
There’s not many things I regret in life. But one passed up opportunity sticks deep in my craw. A few years back I was invited to scout a proposed route by Adventure Cycling. These guys are the real deal, having mapped iconic routes like the Great Divide and TransAmerica routes.With a passion for hot springs, cartographer Casey Greene had an idea to thread a mountain bike route connecting 50+ of Idaho’s backcountry hot springs. Instead of joining Greene, I hitched onto a fat bike trip, linking a series of dunes on the Oregon coast. The IHSMBR has since become an iconic route. Cue palm to the face and an audible ‘DOH!’. But living in Idaho, it’s not a huge stretch to get out there and take a peek at what I missed. A few years later and a handful of prodding conversations, I’m floating in bliss a few miles from the nearest town—but light years from civilization—poised to embark on my own tour of Idaho’s hot springs.
STAGE 1: Bergdorf hot spring – Gold Fork hot spring
Not more than 30 miles away from McCall, Bergdorf might as well sit at the end of the world. “Back in the day” the township was a bustling way station for miners on the mend. Nowadays the escarpment of antiquated cabins quietly slump on the hillside above the 100-year old pool that still pumps 150 gallons a minute of mineral rich water at a steady 113°F.
We rented a shack and called it basecamp. I’d wholeheartedly recommend you do the same, but mind you it’s not the Hyatt. It hasn’t been gussied up or retro-modernized like so many other resorts. The rustic patina is clearly showing its age. No electricity, no running water. You bring your own sleeping bag and start your own fire. But it’s all in that authentic good way.
Caretaker Jim Huntly took our money and gave us the nickel tour including pointing out the best outhouse in the valley (hint – it’s behind the changing room). “There are others, just not as good as the main vault.” Jim showed an impressive amount of enthusiasm for a toilet. The snack-bar serves up baked goods and coffee, and has a grill that the Idaho State Health Department probably lost in the shuffle since 1867. But you’re here for the hot spring, and man, the lure is real. Bikes propped by the lodge, we hopped in for one more soak before rolling rubber south.
Bergdorf has some spectacular single track – some of Idaho’s very best – looping trails towards McCall. These routes are detailed on the IHSMBR Singletrack Option map. Too rocky for our rigs and mindful of time, we chose to crush the empty stretch of asphalt, blasting the 30 miles into town. As the sign said, ‘Watch for Moose’ (and hunters, know what you are aiming at). No moose was seen, but we watched none-the-less.
McCall summers brings big boats and small bikinis and like the pied piper, frat boys on the prowl. Caffeinated, we quickly ducked out of the riff raff onto Farm To Market road, which we found to be more farm that market. There’s an option to buy venison steaks if you feel like getting all paleo. Roseberry sits an easy dozen miles south of McCall and used to be the largest in the valley, replete with a hotel, two blacksmith shops, two stores, a logging mill and a creamery. But the last 100 years hasn’t been kind to Roseberry. The railroad was routed to neighboring Donnelly and with its arrival, Roseberry shops and homes were literally yanked up and moved over to the Donnelly. All that remains are the church, the old merc and a skeleton crew of stalwart citizens. We were enthusiastically greeted by the shop keeper, invited to sample the brickle and check out the collection of old vintage toys. We bought a drink, snapped some pics and pressed eastward on gravel towards Gold Fork.
If Bergdorf embodies all that is great about rustic and gritty, Gold Fork is the antithesis, tiled in fancy stone and fortified pools. After 50 miles in the saddle, we rolled into a raucous of families languishing under the patio umbrellas and cascading pools. A cash-only joint, we paid $8 to float until dusk.Gold Fork doesn’t have rights to siphon potable water from the nearby cold spring and offers little in the way of supplies. Soda, bottled water and candy can be purchased for a $1 at the yurt. After some prodding, the host shared that hot spring probably bubbled up potable water and we filled our bladders with 115°F water from the source.
Across the gravel strip the Gold Fork river sported grade-A sandy plots, prime for planting a tent. Of course, no trespassing signs plastered the posts; word on the strip was a Texas tycoon bought up most of the land to graze a head of Hereford and regularly enforces trespassers. We found a small spit of unmarked land to pitch the tent with a half dozen other folks. A safer bet would be to pedal four miles upstream, across the bridge and into public land.
STAGE 2: Gold Fork hot spring – Boiling Springs
Sitting between us and our next destination—the Middle Fork of the Payette—was 70-ish miles of the hardest riding we’d see on the trip. Two passes, each 2500’, plus an ensuing forest fire that promised to shave life off our lungs, we rolled up Gold Fork creek and immediately charged towards the first summit.
Hill … mountain … the difference is slight out west. Idaho mountains typically climax to a sharp craggy point. Rounding off at just over 7,000’, we’d call this a hill in these parts. But for the out of towner, be forewarned: these hills top out over most other State’s highpoints.
After cresting the pass we carved a plump line that fell off the backside and quickly descend into Cascade for jalapeño burgers and fries at the Whistle Stop. But for those who didn’t take the class “Don’t eat anything bigger than your head”, I’d give some dead serious consideration to their cinnamon buns, which generously spills off the USDA healthy plate. Resupply rations across the street at the D/G grocery store. Bobcat pelts go for $400 USD at Howdy’s Gas & Grub. A wolf pelt will run you $550 USD. Who knew—well now you do.
If you indeed partook in the cinnamon bun—good on you. You won’t regret it. The next dozen miles are easy pedaling along quiet pastoral lands … all good for the post sticky bun constitution. Buckle up, though; you’re in for another round of climbing, this time into the Boise National Forest. And if one thing is certain, announcing that the summit is just around the corner propagates a false promise rewarded with more climbing. But eventually we topped out and rolled across the summit ridge before plummeting down miles of downhill to the Middle Fork. After a good 30 minutes of roller coaster death grip and a few close calls over sandy patches, we eventually spilled out into the stunningly beautiful Middle Fork valley floor.
The Middle Fork of the Payette holds the richest collection of hot springs on the route with abundant riverside hot spring options. We chose to ride four miles upriver to the Boiling Springs campground where we could find both water and a pit. Nicknamed the BS campground, it was clearly divided into two camp neighborhoods. Down by the river you had your high rent district, with easy river access, a beautiful canopy of trees, happy kids … a generally all around idyllic setting…the kind you’d find in an REI catalog. It’s where you aspire to pitch your tent. And then there’s where we camped: dry, dusty, scratchy grass, remiss of trees and prominently close to the vault toilet. The other side of the camp tracks, so to speak. We felt slighted of the full BS experience, but a camp is a camp.
Just a quarter mile up the trail, Boiling Springs was indeed too hot to soak in. A short hike drops you into some of the best springs Idaho has to offer. Throngs of hikers were making the two-mile pilgrimage to soak in the best of the best. I’d like to say we were above that or that we knew a secret, but we were simply too lazy to schlep gear another two miles. Instead we simply followed the Boiling Springs stream as it flowed to the river, where someone had dug a really sweet hole that mixed hot and cool water to the perfect soaking temperature. We had the hole to ourselves, pulled out the bourbon and soaked for an hour or so before heading back to camp BS.
STAGE 3: Boiling Springs – The Springs resort
The last day is always bitter sweet. It lacks the excitement of the first day and struggles to keep up with the intensity of the second; it’s often a cattle call, dragging the corpus homeward. But our tired bodies were looking forward to one last soak at The Springs Resort in Idaho City. Early morning light rain packed the dusty Middle Fork road and we made quick work of the casual 25-mile descent to Crouch for brunch at the Two Rivers Grill.
The Two Rivers menu offers your typical ranch fair with supersized American portions. I couldn’t decide between the French toast with caramelized bacon and the cowboy benedict, so I got both. If pressed to make a choice, I’d recommend the French toast, but anything bacon makes me weak in the knees. Across the lot sits a small grocery and Chainsaw Tom’s. Tom sculpts garden gnomes, bears and totems out of local pine with his Stihl chainsaw. If the chips on the ground indicate anything, business looks booming.
Determined to put my two breakfasts to work, I tackled the last major hill to Placerville with mild gumption, a nearly ghost-town settlement seated deep in the Boise Mountains. It’s reputed that more than 2,800,000 ounces of gold was pulled out of the greater Boise Basin, more than the Alaskan and Californian gold rushes combined. Like a desert brush fire, the towns burned bright, rising and collapsing in a flash. A few buildings remain, but the towns are a shadow of their former life and now scratch out a living mostly through ATV and hunting tourists with a few active claims.
Placerville still has a merc that sells soda and spirits. The old bar is now the region’s history museum, manned by a gentleman named George. George spoke fluent expletive and shared some of the local highlights with us in full color. According to George, gold is everywhere in the Basin. Like when you vacuum your rug, sift through the filter everywhere. We checked our cleats—nothing. We tipped George a few bucks anyways and rolled onward to Idaho City, where we’d wrap up our ride at The Springs.
The Springs has a history dating back to the 1860’s. Closed for some time, it was recently reopened under new owners and $3 million in bouillon, elevating it to a full spa quality resort. Walking into The Springs is like a refreshing slap of class in the face. It’s the kind of place that styles with sashes of sage and bowls of wicker balls. Glass shelves are stacked with proprietary lotions. A sweeping chandelier graces its foyer. The fact I’m saying the word foyer…heck, it’s probably the only foyer in Idaho City. We each got a locker with a clean towel and a plastic bag to haul our wet shorts (read: store our chewy bike shorts). I stepped into the shower to wash away the three-days of trail grit ground into my skin before entering the pool.The spa-like resort flashed a bright smile of travertine tile and had a modern shade sheltering half the pool. We kicked back in the tub, ordered a beer and waited for our ride into town.
Hot springs and cycling are like cookies and cream. They just go together. Riding the hot springs route allowed us to soak in the views as well as the spectacular springs. People ask which one was my favorite. Honestly? At the end of the day, it’s the one we ended up in, chatting up the day’s honest efforts with friends. So bring your bike and bring trunks and hop on in. The waters great.
Words by Steve Graepel
Photography and video by Chris Minson