As we headed up the road from Polaris to Elkhorn Hot Springs Henry spotted a deer resting near the edge of the road beneath a low bough of a Douglas-fir. We slowed to look and noticed that she was nursing a still spotted fawn as she eyed us nervously. She stood and turned toward the forest, with the fawn still attached, greedily drinking its mothers milk. As we snapped photos from the truck, the doe limped into the woods, dragging her hungry baby as she went.
The sun had already dropped below the Pioneer peaks and shadowed the narrow valley when we eventually arrived at Elkhorn Hot Springs resort. Despite the impending darkness, Henry, Mariann and Iinspired by our unusual wildlife sightingheaded up the Grasshopper Ridge Trail, through dense conifers, to a lookout at Solarium Point.
From the lookout, we gazed south three miles to the ski runs at Maverick Mountain and beyond to the Big Hole Valley. To the north and east, the mountainsHighboy, Comet and Saddlebackand miles of trails awaited us on this long weekend away from home. Not wanting to get lost in the dark, we hoofed it back down the hill to the cabin we had rented for the weekend.
A man driving a front loader dropped off what looked like a cord of wood on the back porch of the cabin, promising to bring more should we need it during our two-night stay. So, we stuffed the barrel stoves with fir and heated the big, leaky log building while we refueled on squash soup and bread and greeted two more friends who had just arrived.
Later that evening we walked up to the hot springsa turquoise swimming pool naturally heated to 95 or 100 degreesbut on this chilly night it felt more like warm springs than hot springs. Unlike some thermal pools, the springs at Elkhorn are sulfur-free and therefore, without a rotten egg smell.
Families splashed in the pool and a group of college kids (who looked like the promotional team for Golds Gym) swigged cheap beer out of cans. Craving more warmth, we moved inside to the wet sauna where we were soon joined by the Golds Gym Team, now singing Who Let the Dogs Out in the tiny room. But, we were warm.
Laying on my bed that night, buzzed out from soaking in water heated in the earth, I couldnt wait for the rest of the weekend. Running around in the fresh mountain air, Elkhorns famous prime rib dinner in the dining room (OK, I didnt order it, but my friends did and I can attest that it was a Montana-sized portion), and hanging out with friends on a weekend getaway.
Throughout Montana, Idaho and Wyoming, funky little hot spring resorts surrounded by National Forest lands or perched in the middle of open valleys provide retreats unlike anywhere else. These places provide the opportunity for outdoor adventures followed by hearty food and blissing out in hot water. Each year I try to visit new hot springs, and return to my favorites. Its an only in the Rockies experience that I look forward to all year long.
Elkhorn Hot Springs
On the Pioneer Scenic By-Way, 13 miles north of Highway 278, MT
More Hot Springs
Angela Well (undeveloped)
Far from everything, Angela Well hot spring is one of the hottest and most isolated springs in the region. Although far from Yellowstone, Angela Well looks like a mini-Mammoth Hot Springs thanks to its white, mineral terraces. The springs sits on private property, but there are no restrictions on access.
38 miles north of Miles City, 67 miles south of Jordan
Boulder Hot Springs Inn and Spa
Boulder Hot Springs resort was built in the late 1800s to release tension in the muscles of gold miners. Today it is a bed and breakfast and conference center complete with an outdoor hot springs-fed pool, mens and womens indoor plunges, steam rooms and spa services.
31 Hot Springs Rd., Boulder, MT
Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa
This turn-of-the-century resort snuggled into the Absaroka Mountains features an outdoor swimming pool and an attached, covered soaking pool. Chico Hot Springs resort is known for gourmet foodmuch of which is grown in the onsite garden and year round greenhousegreat local bands and luxurious spa services.
#1 Old Chico Road, Pray, MT
Fairmont Hot Springs
With a large indoor swimming pool, a gigantic outdoor pool (with a 350 foot water slide) plus two soaking tubs, Fairmont Hot Springs is one of the largest hot springs in the region. In addition to water activities, there is a golf course, tennis courts, childrens playground, wildlife zoo, lawn games and a spa.
1500 Fairmont Rd., Farimont, MT
Jackson Hot Springs Lodge
Situated near a ghost town and a battlefield, two downhill ski areas and a Nordic ski center, and several mountain ranges, Jackson Hot Springs Lodge is the perfect jumping off point for numerous recreational pursuits. The cavernous lodge hosts a restaurant, bar and dance floor, and leads to an outdoor hot spring-fed swimming pool.
Highway 278, Jackson, MT
Jerry Johnson Hot Springs (undeveloped)
This popular hot springs is actually a series of pools along the bank of Warm Springs Creek, a tributary of the Lochsa River. The one-mile trail to the springs meanders through mature cedars before arriving at six soaking pools fed by hot waterfalls.
70 miles southwest of Missoula, near mile marker 151 on US 12
Lava Hot Springs
Lava Hot Springs is a whole town built around warm water and family frivolity. The Olympic Pool has two spiral water slides and two diving platforms that compete for attention with the mineral soaking pools and massage facility.
Lava Hot Springs, ID
Boiling River (undeveloped)
A half-mile trail leads to a six-foot wide stream of hot water pouring over a travertine ledge into the Gardner River. Users have piled rocks to create a soaking area where the 140-degree water mixes with the cold river.
Two miles south of Gardiner, MT near the 45th parallel sign in Yellowstone National Park, WY
This elegant resort features five teepee-covered individual hot soaking pools, a mineral swimming pool, gourmet restaurant and health spa. For those in the mood for more than just pampering, the resort is nestled beneath the Sierra Madre Mountains and the Medicine Bow National Forest, both ripe with recreational opportunities.
601 East Pic Pike Rd., Saratoga, WY
Big Sky Journal
March 21, 2007