Idaho has plenty to recommend it, but one of its best qualities might just be its abundance of hot springs. Thanks to more than 15,000 years of tectonic plate activity beneath its mountains, the Gem State boasts more hot springs than any other state in the U.S.—that’s more than 130 springs just waiting to be soaked in.
There’s more good news: Many of Idaho’s soakable springs are right off the road, and the journey from the state’s biggest airport in Boise to Stanley is peppered with some of the highlights. You could do this drive in a half day—it’s only about two and a half hours in good conditions–but it’s so much more fun to draw out your road trip and camp at hot springs along the way. Pack your swimsuit; this tour de hot springs is the best way to get to Stanley from Boise.
Aside from the interstate, only a handful of paved roads leave Boise and head north into the mountains. Both ID-21 and ID-55 will start you in the right direction, but the more scenic route is to take ID-55. You’ll follow it through the little town of Horseshoe Bend and along the Payette River to the outpost in Banks (consider stopping to grab a bite at the quaint Banks Cafe), where you’ll take a right onto the Banks-Lowman Road. From there, the road hugs the sweeping canyons created by the Payette to the town of Lowman, where you’ll merge with ID-55, also known as the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway.
Kirkham Hot Springs
Kirkham is a little under two hours from Boise, and it’s a perfect introduction to Idaho hot springs thanks to its ease of access. The springs themselves are literally right on the Payette; at high water periods in early summer, some of the lower pools might be fully submerged. That’s alright, Kirkham has no shortage of pools, and even if the more desirable waterfall pools are occupied, you’ll be able to find a spot to soak.
There’s a campground at Kirkham open May through September, and if you’ve had enough driving for the day, it’s a convenient spot to pitch a tent. It’s also very popular, so consider reserving in advance via ReserveAmerica, particularly if you’re headed there on a summer weekend. Kirkham is open year-round; when the campground is closed during the winter. There’s still ample parking on the road, and the trail is hard-packed (if somewhat icy) to the springs.
Bonneville Hot Springs
Your second soak of the day is just 20 minutes down the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway. From the Kirkham parking area, continue northeast on ID-21 for just over 15 miles until you see signs for Bonneville Campground on the left. The springs are a quarter-mile hike from the campground (a little over a mile in the winter, when you’ll have to park closer to the road and snowshoe or cross-country ski in).
The hottest pools top out around 185 degrees Fahrenheit; fortunately, they’re close enough to the river that it’s easy to move to a cooler spot if things get too toasty. A few smaller, more private pools require an uphill hike—just follow the steam—and there’s a bathhouse complete with a tub, which you can use as a changing area or an ultra-private spa experience. Tonight, pitch your tent at Bonneville, where you can get a peaceful night’s sleep next to the Payette before continuing your journey.
Awake refreshed at Bonneville and maybe even take a second dip in the springs before you hit the road. From there, you’ll continue to head northeast on ID-21 for just under an hour to Stanley.
Elkhorn Hot Springs
At the ID-21/SR-75 junction, take a left and continue for just under 3.5 miles east of the town, keeping an eye out for a pullout along the Salmon River. Elkhorn—also known as the “Boat Box” hot springs—is one of the Stanley area’s most recognizable springs, thanks to its namesake box. You’ll find a couple of small pools here seasonally, but the real highlight is the makeshift hot tub; hot water is piped in under the highway. It’s super-hot (135 degrees), but you can mix in river water to cool it off.
Mountain Village Resort
After your soak at Elkhorn, head back into town, where you’ll make for the Mountain Village Resort. The resort has its own natural, semi-indoor hot spring on the banks of Valley Creek. The water fluctuates between 98 and 104 degrees. You’ll need to make a reservation to enjoy a soak here—call 1-800-843-5475 to make one. Guests of the resort have complimentary access to the hot spring and its views of the Sawtooths; if you’re not staying at Mountain Village, call the front desk to inquire about public soaking times.
The Mountain Village Restaurant & Saloon is open year-round, and the rustic dining room is an ideal place to pull up a chair or challenge your friends to a friendly game of pool or foosball. There’s also regular live music at Velvet Falls Dance Hall, as well as a family-friendly entertainment night every Thursday.
Tonight, either camp just up the road at the Salmon River Campground or, better yet, splurge on a night at the Mountain Village Resort.
Start the morning with a hearty breakfast at the Stanley High Country Inn, then set out to explore as many of Stanley’s hot springs as time allows. When you’re ready to go, head east on SR-75.
Sunbeam Hot Springs
Twelve miles east of town on SR-75, look for interpretive roadside signs and a stone bathhouse. Trails lead both up and downstream from the pullout, and you can take either to reach one of the cluster of Sunbeam springs. The 170-degree water is way too hot on its own, but you can add creek water or continue hiking farther from the spring source to reach cooler pools.
Once you’ve enjoyed your soak, it’s time to enjoy the comforts of Stanley. Back in town, grab a slice at Papa Brunee’s or linger over a gourmet meal at Redd Square. The aforementioned Mountain Village Resort and Stanley High Country Inn are open year-round. If you’re looking for a more rustic, out-of-town experience, the Triangle C Cabins are a cozy alternative.
Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with Stanley Sawtooth CoC.