Like every traveler, I'm always searching for that little piece of paradise hidden from the masses. And I think I have finally found it in the form of hot soaks in Idaho and Montana.
As a newcomer to these parts by way of the gritty streets of East London, I noticed that there are two types of people here: the wild-river soakers and the ones who like a cocktail after their mineral bath.
The first type is easy to identify: They're wearing spandex climbing gear 24/7 and regaling you with tales of backcountry camping 20 feet from a family of grizzlies. The second type stays on the trails and likes a bit less wildness. I am somewhere between these two.
The first step in thinking about how and where to soak is to figure out how much time and energy you have. Do you want to spend a day or a weekend? And do you want to climb a mountain or walk to the pools from your bed?
The following guide will help those who want to soak like a local and enjoy the beauty that is winter in this part of the West.
Jerry Johnson Hot Springs, Idaho
Missoula is an ideal base for a host of soaking excursions. My first — and still one of my favorites — was to the wild Jerry Johnson Hot Springs about an hour away in Idaho.
There are no signs telling you where to go: You just have to find the Warm Springs Pack Bridge and Warm Springs Trail No. 49 on Highway 12, between markers 152 and 153. (The secret is now out.)
Cross the wooden bridge, high above the majestic Lochsa River, for the mile-long hike through the Clearwater National Forest along Warm Springs Creek, which leads to three waterfall pools fed by a trickle of hot water. You know you've arrived when you see folk sitting quietly in the steaming, crystal-clear pools.
Jerry Johnson is the gateway drug for the soaking junkie: Once you feel every muscle in your body relax in the purest water bubbling up from deep within the earth, you absolutely will want more.
Jerry Johnson is closed at night to keep out the partyers. After your soak, hop in the car and drive a few miles to the Lochsa Lodge (www.lochsalodge.com; rooms from $85 a night), near the Idaho-Montana border, where you can sleep in a picturesque cabin and eat in its restaurant (open every day of the year) adorned with impressive animal skins.
Goldbug Hot Springs, Idaho
My next stop was Goldbug, also known as Elk Bend, which involved a three-hour drive south from Missoula to Salmon, Idaho. Salmon has an outpost vibe, and head-to-toe camouflage gear, hunting rifles and reflective eyewear are de rigueur.
From Salmon you drive about 30 minutes along Highway 93 and take a left at mile marker 282. You drive five minutes, depending on road conditions, until you come to a small parking lot and an unmarked trailhead with a tiny wooden bridge over Warm Spring Creek.
The hike from the trailhead takes you two miles up a mountain (the first quarter-mile is on private land) and through a high-desert landscape dotted with sagebrush. You will need crampons because the steep trail is icy in winter and not for the fainthearted. The day I went I was the only person on the mountain, and the remoteness and silence were unnerving.
The hike gets more challenging as you find yourself scrambling over fallen boulders. After about an hour of hiking, you'll see steaming waterfalls splashing into six pools that sit on the edge of the mountain. As you soak in one, only snow-capped peaks are visible over the tips of your toes.
Overnight camping within 500 feet of the pools is not allowed, so spend the night in Salmon at the friendly Stagecoach Inn (www.stagecoachinnmotel.com), which has views of the Salmon River.
Spa Hot Springs Motel & Clinic, White Sulphur Springs, Mont.
Flathead, Blackfeet and Crow Indians first used the water at these hot springs to cure arthritis, chest infections and other ailments. Warring tribes had to call a truce before soaking, and the Smith River Valley housing these waters is still considered a place of peace.
The Spa Hot Springs Motel & Clinic (www.spahotsprings.com; rooms from $89 a night) maintains this feeling of calm. The rooms are simple and clean, with toiletries and extra towels provided. The one indoor and two outdoor pools are drained every night, which is rare. The motel has no restaurant, but White Sulphur Springs (population 1,000) has several eating options, the best of which is Bar 47 on East Main Street, serving local microbrews, decent pulled pork sandwiches and other simple fare. A microbrewery, also on Main Street, 2 Basset Brewery, is to open this month.
The development of the hot springs began in 1900 when John Ringling of Ringling Bros. Circus fame tried to turn the site into Montana's version of Baden-Baden, the German spa town. Ringling "imported" a German scientist to analyze the waters; he reported that they "possessed such high virtue that it is doubtful whether better springs can be found on the Western Hemisphere."
Soaking here in winter is magical as you float in the water watching the snow settle around you. If you want more vigorous activity before you soak, downhill skiing is 30 miles away in Showdown or cross-country skiing in the Silver Crest Nordic trail system.
White Sulphur Springs is north of Bozeman on Highway 89, also known as the Kings Hill Scenic Byway, although "scenic" doesn't come close to describing the high mountain passes that dip toward fields dotted with photogenic barns.
Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa, Pray, Mont.
At the Chico Hot Springs Resort (www.chicohotsprings.com) southeast of Bozeman, the wine isn't just "red" or "white" and the word "'varietal" might get bandied about as you choose what to drink with your Caesar salad.
It's known locally as the place where Jeff Bridges met his wife, Susan, who was working at Chico, while he was filming "Rancho Deluxe" in 1974.
The main lodge, which dates to 1900 when it was a bathing site for miners, retains much of its rustic Western charm. A room without a bath starts at $61, and a honeymoon cabin comes in at $225.
But for all its upmarket dash, Chico Hot Springs is super-relaxed. The spa offers a huge array of treatments, and you can unwind with yoga or Pilates before your soak. You won't experience wilderness here, but if you want to get away without giving up your Wi-Fi and Sauvignon Blanc, this is the place. Kids are welcome, and there is dog-sledding and snowshoeing to keep them busy.
Chico is not far from Yellowstone and can be used as a base from which to explore the park.
Symes Hot Springs Hotel & Mineral Baths, Hot Springs, Mont.
The Symes Hot Springs Hotel (www.symeshotsprings.com) is about two hours northwest of Missoula by car on Highway 93 and the much smaller state Highway 382 through the Flathead Indian Reservation. The stretch on 93 offers wide-open vistas of snowy fields rolling out toward snow-capped peaks.
The Symes prides itself on being an old-fashioned hot spring spa, and its building is a beautiful, albeit faded, 1940s Mission-style structure that could do with a bit of modernizing and a lick of paint. The outdoor pools are clean, and although they lack a spectacular setting, there are lively conversations among the varied clientele.
The guest rooms (from $54 a night) are outdated, but some of the indoor baths have original claw-foot tubs.
The town of Hot Springs — think indie film with a cast of hipsters and guys from the nearby ranch — has two tiny organic cafés and a mini health-food store. It also has a vintage film poster shop that doubles as a costume jewelry store.
At night you might find yourself at the Symes restaurant sitting next to a door-to-door saleswoman or a Reiki practitioner sporting a man bun while listening to live bands with names such as Euphonium Spaceship or Voodoo Horseshoes.
Whether you do a day trip or stay the night, make sure to leave space in your suitcase. If you aren't tempted by a poster of local Gary Cooper from the 1940s (he was born in Helena, Mont.), you will be tempted by vintage crockery decorated with scenes of Yellowstone National Park, all to be had for a song.
Symes is like stepping back in time, and if you don't mind the rough edges, you will have an experience like no other.