Long before white settlers began to arrive in the early 1800s, Native Americans made the mineral springs of southeastern Idaho a place of peaceful retreat, physical healing and spiritual renewal. The Bannock, Shoshone and Utes regarded “Poha-Ba, the Land of Healing Waters” as sacred, neutral ground where rivalries could be set aside.
Much changed, of course, as newcomers arrived. Fur trappers gave way to pioneers, campsites became towns, and wagons arrived brimming with families. As the Indians were inexorably pushed aside, the Portneuf River region became the main thoroughfare to the growing settlements of the Pacific Northwest.
Today, the area is known as Lava Hot Springs. The pioneers in Conestoga wagons and handcarts have given way to modern-day explorers in motorhomes and travel trailers. But the mineral springs remain timeless as ever, and attract tourists who venture off Interstate 15, for an 11-mile detour east on U.S. Highway 30.
Unlike most of the well-planned trips my wife, Barbara, and I take in our 23-foot travel trailer, our extended weekend escape to Lava Hot Springs from our home in Salt Lake City was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Trusting to serendipity can be a gamble, but this time we found a haven in the mineral baths, natural beauty and friendly people of Lava Hot Springs. Of several highly rated RV parks available, we found one that was perfect for us: Lava Spa RV Park.
We settled into a full-hookup space that was just a few feet up from the Portneuf River, which was swollen with spring runoff. Our campsite along a bend gave us a stunning view of churning white water while we took our morning coffee, and at night the soft roar of the river lulled us to sleep.
Within 100 feet of our campsite was a trailhead leading to several hiking routes, both along the Portneuf and into the nearby foothills. Our hunger for exploration and scenic rejuvenation was met with a self-guided walking tour through downtown Lava Hot Springs, which boasts well-appointed shops and restaurants and a beautiful riverside walkway with views of extensive sunken gardens and easy access to rentals for rafting and floating on the river.
Of course, you don’t come to Lava Hot Springs—or shouldn’t—without luxuriating in the namesake mineral pools. There are several businesses catering to this urge to soak in sulfur-free mineral waters ranging from 102 to 112 degrees. We chose the year-round Hot Pools, a complex of five gravel-bottomed, stone-lined pools a short walk from our campsite. We sank into the pools, allowing them to soothe away the stresses of life and the ache of muscles left sore by our mornings of hiking.
While the amenities have changed since ancient times when Native American peoples made this area their outdoor nexus with the Great Spirit, the clouds of steam that enveloped them like cocoons have not. One day during our stay, as we waded quietly through the soothing pools, a spring rainstorm came. The combination of big, cold raindrops on our faces while our bodies were immersed in the warm mineral waters was both primal and spiritual, one of life’s few perfect, beautiful moments.
In addition to its signature mineral pools, Lava Hot Springs is a recreational treasure, with wagon rides and horseback excursions, rafting and tubing on the river, and the lure of powder snow at the nearby Pebble Creek Ski Area. Shops are stocked with native-made jewelry, pottery and rugs.
Pull your rig into Lava Hot Springs sometime. We may even see you there, because once you’ve visited this slightly out-of-the-way destination, you will want to come back.
Bob Mims is a writer and editor who lives in Salt Lake City. His website is mimsmedia.com.