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Backpacker Magazine – April 2008

Hot Springs: The Perfect Pool

Here are the top wilderness soaks on the continent. Can you keep a secret?

by: Doug Schnitzspahn

Hotspring Island | Sespe | Yellowstone | Turkey Creek | Skillern/Big Smoky
Soak Here Now

Ride Singletrack to Remote Pools
Skillern/Big Smoky Hot Springs
Big Smoky Mountains, Idaho
Want to end your next bike ride in a cloud of steam? Take the trail to Skillern and Big Smoky; it's epic Idaho singletrack that practically dumps you in a riverside pool. Though the springs are just three miles from a trailhead near Fairfield, the best way to tag them is on the tail end of a ride from Galena Summit, 25 miles to the north. Riders drop nearly 5,000 vertical feet on smooth, screaming singletrack that winds through alpine meadows and rock outcroppings before depositing them in thick forest along the creek. At the end, simply hop off your bike and slip into soothing goodness.

Just a stone's skip from Big Smoky Creek and right off the trail, Skillern is a natural grotto fed by a boiling shower that seeps out of overhanging granite. Though the main pool is soakable all year, when the creek runs low it reveals two additional couple-sized pools, where scalding water mixes with creek flow for a perfect midcurrent soak.

Keep your eyes and ears tuned to your surroundings for another sweet payoff: The Smokys are patrolled by their own wolves, the Soldier Mountain Pack. Numbering eight adults (in the most recent USFW survey), the pack hunts elk and rabbit in the rolling hills outside Fairfield, a pristine expanse of sage and pine ignored by the fun-seekers drawn to nearby Sun Valley. Up the trail from Skillern, head to the personal-size tubs of Big Smoky Springs, which lie among the roots and pine needles 5.5 miles upstream along Big Smoky Creek. These clandestine eddies–hidden in thick underbrush and smelling of pungent pine–take some poking around to find, but once you do, you won't be jumping back in the saddle anytime soon.

If mountain biking's not your thing, tackle the route on foot from the Fairfield side. To make it worthy of a long weekend, take a detour before the springs at Paradise Creek. Hoof 30 miles total, past 9,708-foot Paradise Peak, down the West Fork of Big Smoky Creek, and then back down the Big Smoky Creek Trail, where you'll hit the springs on the way out.

Getting There
To ride to Galena Summit, get a lift to the pullout at the top of the pass, and follow the obvious dirt road on the east side down to the Salmon River headwaters. Turn south, and pedal over the Big Smoky Divide to the Big Smoky Creek Trail. The springs are three miles north of Canyon Transfer Camp, near the end of the ride. Skillern UTM: 11T 0676137E 4834985N; Big Smoky UTM: 11T 0682264E 4841151N

Sawtooth National Forest: (208) 879-4101; For bike rentals and trail beta, contact The Elephant's Perch in Ketchum (866-327-3724,

Go in spring or summer; the place teems with hunters come fall. Big Smoky Trail is closed during the winter.

Hotspring Island | Sespe | Yellowstone | Turkey Creek | Skillern/Big Smoky
Soak Here Now

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star


Star Star Star Star Star
Steve Snyder
Jul 11, 2013

Couple of comments.

1. There's several other springs in the Gila besides Turkey, many of them decent, and a couple of them a bit easier hikes. Some of Gila's springs get hot enough to need side-pool cooling.
2. There's other places in Yellowstone where springs and creeks mingle to get nearer right soaking temperature.
3. Can't believe you left off the hot springs at Big Bend. Late fall-early winter is perfect.

Jul 11, 2013

Unless something has changed since January (2013) the Gwaii hot springs are still dry after an earthquake cut off their water supply back in October 2012. The photo of them in the email caught my attention and I wondered if this had been added as an update.

Mar 10, 2012

In the eastern united states, don't forget Hot Springs, NC. The AT runs through town. Lots of great hiking in the area such as Max Patch Bald.

Double Cabin; John B
Mar 10, 2012

Unless something dramtic has happened since 2006 the Springs at Dunanda are not "110 degrees," close to their source they're scalding.Extreme caution is warranted IMO.

I think MR. bubbles is awesome. I reccomend soled footwear for all the springs, especially the shifting/rumbling crust of Mr.Bubbles.

Mar 08, 2012

I miss the west! any hotsprings near New Hampshire!?

Mar 08, 2012

Last I checked Idaho was on the west side of Yellowstone. Making for a quite a long trip if you are trying to get to the southeast corner of the park. But then if you're going to the southeast corner you won't really be looking to hike/backpack in the Bechler Area anyway.

Mar 08, 2012

You missed 2 beauties in Southeast Alaska. White Sulphur Hotsprings on Chichagoff Island. The pool is right on the edge of the Pacific. Incredibly vistas as you soak. There is a US Forest Service Cabin that can be reserved and paid for online. The Forest Service cabins are rustic but wonderful.
The other hotsprings is just a bit south of Sitka-capital of Russian America, Paris of the Pacific. There are 2 separate tubs maintained by Sitkans.The tubs are in separate Panabode shelters. Well loved by the local fishing fleet. Across the bay there is a cabin that can be rented through the city offices.
Oops-there's one more. It's in the small village of Tenakee. Tenakee is a non-motorized town with a great little harbor. The hotsprings is a bathhouse in the middle of town with alternating mens and women's hours for soaking. Beware, if you're soaking when the Alaska Ferry arrives, you might be part of the local attractions as curious ferry riders disembark to take a peek.

Give ItARest
Jun 04, 2011

Zack: You're just trying to discourage people from visiting this place because you want it to be your own private little spot. Give it a rest. There's plenty of nature to go around.

Mar 16, 2011

Im with Eric, stay away hippies!

Jan 14, 2011

It's for the better that the coordinates are wrong. Please stop writing about our backcountry thermal areas - they're incredibly dangerous, and encouraging people to venture off-trail is not a great idea. For the record, the "hot spring" that backpacker is encouraging you to swim in at the ferris fork is actually a semi-active geyser. When it erupts with someone in there, the death will be attributable to poor editorship on the part of backpacker.

Jan 13, 2011

Thanks for the article! A hot springs hiking trip sounds fantastic during this cold winter. If youre in the area Umpqua Hot Springs in Oregon is also a fantastic place to go!

Sep 26, 2008

I don't know if you can still get there from here but the 1 time I made it to Sespe I went in from Mutau Flat. From the Frazier Park and Gorman side. Be in good shape. Harder to hike out then hike in. Bring lots of water. Awesome place and the only encounter I had was with a mad wild possum. Remember though this place is infamous because Charlie Manson (yes, that Charlie Manson) had his hippie lawyer killed here. But that was in the days when you could drive to the Sespe Hot Springs. And when there was a road (from Rose Valley).

Jeff Barnes
May 20, 2008

I believe thatthe coordinates are wrong for Ferris Fork....IF you plot Ferris Fork UTM: 12T 0590482E 4903815N you are about 7 miles OUTSIDE of the park boundries to the east. I think the right coordinates are 12T 05090482E 4903815N The 0 & 9 are transposed on the Easting


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