Native Americans consider hot springs sacred. Pioneer hucksters claimed they had magic healing powers. Hikers just think they feel awfully good after a long slog. The key, of course, is finding one far from beer-packing partiers. These wilderness springs require sturdy, crowd-discouraging journeys amid stunning scenery.
Bear Valley, ID
11T 0640203E 4922729N
This mellow 7-mile round-trip leads through meadowlands and tall pine forests in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. You'll follow gushing Bear Valley Creek, which merges with Marsh Creek 10 miles downstream. Step carefully when fording the 60-foot-wide creek (don't cross if it's higher than knee-deep). At the tree carved with the letters HS, head down a steep slope to a string of rock-lined hot pools that cascade to the creek. The water comes up at 130°F in the source pool, but cools as it descends. This is a sensitive salmon-spawning area, so as at all springs, pack out all trash and waste, and don't use soap.
The Hot Spot
In Stanley, the Bridge Street Burger and Brew's down-home nosh includes sourdough pancakes and a 1-pound woolly mammoth burger. (208) 774-2208
Drive 20 miles northwest of Stanley on ID 21, then turn west on FR 82/579; after 8 miles, enter the Fir Creek Campground. (208) 879-4101
Arizona Hot Springs, AZ
11S 0703584E 3984682N
Bighorn sheep and wild burros perch on the steep rock walls of Black Canyon on the lower Colorado River, providing a surreal backdrop for a soak. You'll canoe 11 miles from Hoover Dam to the mesmerizing geothermal smorgasbord. Pools range from 110° to scalding 140°F waters in several high-walled canyons, including Boy Scout, Gold Strike, and Lone Palm; you'll also find sauna caves and heated waterfalls (get a river map for specific locations). Reserve a canoe in advance; the BLM limits the number of boats to keep the area pristine.
The Hot Spot
Got an extra day? Boulder City's Bootleg Canyon Mountain Bike Park has a trail that earned a rare "epic ride" designation from the International Mountain Bicycling Association. www.bootlegcanyon.com
From Las Vegas, take US 93/95 south; continue on US 93 to the dam warehouse (the put-in). Down River Outfitters (800-748-3702) rents boats for $50 a day.
Conundrum Hot Springs, CO
13S 0336311E 4319830N
Conundrum is just outside Aspen in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, so yes, it's popular. But head there midweek and the nation's highest spring might be all yours. The climb begins at 8,760 feet and follows Conundrum Valley up almost 3,000 feet over 9 miles, topping out at two pools-one of them 10 feet across-in the shadow of Castle Peak, which at 14,265 feet is the Elk Range's alpha summit. The water emerges in the 100° to 105°F range-perfect for lying back and taking in snow-fed waterfalls, stands of aspen, and avalanche chutes.
The Hot Spot
A fixture since the 1890s, the Hotel Jerome's J-Bar serves the signature Manhaspen (think Manhattan meets Aspen)-bourbon mixed with Tuaca, a vanilla and citrus liqueur favored by locals. (800) 331-7213
Go north on CO 82 and turn left on FR 102. Turn left at Castle Creek Road and go 5 miles, then follow signs to the trailhead. (970) 925-3445