Warming Up at Stanley Hot Springs

Apparently, 40% is betting odds for rain in the Lochsa. But there was nothing ominous about the clouds that sat low on the mountaintops and graced us with a light, steady rain as we gathered at the trailhead. Rather, it was enchanting to watch the wisps of cloud drift up from the river bottoms like lazy tendrils of smoke rising to the sky.

After a quick pic at the trailhead, we flipped up the hoods on our raincoats and hit the trail.

Boulder Creek Trail #211 is towards the back of the Wilderness Gateway Campground. You’ll pass the trailhead on your left but  the parking area is a little ways up the road and around the bend. Signs will lead the way. There’s a privy and plenty of space for loading and unloading horses. 

Once you’re on your way, the trail makes a brisk climb with a couple of switchbacks and then begins to level out. All in all, you’ll climb about 400 feet over a little less than a mile with the hardest part right at the beginning. From there, the trail is a smooth walk up the river.

We sauntered through Aspen tunnels, their bright yellow leaves thick upon the trail, and stopped to take panoramic photos every time the trail swept out around the slope of the mountain. The Western Larch ranged from vibrant yellow to neon green as it rose up the mountain side, and a light frost dusted the tops of the mountains. Boulder Creek tumbled along far below us on it’s way to the Lochsa River.

By the time we’d reached the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness boundary, near the half way point on the trail, blue skies were spilling over the mountaintops from the north, slowly washing the clouds away. We stripped off our rain coats and continued on to the junction with Trail #221 before stopping for lunch on a rock outcropping that gave us a little shelter from the cold wind. 

From our lunch spot, the trail made a quick drop down to Boulder Creek. This late in the year, the creek was low enough to make the crossing fairly easy, but we still had to be careful on the wet rocks. Taking a spill in the cold water on a cold day would not have been fun! 

The trail took us across an island in a wide spot of the creek, so we actually had to cross it twice. There is no specific way across the creek, you just have to scout out the way that feels best to you. A good option is to bring water shoes and simply wade across. It’ll be cold, but you can comfort yourself with the idea that you’re close to soaking in the hot springs anyway. And on the way out, the hike will warm you up.

Once across Boulder Creek, you’re a quarter mile or less away from the hot springs. The trail rises up through the thicker vegetations and denser trees of the northern slope. Slurping mud puddles covered the trail in numerous spots.

We emerged from the trees into a large clearing that sloped down from Stanley Hot Springs. Joe and Leslie headed straight for the water while Amanda and I set up camp first. There are several campsites complete with rock fire rings all around the hot springs. We filtered water from Huckleberry Creek which runs by on the far side of the clearing, and a small stream from the hot springs offered warm water for rinsing off our hands and dishes after dinner. 

The hot springs have been built up into a tier of five pools cascading into each other. The smaller, hotter pools sit at the top and pour into the main soaking pool in the middle. There are a couple more below the main pool, too, but one is too small to really soak in and the other is a bit shallow and murky.

It was a popular weekend for the hot springs. We shared the main pool with another hiking group, 118 North, who drove down from Spokane to be there. All together, there were about twelve of us in the pool. We talked about where we were from and shared stories from our various adventures. A couple of soakers opted to relax in the buff, but it was low key and didn’t change the relaxed vibe at all.

Eventually, Joe and Leslie said their farewells and began the journey back to the trailhead. Not too long after, Amanda and I crawled out of the warm water to set about making dinner. Hikers continued to arrive throughout the afternoon, filling up the available sites. We ended up sharing our site with another young couple and their dogs, who got along fine with our own, Sassy and Sheba.

We scavenged the hillsides for firewood and got a decent blaze going to fend off the evening chill. The clear skies promised a brilliant display of stars and a very cold night ahead. It was already cold enough to effect our camp stove fuel, requiring us to burn more than expected to get dinner cooked.

Amanda’s dehydrated chicken and vegetable soup was worth it, though! It was home cooking perfection in the back country!

After dinner, our new friends, Ryan and Jessi, went for a dip in the hot springs and Amanda dried her clothes by the fire while I enjoyed my favorite cigar. (I got away with hanging my swimsuit on my hiking poles by the fire.) We could see the lights from various campfires reflected in the trees, and headlamps moved about well into the night, but for all that, it never got noisy or boisterous. We enjoyed sitting by the fire and admiring the stars.

The atmosphere at the hot springs was never anything but relaxed and friendly, but it is a popular, adult place to unwind, so you may want to come out on a weekday if you prefer more solitude.

Definitely, come prepared for sleeping in the cold. A closed-cell, foam mattress or air pad is a must to get you off the ground. Even a 20 degree sleeping bag won’t keep you warm enough without it. We slept with thermals, sweaters, wool socks, and beanie hats on, and we were still cold. Of course, my air pad kept losing air throughout the night, and it only took a few minutes of lying on the ground for me to start shivering. Come prepared!

The morning sun was a welcome sight. We lay in the tent for a bit enjoying the rising temperatures, but the dogs were eager to get moving and weren’t about to let us lazy around all day.

Ryan and Jessi were nice enough to share their all-season fuel with us so we could have coffee and oatmeal before packing up and heading out. I made sure to take note of the MSR all-season fuel they were using for my own future adventures.

Finally, we said farewell to Ryan and Jessi, got some pictures of the hot springs already filling up with soakers for the day, and began the journey home.

The way back was even easier and more beautiful than the way in. We knew what to expect at the creek crossing, and once back on Trail #211, it was literally all downhill. And this time, we got to hike the whole way under bright blue skies.

If we go back, I think I’d like to go when it’s a little warmer out. And, while the Wilderness Gateway Campground makes for a great place to stay, I think we’ll camp at the hot springs again. I liked the whole experience and having the option to soak at night.

It was definitely a good trip and well worth the effort. I’d like to go back, but with 4 million acres of National Forest to explore, there’s no telling when that will be!

See you on the trail!

*Seek the Clearwater*

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