GOLDBUG HOT SPRINGS HIKING TRAIL GUIDE
Photo by u/Scooby_Doo_Legacy
For a long time when I heard ‘Idaho’ I thought of potatoes. Who doesn’t like a good spud? But as I got older and spent more time exploring the Northwest, I learned that Idaho offers some of the best views and wilderness experiences in the continental United States. Goldbug Hot Springs is the cherry on top of any trip to Idaho, or the Northwest in general.
It’s a hike easily done within a day, but plenty of primitive campsites line the trail and invite overnight hikers to relax and spend the night. It’s one of the best high desert hikes you’re going to find and promises some pretty unique experiences (more on that later).
Because of its remoteness, reaching Goldbug Hot Springs can be an adventure in itself. But that just adds to the fun, doesn’t it?
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One of Idaho’s best hot spring locations, the area surrounding Goldbug Hot Springs saw little in the way of development until the last twenty years. It’s a truly rural hike and is thirty miles from the nearest town Salmon, Idaho.
It’s a relatively short trail (about four miles round trip) but can be strenuous depending on when you visit. The water from the springs flows into the Warm Springs Creek and then the Salmon River.
The trail starts out at an elevation of about 4,800 feet but climbs quickly. The springs will be found at a final elevation of about 6,200 feet after the two-mile hike.
An out-and-back hike that offers a range of material to hike on. You’ll experience familiar dirt paths, littered stones to skip and scramble over, some sturdy bridges, and a never-ending staircase that leads you to the top of the springs.
The first quarter mile of the trail is on private property, but hikers are allowed to traverse it. Make sure you’re extra courteous for that section to ensure goodwill between the property owner and the hikers passing over the land.
Hikers in good shape should have little trouble with this trail, but even the fittest individuals will huff and puff over the steeper sections of the trail. A major factor in trail difficulty is the time of year you’re visiting. Winter and summer offer the hardest conditions (snow-packed and freezing or hot and dry, respectively).
Children and dogs have been encountered regularly by hikers on the Goldbug Hot Springs trail, so with enough patience and sticktoitiveness most hikers should be able to enjoy the journey and make it back to their car in one piece.
You won’t need to obtain special hiking or backcountry permits for the Goldbug Hot Springs, or for camping on it. The most important factors to consider are the time of year you’re visiting and reaching the trailhead in the first place. Even though the springs are open year round, accessing the trail can be extremely difficult during the winter.
The temperature of the springs is also dependent on the season, so don’t expect to find accommodating temperatures in the hottest or coldest months.
Expect hot and dry weather during the summer months and cold and snowy winters. Summers climb into the high 80’s and offer an insanely dry atmosphere; pack extra water if you’re visiting in the summer months!
In the winter temperatures can dip into the single digits (and sometimes below), but it’s the snowpack that’s the real concern. Because of its high elevation, the snow can be a major burden and will stop all but the most adventurous and well-geared hikers from tackling the trail.
Springtime might be appealing because of the perfect weather, but melting snow can make for muddy and slippery trail conditions. The springs tend to be cooler in the springtime because of the meltwater, but the water is also at its highest.
Ideally, hikers will be visiting and taking a dip in the fall. The weather is ideal for hiking and the hot springs are perfect for soaking in. This leaves a relatively narrow window for hikers seeking the optimum Goldbug Hot Springs experience and practically promises more crowded trails.
Fall is the best time to visit the springs, even if you’ve got a crowd enjoying it with you. Don’t worry, the people who hike here are friendly and considerate, so you’ll at least have good company.
You’re going to need your own transportation to reach the springs.
From Boise, you can expect a four-and-a-half-hour drive over about two-hundred-and-twenty miles. Head north on ID-55 for about 40 miles. You’ll pass through Horseshoe Bend and then Gardena before reaching the small town of Banks. Here you make a right onto County Highway 17/Banks Lowman Road.
Enjoy the killer drive on winding roads and resist the temptation to stop at the various hot spring campground you see on the way. After 33 miles you’ll make a left onto ID-21 North, where you’ll continue driving for another 58 miles.
You’ll turn left onto State Highway 75 North and continue for 55 miles until the road ends; you’ll turn left onto US-93 North. Consider stopping at the town of Challis on the drive to grab a bite and stretch your legs (I hear the River of No Return Brewery makes a fine batch of craft beer), because you’re on US-93 North for another 38 miles.
Make a right onto Warm Springs Road and drive less than half a mile; you’ll pass residential houses and find a parking area where you can leave your car.
From Salmon, Idaho, you’ll find a much faster trip. Drive on US-93 South for 22.4 miles and then make a left onto Warm Springs Road. Find the parking area and hit the trail.
The trailhead is attached to the parking area and is an easy-to-find trail. Remember that the first quarter-mile of the trail is on privately owned land, so be extra courteous and respectful in this section.
I love an easy-to-follow trail, and that’s what Goldbug Hot Springs has to offer.
You’ll quickly find yourself descending into desert-like terrain. Enjoy that! There’s nothing as appealing as the high-desert, so enjoy while you’re in it.
To your left you’ll find primitive toilets and to the right are a few campsites; just look for the firepits to find them.
Early in the hike some steep switchbacks present the first major challenge, but you’re surrounded by some gorgeous fir and pine trees so it can be a pleasant experience. The creek below you offers a few nice peaks of water. The trail follows the path of the creek, so you’ll have plenty of opportunities to take in the view.
Follow the straightforward trail and you’ll find that the dirt and stone beneath your feet turn into wooden steps boxed out for ease of footing. These suckers seem like they go on forever, and they kind of do, so take your time and keep your eyes peeled for hidden views of waterfalls and other eye candy.
At the top of the steps you’ll find a bridge that leads to the Goldbug Hot Springs themselves, and even a passing look at the views surrounding you makes the trip worthwhile.
Kick off your shoes and hop into the water! There are about a half dozen pools to soak in and plenty of waterfalls to stand beneath. The closer the pools are to the source the warmer they are.
When you’re finished, head back down the trail and return the way you came.
Goldbug Hot Springs is an excellent hike for anybody capable, but let’s look at some of the finer points of the area.
The springs here are clothing-optional, and some hikers are more than willing to indulge in some trunkless soaking. Experiences here are polite and friendly, and it’s definitely something to consider for those who like a stripped-down experience. But it could be an unexpected sight when you’ve got children in your party!
When you’re looking for dark skies and unbelievable stars above, the Goldbug Hot Springs is hard to beat. Very little light pollution affects the hot springs, so those who spend the night will spot more stars than most other places in the United States.
Astrophotographers can set up here and take some truly epic shots, all from the comfort of a natural hot spring. It doesn’t get much better than that.
Dispersed camping is open for most of the areas of the trail leading to Goldbug Hot Springs, but all campsites must be at least 500 feet away from the springs. Look for established campsites before making your own. The best spots to camp are near the trailhead.
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Matt was reared by the bear and the bobcat and the coyote of rural Pennsylvania. For the moment he lives in Philadelphia and is a gardener and freelance writer by trade. Matt's free time is devoted to traipsing through forests, angling in creeks, and hunting for rare plants and mushrooms. He's got a soft spot for reading Steinbeck while in the outdoors and is quickly becoming a die-hard hammock camper. Matt is fueled almost entirely by beer and hot sauce.