It’s bitingly cold, and you’re in the West, but you don’t ski. You can’t snowboard, you’re too old for sledding, and snowmobiling, loud and rumbly as it is, just isn’t your thing. But there is an outdoor activity for those of us who are averse to winter sports: soaking in a thermal hot spring. The only requirement is a willingness to strip down and shiver for a seemingly endless minute before lowering yourself into the hot, lovely water.
I live in Livingston, a town of around 7,000 in southern Montana. In late December or early January, when the sun starts to sink at 4 p.m. and a long, dark evening stretches out before us, my husband and I often drive to one of the many hot springs in our area. We particularly like the low-key Spa Hot Springs Motel & Clinic in the town of White Sulphur Springs, popular for its mineral-rich waters. The three pools — kept at a steady 98, 103, and 105 degrees — are filled with eggy-smelling (but weirdly appealing) sulfurous water that leaves your skin silky with its traces of silica, sulfate, calcium, and magnesium. Along with local ranchers and intrepid travelers, we’ll steep ourselves beneath colorful murals depicting Native Americans and wildlife at the water’s edge, and maybe sip a beverage we’ve brought along.
We also like Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa, a more upscale affair outside of Pray, Montana. We might order a prime rib in the restaurant or a poolside burger, and then have a postprandial soak (avid hot-springers use soak as a noun) in the natural mineral pools.
On days we’re feeling more adventurous, we drive several hours to Idaho’s Lava Hot Springs, a five-pool complex where the dark pebbles of the gravel bottom feel slick on your feet. Or Yellowstone National Park’s Boiling River, where the scalding waters meet the cold, flowing Gardner River — one of only a few spots where you can legally soak on government land. Here, you can sit, cozily submerged, and spot elk, bison, or bighorn sheep crunching in the snow.
These are the easily accessible pools. But there are also wilder finds all over Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado, and you never know when you’ll encounter one (keep a swimsuit in your car). Of course, you can soak in the summer, but it’s like drinking hot tea in the shower. The pleasure of a winter soak derives from the elemental contrast of temperatures. Your nose will be frosty, and your hair frozen to a potato-chip crisp, but your relaxed, invigorated body will be toasty, a column of steam rising up around you.
Spa Hot Springs Motel & Clinic, in central Montana, has three pools open year-round. A hundred miles south, near the Wyoming border, there’s Chico Hot Springs Resort & Day Spa, which has been welcoming bathers since 1900. Lava Hot Springs in Idaho has a network of outdoor mineral-water pools. While many springs in Yellowstone are off-limits, thermal waters can be enjoyed at the park’s Boiling River.