Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Idaho Hot Springs Tour, September 14-15

September 14
We wake up, eat some more yummy granola and fruit for breakfast, then pack up. Lindsey has thoughtfully prepared dehydrated pears and bananas for us to take on the road. What a pleasure to stay with such wonderful people! Thank you again Lindsey, Tom, and Eli for sharing your home with us.
The ride out of Missoula isn't great since the only way to go is 8 miles on the expressway. But the shoulder is good enough and we get through it quickly. I'm happy to turn onto Highway 12. This road is one of my fondest memories from my trip cross-country 4 years ago, and now I'm about to bike it again in the opposite direction!
Our road climbs gradually along Lolo creek, passing small farms and pastureland. The forests here have been hit hard by both fire and the pine beetle. Most of the hillsides have only a very thin layer of trees. However, as we progress deeper into the mountains the houses disappear and the forest turns green and healthy.
We stop to read a few informational signs along the way. One hypothesizes various origins of the name Lolo. My favorite explanation is that it came from a native word meaning 'to carry on your back' as travelers through here had to carry all their supplies.
About 5 miles out from the Montana-Idaho border we start climbing Lolo Pass. It's a sustained climb, but overall not bad at all. At the top we stop to explore the well-done visitors center. They have a beautiful exhibit on all the travelers who have gone through this area, most notably Lewis and Clark. During their expedition they followed the ridgeline of the mountains instead of the river (like our road does). Apparently, bushwacking through this section was one of the hardest parts of their trip.
Our descent from the pass is slowed by a tremendous headwind, but still enjoyable. I remember climbing up this! How satisfying it is to go down, four years later. It's hard to express my happiness as I cruise down along the river, at 18mph, enjoying the slight downhill grade. Such scenery! The forested hill, the wide, clear river, giant old growth cedars draped in lichens, all are wonderful.

At this pace, it doesn't take us long to reach Jerry Johnson hot springs. A walk across an old wooden bridge and down a forested trail takes us to rock pools of hot-tub hot water. They're hotter than I remember!
We spend a long time soaking and enjoying these natural gems. It seems we have picked the perfect time to be here. This is a popular place, but since it is late in the day everyone is leaving and for awhile we have the place to ourselves. As it starts to get dark we set up camp at a campground just down the road.
The stars are spectacular; we can see the Milky Way tonight!

September 15
It was warm in the sun as we got ready to go, yet cool in the shade of the road along the Lochsa River.  A few miles in, we passed the Weir Creek trailhead.  Once we realized that this was where the Weir Creek hot springs were, we turned around, quickly changed, and hiked a half mile to the hot springs.  It was like a rock hot tub on the side of a hill, constructed at the exact distance from the spring to be a soothing 101 degrees.  It felt great, especially on my chilly fingers and toes, and we stayed for about 30 minutes.

Highway 12 parallels the Lochsa and Clearwater Rivers for over 100 miles.  It is a constant grade corresponding with the grade of the rivers, which are always very gradual.  These are broad, shallow rivers, bumbling around stones every now and then, and sheltering trout in the holes and shadows.  
Kayakers should look elsewhere, but this is a fly fisherman's paradise.  Norman MacLean's classic book A River Runs Through It was set right near here (a wonderful story- also check out the movie of the same name).
The consistent downhill of this beautiful road allowed us to maintain a comfortable 15 mph, so it didn't take us long to get to 40 miles.  There we found a bridge leading to a trailhead on the other side.  We ate lunch on the bridge in the shade, enjoying the burbling water, the trees, the sun, the blue sky... We enjoyed simply being in the present on such a fine fall day.

As we were leaving the bridge, Cameron found an apple tree next to the road, and we all noshed a bit even though the apples were a little bit tart.  Our theory was that someone threw an apple core out their window 30 years ago here, and perfect growing conditions led to this tree.  Whatever happened, wild apples are tasty!  We biked down the road, bellies full, until we reached the tiny town of Lowell at the confluence of the Selway and Lochsa Rivers.  The air suddenly turned smoky, and a sign on the side of the road read, "Fire Activity Ahead."  It was as if twilight had begun a few hours early.  
The sunlight turned dim and red, and each layer of ridges floated farther and farther from the last.  Out of the haze rode two cyclists, girls who had recently graduated college, saved up some money, and got on their bikes. Like us!  As Tam talked with them, I picked blackberries by the side of the road. It was the biggest collection of blackberry bushes I had ever seen!  Cameron soon joined me, collecting enough to fill up a bag, and Tam shortly after.  They were tough to pick, as every part of the plants was thorny, but the berries were so sweet they tasted like candy.  There was also an apple tree among the briars, and a more accessible plum tree with cherry-size plums ripe and ready to be eaten.  We ate our fill of fruit and filled up a jar for later.  More blackberry bushes flew by as we biked on, and had we not had to find somewhere to camp in the oncoming darkness, we might have picked and eaten fresh fruit all night. But we had to continue, and we passed many groups of deer, wild turkeys, horses, goats, mergansers, and sheep.  Unfortunately a dog ran after Tam at one point, giving her a scare, but no harm was done.
We found a rest area and decided to camp there (incidentally next to a overflowing grapevines).  A quick fire was built and used to heat up our food, and the berries we had picked earlier were just as good for dessert.  It has been a full day: a soak in natural hot springs, lots of berry picking and eating, and 75 miles biked!
- Danny


  1. I spent time at Jerry Johnson hot springs and stayed at that campground too! Such a beautiful area. Glad you're enjoying it.