LAVA HOT SPRINGS — Take a drive along I-15 and pull off the McCammon exit south of Pocatello. Head east on Highway 30 for about 12 miles and you’ll run into a quaint little town with less than 500 people.
While most “outsiders” pronounce it Lav-uh (like Java) Hot Springs, locals tend to call home Lah-vuh. It’s a city nestled between two mountains with no fast food restaurants or stoplights, but one with plenty of things to do.
Once part of the original Fort Hall Indian Reservation, Lava Hot Springs was included in a treaty agreement between the Indians and United States Government in the late 1800s. Indians gathered here to bathe, rest and worship at the hot springs as the area was considered neutral ground shared by all tribes.
In 1902, an act transferred Lava Hot Springs to the State of Idaho for public use. Over the past century, the area has been discovered as a hidden gem in eastern Idaho.
The hot springs
“Swimming, floating the river and soaking in the hot springs – that’s what Lava is all about,” says Chet Davids, the Lava Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce President. He reports that around 429,000 people visited Lava in 2018 – around 10,000 more than 2017.
“There are definitely more people that travel through here with Interstate 15 and Highway 30. It gives people a direct hit over to Jackson Hole and Yellowstone. We get a lot of traffic (and) a lot of tour buses come through.”
The draw, of course, is the hot springs consisting of five pools full of natural mineral water ranging in temperature from 102 to 112 degrees Fahrenheit. The Lava Hot Springs Foundation, an agency within the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, manages the springs and nearby swimming complex.
“We’re fortunate enough that we don’t have to heat it or cool it at all,” says manager Devanee Morrison. “They figure the flow rate is around 2.5 million gallons per day so that helps us with the cleanliness because it flows so quickly.”
The springs are open every day of the year except on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some locals soak twice each day and on weekends, the pools are packed – no matter the weather.
On a recent day, air temperatures were in the single digits around 10 a.m. and a handful of visitors were keeping warm in each of the pools.
“We’re driving back to school from California to Montana right now so this was the last stop on our road trip,” Zoë Hall tells EastIdahoNews.com. She’s visiting the springs with her friend, Peter Mitchell.
“The natural ambiance of sitting in the hot water provided from our earth – it’s really cool,” Mitchell says. “It feels very nice and relaxing.”
A unique aspect about Lava Hot Springs is there is no sulfur smell, unlike other geothermal water springs around the world.
Swimming, floating and more
Once the water leaves the hot pools, some of it is sent less than a mile away to the swimming complex. Here swimmers will find a large outdoor pool with multiple slides, diving boards and nearly a million gallons of water. There’s also an indoor aquatic center, that is open year-round, and the Portneuf Kiddie Cove.
“In the summer, usually everything is at capacity,” Davids says. “People are walking around and everybody is in their swimming suits.”
Another draw to Lava Hot Springs is the Portneuf River – ranked America’s Best River for tubing in 2016 by USA Today. Local businesses offer tubes for rent and folks are known to spend summer days hopping back and forth between the swimming pool, river and hot springs.
If you wish to stay dry, the area offers mountain biking, hiking, snowshoeing, fishing, hunting and plenty of places to stay long or short term.
Visitors then and now
“I think Lava has taken off in the last five years to be more of a year-round resort town than it ever was before,” says Gail Palen, the owner of the Riverside Hot Springs Inn and Spa. She and her husband bought the hotel 11 years ago but it’s been in town for decades.
In fact, a former United States president used to stay here.
“We have one room called the Teddy Roosevelt junior suite. It is known to have been frequented by President Roosevelt,” Palen says.
The hotel has private mineral baths in the basement along with a bar and restaurant.
It will likely be full the first weekend of February when the town holds its annual Fire and Ice Winterfest. There are plenty of activities including a Polar Float Parade, fire performers and participants running down Main Street in swimming suits and flip-flops.
“People have come for the festival and then they can’t stay away,” Davids says. “A lot of people are off on the weekends so they come here to soak and enjoy the hot water. In the summer when it’s hot, they like to get on the river and get into the swimming pool.”
In recent years, national media outlets have featured Lava Hot Springs in their publications and programs. Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel visited the Lava Hot Springs Inn, a former sanatorium turned hotel.
“Once used to treat soldiers suffering from nightmarish effects, the mineral baths act as a conductor for paranormal activity,” the show’s description reads.
While you likely won’t find any ghosts during your visit to Lava Hot Springs, you will be able to relax, enjoy nature and appreciate one of eastern Idaho’s treasures.
“It’s a great quick getaway to rejuvenate yourself from the world we live in,” Palen says. “There’s nothing better than chilling out, soaking in the hot springs and taking it all in.”