Backpackers Tokyo

Decision fatigue in trip planning

I often encounter something resembling decision fatigue when selecting destinations for multi-day trips during the summer. Trailheads to quintessential Northern Rockies scenery are a short bike ride away. There are numerous uncrowded mountain ranges to explore within a short drive. A half-day drive puts me at life-list locations like Glacier or Yellowstone National Park. Choosing one adventure seems like it inevitably comes at the expense of the opportunity to enjoy another.

My options are drastically reduced in winter once snowfall locks the high country in its cold grip. I have a personal aversion to the labor intensity of winter backpacking in the Northern Rockies. I prefer more cozy accommodations than tents or snow caves when temperatures are in the single digits.

I’ve found two options that work for me in the winter: ski-in rental cabins provided by the US Forest Service (USFS) and hot springs provided by the wonders of hydrogeology. I usually book a handful of cabins for multiple nights. It’s blissful to observe the impossible silence of winter in the mountains, appreciate the flatness of a meadow as snow falls on it, and listen to the pyrotechnic purr of a wood stove as it heats a small log cabin – only to then find myself in total awe at the incredible starscapes once the sun goes down and the crisp winter air brings the sky into sharp focus.

A cabin is pictured in a snowy landscape. With no USFS ski-in rental cabins reserved, I turned my attention to backcountry hot springs for a winter trip. I was looking for something that wouldn’t involve spending an inordinate amount of time on the chores that usually accompany winter backpacking.

The benefits of hot springs

Cabins have their benefits. But there is holistic refreshment and invigoration inherent in spending a few days camping at uncrowded hot springs in the winter. Waking up knowing that you have no other responsibilities or distractions for an entire day other than soaking up the scenery, figuratively and literally, provides a sublime sense of satisfaction and freedom. Some people might find such an agenda a bit unfulfilling – or even boring – but for me, it borders on the divine. I know I’ll never have a Fastest Known Time on any trail, but I could be in the running for a Longest Known Soak at some of the hot springs I visit.

I found myself with some days off work between Christmas and New Year’s, but without reserved cabins. I decided that a few days at a hot spring would be a great way to wind down the year. In a relief from my usual decision fatigue, my reasonable options for backcountry hot springs were limited to exactly two.

Reaching option one would involve a frigid creek crossing but would have the best odds of solitude. I’d visited these hot springs on several overnight trips in spring, fall, and winter in previous years and often had them totally to myself for days at a time. Located in a lush cedar grove, the few pools are a pleasant temperature even on chilly winter days. The views are forest-focused, not expansive vistas. But a sketchy experience with the creek crossing on my most recent visit left me a bit hesitant to return in the winter. To protect the privacy of this innocent hot spring and preserve it’s semblance of solitude, I’ll refrain from naming it here.

A man sits in a hot springs in a forest. This hot springs is one of my favorites, but crossing a frigid and swift creek to reach it limited its appeal for a winter backpacking trip. Although the lush cedar forest makes it quite charming, it also limits the views.

The other option – Goldbug Hot Springs – involved a much shorter hike and no harrowing creek crossings. Still, the hot springs themselves would almost certainly be busier than I’d prefer. I’d visited them once in the winter several years before but never camped there. On trips to and from the Lost River Range and Craters of the Moon National Monument earlier in the year, I saw over 25 cars at the easily accessible trailhead each time. With over 600 reviews on AllTrails, more than 14,000 results when searching for “Goldbug Hot Springs” on Google, and glowing write-ups on a variety of best-of lists, I had no illusions of solitude. But I hoped that the frigid forecast for the three days I planned to stay there combined with the weekday timing would keep things relatively uncrowded.

After considerable internal debate, I ended up deciding on Goldbug Hot Springs. I’d be able to do some downhill skiing at Lost Trail Pass on the way to and from the hot springs. I’d enjoy panoramic views while soaking – and experience solitude at an often-crowded location. I’d wrap up the trip at the delicious and delightful Junkyard Bistro in Salmon, Idaho. An ideal winter trip.

An abundance of emptiness

On a Monday, I pulled into the auspiciously empty trailhead parking lot mid-afternoon with tired legs from a morning of uncrowded powder turns. Only four other vehicles were parked there as I shouldered my backpack. When I crested the last switchbacks that climb from the trailhead, a couple passed me on their way out. Between that and the scarcity of cars, my odds of finding solitude were looking good. The two-mile hike to the hot springs went quickly despite tired legs and 1,300 feet of elevation working against me. It wasn’t as snowy as I’d expected. Still, the microspikes I’d tossed in my pack came in handy on the steeper sections that had been packed down and consolidated through freeze-thaw-refreeze cycles for the last few weeks. Another couple was leaving as I neared the hot springs. They shared the good news that the total number of people at Goldbug was now zero.

A snowy trail is next to a cascading creek of hot water. A snowy trail and warm water cascading down a creek are a delightful contrast in winter, especially when you’re nearing the end of the trail and will be staying for three days of soaking and relaxing.

I was giddy with anticipation as I approached the main pools at the end of the trail and saw the steam wafting up from the cascading creek I was paralleling. Although eager to soak, I knew that it would be prudent to set up camp first so I could more fully relax. Camping within 500 feet of the hot springs is prohibited, so I headed up the hill above the hot springs until I stumbled upon a tiny flat spot sheltered by junipers. The site just barely fit my tent and was the appropriate distance from the hot springs. Once I’d set up camp in this fortuitous nook, I packed up everything I would need until I returned to the tent and headed down to Goldbug Hot Springs.

To my surprise, I was still the only one there as I eased into the approximately 101 °F water of the main pool. Gazing out towards the nearby hillsides studded with rock outcroppings and the distant mountains as a few clouds drifted overhead, I knew I’d made the right choice. After getting acclimated to the warm waters and allowing myself to melt into the experience, I explored the adjacent pools. Much smaller than the main pool, these ranged in temperature from tepid to toasty (approximately 106 °F or more). I lounged in each for a few minutes. Several other pools were above and below the tier I was in. But since I seemed to have an ample range of temperatures and depths close at hand, I didn’t have any motivation to explore further.

The abundance of pools meant that when the other groups arrived, there was plenty of room for each to have a pool to themselves. We’d exchange initial pleasantries, but for the most part, my soak still felt solitary once people settled into their individual slice of paradise. As dusk approached and the day soakers descended back to the trailhead, I once again had one of the most impressive hot springs in the Lower 48 to myself.

A hot springs is in the foreground with mountains in the distance. The view from Goldbug Hot Springs is one of the finest I’ve seen in all my time soaking in springs.

After a break from soaking to fix dinner and some tea, I slid back into the water just as the stars began to come out. The clouds from earlier in the afternoon had cleared out, and the temperature drop was noticeable. My hair began to frost, but I was perfectly content as I enjoyed as I gazed upward and listened to the water tumble from one pool to another. One of the most remarkable shooting stars I’ve ever seen streaked through the inky sky above me. I was able to follow its fiery path for a few seconds before it burned out.

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