Idaho's Beach Town
Lava Hot Springs
Mosey into the tiny town of Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, on a hot summer day and you might think you’ve been transported to Laguna Beach, California. Throngs of swimsuit-clad people hustle up and down Main Street. Sun, water and happy faces abound.
Unlike Laguna, however, vacationers heft large inflatable tubes instead of surfboards. Riding the rapids on the Portneuf River is the sport of choice in this landlocked town located about 800 miles from the nearest coast and an hour from Idaho’s southern border.
Within the city of Lava Hot Springs are three main attractions all within six blocks of each other, making it a very walkable action-packed small town. Since water is Lava Hot Springs’ No. 1 draw, here’s the skinny on the three spots where you’ll want to splash.
The Hot Springs
The official Lava Hot Springs World Famous Hot Pools (lavahotsprings.com) are on the east end of town.
Visit in the morning hours for a relaxing, uncrowded, quiet soaking experience that feels like you’re at a high-priced spa for a fraction of the cost. On a Saturday evening in the summer, however, the vibe is entirely different. The hot soaking pools are packed with kids, teens, parents and grandparents having an enjoyable time, just as they’ve likely done year after year. The hot pools are perfect for relaxation and soothing muscles for a good night’s sleep.
The grounds are well-groomed, and the five pools covered with beautiful canopies to block the sun or rain. Pool bottoms are spotlessly clean, the water is clear and hot, and there’s no bad odor. Although the hot water bubbles from natural underground springs and is laden with minerals, it has no sulfur and therefore none of that rotten egg smell. The “coolest” pool is 102 degrees, the hottest is 112 degrees and both are open year-round.
Above the hot pools you’ll find the Lava Hot Springs Sunken Gardens open to the public free of charge.
The Wild, Wild River
If you’re up for more than a soothing soak, rent a tube from one of the many vendors lining Main Street (or bring your own) and head for the (river) ride of your life.
Running the Portneuf River feels a lot like a flume ride at an amusement park minus the high price tag. Most of the family friendly crowd throw in their tubes and rafts just below the waterfall, which provides plenty of “safe” thrills and chills as they fly over rapids and bounce off rocks on the side of the stream. In addition to being loads of fun, it’s beautiful.
Words of advice: The single tubes seemed more prone to flip. The four-person rafts are lots of fun but more stable. You can also rent double and triple tubes. Make sure you stay on your tube since there are rocks under the current of this natural river.
Portneuf Rapids Tube Rental’s owner Randy Benglan suggests families and first-timers rent a quad tube.
“The quad tubes are like a big pancake going down the river and they very rarely tip over,” Benglan says. “Always wear protective clothing including a life jacket, good shoes, shirts and shorts to prevent getting scraped up by the rocks.”
It’s worth a few extra dollars to pay for the open-air shuttle that takes you from the bottom of the river to just below the waterfall so you don’t have do it on foot — though many do. If you prefer to walk, it’s only four blocks and tube rental attendants can answer your questions and direct you about where to get in and out. There is also information available online at www.lavatuberental.com.
Olympic Swimming Complex
If you aren’t waterlogged after soaking and river floating, head to the Lava Hot Spring’s Olympic Swimming Complex on the west side of town for its indoor, outdoor and kiddie pools, waterslides and diving platforms. Combination passes are available for the Olympic complex and hot spring area. Bring your own lounge chairs or you’ll be sitting on the lawn.
After a full day of river running, hot spring soaking and pool play, shops and restaurants in the town of Lava beckon with their unique gift items, ice cream concoctions and the scent of grilled meat.
Additional activities in the area include hiking, biking, ATV riding, camping, golfing, ziplining and even a ghost town nearby in Chesterfield. The Lava Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce includes a recreation guide at www.lavahotsprings.org.
Where to Stay
Strategically located two blocks from the hot pools and Olympic complex, the Alpaca Inn is a great place to stay with its meticulously groomed front garden and a check-in area that’s a sensory experience. The displays of jewelry and soft alpaca toys and rugs to stroke won’t leave any room for boredom while waiting for your key. Rooms are spacious, and the desk clerk is full of helpful tips on places to eat and rent tubes.
In addition, there are several hotels/motels and vacation homes in the area or view a full list of accommodations at www.lavahotsprings.org.