Southbound. My eye followed the ridgeline of the towering mountains out the window as I made a mental note of the trails I had yet to hike. The trails on the western side of the valley parallel the streams and rivers that cut through the craggy mountains, leading to pristine lakes that sit at the base of peaks just waiting to be climbed. The car’s odometer kept track of each of the 96 miles traveled as we drove down the Bitterroot Valley from Missoula, Montana. One by one we passed the eight different communities along Highway 93. We obeyed the lower speed limits as we passed through Florence, Stevensville, Hamilton, Corvallis, and others, but we kept our eyes on the jagged peaks. For many nature lovers here, including myself, the towns aren’t the main attraction; the two mountain ranges that form the eastern and western perimeters of the valley are the true eye candy and source of recreation. The rolling Sapphire Mountains on the east don’t grab my attention quite as much as the rockier Bitterroot Mountains on the west, but finding untouched wilderness is certainly possible no matter the direction. I don’t think you can ever digress when talking about nature and recreation, but that’s all a story for a different day.
On this particular Saturday the road from Missoula was taking us on a road trip loop for my birthday. A lover of summertime, my (obviously) unchangeable winter birthday occasionally leaves me with an empty list of ways to celebrate. We had flexed some creative muscles to put together a more than satisfactory itinerary for this one.
Tiny Stanley, Idaho was our destination for the first night. Stanley is a tourist town located at the foot of the Sawtooth Mountains and next to the Salmon River. With a reputation for natural beauty and pristine wilderness, Stanley is well-known in the local outdoor community.
Arriving in Stanley at night left something to the imagination. The absence of light and the increasing fog gave the narrow road leading into the 70-person town an extra mysteriousness. Although I couldn’t see them, I could feel that the mountains were there, just beyond the few artificial lights of the hotels and restaurants.
We awoke on the morning of my birthday to the coldest temperatures of the week in the area: -12 degrees F. Putting on a bathing suit in the warm hotel room before sunrise made me feel like one of the toughest human beings on the planet—and potentially also the most lunatic. I continued to feel the lunacy as I put on long underwear, snow gear, a beanie, heavy gloves, and snow boots over my bathing suit.
The most popular hot spring in the area, Boat Box, is just 3 miles from town along the same windy road that had brought us in the night before. The scenery was just beginning to illuminate around us with the dawn of the day as my partner, Jake, used the resident five-gallon bucket to dump many gallons of freezing river water in the small copper cauldron. The PVC pipe coming out from the hillside had been carrying and placing the scalding water in the cauldron throughout the night, and we needed to tweak the heat input just a bit. As the first ones in the hot spring that day, the water truly was too hot to get in right away.
Many toe dip tests later, I determined that we had added enough of the Salmon River to temper the naturally heated water. We gingerly climbed in and watched the sun rise while we sipped coffee (I know, impeccable planning) as our hair froze and the scenery lit up around us. By the time we were leaving Boat Box about an hour later, there were two other cars pulled off the narrow road waiting for their turn in the two-person tub. My birthday was officially underway.
A lavish hotel restaurant brunch in the room and a little afternoon cross country skiing on trails near town rounded out our time in Stanley before we headed west towards our first Forest Service cabin of the trip. In the winter, the Warm Springs Guard Station is accessible via a packed mile-long hike. I donned a backpack and carried my birthday cake while Jake pulled the pulk sled with the rest of our (admittedly lavish) supplies. I make this sound simple, but really, we arrived in the dark and I lost track of how many times the sled tipped over. Each time our belongings slowly slipped off the mounded pile into the snow, we tried a different configuration and tie down strategy. Two tortoises, zero hares on this trek. It’s hard to know if it was the bottle of champagne or one of the three board games that really put the gear load over the edge.
The cabin was everything I could have wanted: remote, electricity-free, dry (no running water), and about 2.5 miles from the Bonneville Hot Springs. We fired up the wood stove and I got a solo rendition of “Happy Birthday” before I blew out the candles on the cake that was magically unscathed from the journey.
After blazing a new trail on our XC skis and snowshoes the following day, we made the hike from the cabin to these new hot springs for the sunset. Multiple pools of varying temperatures meant we could pull a “Goldilocks” and find the one that was juuuust right. I achieved my birthday goal of drinking aforementioned champagne in a hot spring, we watched the (almost full) moon rise, and made the trek back to the cabin by that bright moon. A surf ‘n turf dinner of elk steak and shrimp and a few rounds of those impossible-to-pack-well board games capped off another simple, calm, and tech-free evening. Perhaps the hassle with the sled the evening before had been worth it.
Our road trip continued the next afternoon to what truly felt like the middle of nowhere, Idaho. Deep in the wilderness down two different dead-end roads sat the Walker Cabin, another off-grid Forest Service cabin. While our time at this cabin was relatively short, there was enough time to beat Jake at chess and finish off some fancy cheese and crackers.
Shooting straight through the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest and up and over Lolo Pass provided the stunning scenery to cap off the Tour de 31. We rolled back into Missoula refreshed, restored, and ready to start planning our next trip.