Lava Hot Springs: Idaho’s Little Secret by Perry and Brandi Montoya

What could possibly be better, on an icy cold December day, than to venture to the former Shoshone Mecca known to Western Native American tribes simply as “Poha-Ba” or Land of the Healing Waters? This is seen on the Rock featured in Lava’s Historical Museum. Today, that thermal wonder is known as Lava Hot Springs, Idaho Perhaps the only thing better than merely stealing away to the truly healing mineral waters of Lava (said “Laah-Vah” not “La-Vah” by locals and those in the know) would be to make your home-base the Greystone Manor Bed and Breakfast; we did so this past December and couldn’t have been more pleased.

Greystone Manor; Lava Hot Springs, Idaho

From our first meeting through our last goodbyes, we felt like we had made lifelong friends/family with the Greystone’s owners. We have stayed in B&B’s before and love the personal touches . . . but Vicky Lyon’s touch (together with her capable husband and staff) is second to none!

The Greystone is a former Mormon church turned mansion for would-be travelers, and we’ve been converted. The Inn touts a chapel, conference/reception area, five themed bedrooms on site, two vacation homes across the street for additional accommodations, and even fine dining. You’d be crazy not to experience Vicky’s prime rib or one of her specialty chicken dishes not to mention the comfort-food staple that is her butternut squash ravioli. And, for breakfast, don’t forget her light, yet filling German pancakes served traditional with lemon, powdered sugar and lingonberries. Simply make your reservations for Vicky’s meals and come hungry. We loved our stay here and will certainly return again soon.

Apart from the obvious draw of the waters, Lava is home to some of the best people we’ve ever met in our travels. Our contact to the Lava Hot Springs Visitor’s Bureau put us in touch with the Executive Director of the Lava Hot Springs Foundation, Mark Lowe. We walked with Mark along the riverside pathway through town listening to rich history and vivid memories of Lava. As Mark spoke of Lava, it felt as if we were listening to a player turned pro now crediting and praising his mentor of years gone by. Lava is that tutor and constant for every person we met while in town. While strolling with Mark, we were treated to and reminded (in full view) of what makes Lava what it truly is: the waters. Even if it is self-guided, take this walk along the river and through this storied town.

The Portneuf River meanders through town. In summer months it’s the scene of fun-filled river tubing through town and excellent fly fishing outside of town; it is the lifeline of Lava. Into it flows the 2.5 million gallons of 102-114 degree mineral water that feeds the state hot pools daily. Along side of it, besides the legendary natural and man-made pools, are the many local establishments that thrive because of its waters. One such is the centenarian gem that is the Riverside Hot Springs Inn This hotel sits quietly on the banks of the Portneuf.

View from the balcony at the Riverside Inn

We were told, by the delightful owner of the Riverside Inn, Gail Palen, that the “road” (now dirt trail) out front of the Inn used to be a well-beaten path from the railroad to their front door. Perhaps some of the west’s first “shuttling” of would be tenants to their night’s accommodations happened here over a hundred years ago. While we didn’t stay in one of their charming eighteen rooms, nor soak in their private mineral baths – some modern and others still rustic – we did dine with delight at the capable hands of Chef Alonzo Thomas. From the “amuse-bouche” – French for “amuse the mouth” – appetizer of teriyaki flat-iron steak to the squash soup, followed by risotto and grilled salmon, the meal was as much artwork as it was savory and filling. We were grateful we saved room for the honey and lavender crème brûlé and chocolate lava cake laced with traces of cayenne. Each course of Alonzo’s cooking seemed to build upon the next or leave trails of the former. A trip to Lava without a stay and dinner at the Riverside Inn and Portneuf Grille would certainly be a mistake. We only had welcoming glances at some of the other stays in town including: The Home Hotel (with owners Scott and Marcy Pearhill who are amazing people), The Lava Hot Springs Inn, and The Lion’s Gate Manor Themed Suites

Have you booked yet? If not, what could possibly be better than Lava in December? Perhaps Lava in the summer . . .

Mark led us through the rest of town specifically to the summer showcase that is their Olympic Swimming Complex. This pool has something for everyone. Whether in the indoor pool with diving boards, climbing wall and basketball hoops, or the outdoor pool complete with 10 meter and under platforms, this pool is the real deal. Recent adds include the 60’ and 38 MPH drop of the Speed Water Slides and (available this coming summer) a state of the art kiddie pool. I loved this place as a kid and it just keeps getting better.
Our final destination with Mark found us headed out of town . . . It seems that the 3rd Saturday of each month in this quaint town the local Lions Club sponsors – in addition to BINGO twice weekly – a trap shoot at Smith’s Trout Haven just outside of “city” limits.
Sporting my Navy Pea Coat (not Cabelas® or Carhart®) I felt like I was auditioning for City Slickers 3. To make my urban cowboy story complete, I only shot 1 for 5 (insert courtesy apology to my sharpshooter father-in-law at this point in the article) but the outing was a ball. We stood outside just long enough in the 9 degree weather to put us in the proper frame of mind for a soak in the hot pools. Truth is, 9 or 79 degrees, no “frame of mind” is needed and every time is soak time in Lava. En route, acting on local tip, we’d ordered ahead to the Royal Hotel & Pizza Parlor for lunch. While I couldn’t find a website, I did find plenty of positive foodie reviews on the web; the location is dead center of town and their pie speaks for itself. The tasty and fair-priced combo hit the spot and left enough substance and flavor to look forward to leftovers. It was the perfect boost before hitting the hot pools.
The crystal clear mineral water springs that feed this Idahoan oasis are pristine. I’ve frequented other notable warm/hot springs in the U.S. and always been willing to tolerate the sulpher smell or algae build up in order to steep my body in their medicinal flow. Lava Hot Springs is far from that. Carefully graveled beds line immaculate rock and cement pools. Our tour earlier had even taught us that ingenious and resourceful engineering has routed that same water through sidewalks and walkways to ensure deck ice is non-existent and comfort is high. The pools are many and the space is plentiful. Tour groups frequent the springs. Children wander about in the daytime – though not splashing or unattended. The aged come day AND night for relief. Saturday night is unofficial date night at the hot pools. And, certainly, Lava is for couples. There’s no limit to the offerings of the hot springs.

No trip to Lava would be complete without a stop at the South Bannock County Historical Museum Cathy Sher is the docent there. Her competent, caring love for all things Lava is endearing enough and yet her tender personality certainly sweetens the experience. Add her partner Rory’s knowledge and passion for the region and the history is not only preserved but passed on in true form. Displays give due diligence to Native American heritage, early “settler” life, railroad influence, and even modern local heroes who have given much to preserve said history. The museum is a must see while in town.

We closed our hiatus to Lava much as we’d begun . . . with a night dip in the Poha-ba. What better way to welcome a night’s rest than the soothing waters of Lava Hot Springs?
Our departure found us leaving friends-turned-family and plotting a speedy return. While the names and faces listed above might not be the same you’ll encounter while at Lava, you’re sure to discover Lava’s home-town feel, pride in community, and ever inviting waters. We’ll bring the kids this summer so they can one day exclaim (as did most of the folks we talked with while there), “I remember Lava when I was a kid. I loved that place.” Let’s hope their eventual return doesn’t take as long as ours did. Likewise, nor should you delay in venturing to the “Land of Healing Waters” that is Lava Hot Springs, Idaho.