I’ve often wondered whether a person named Jerry Johnson ever existed. Was he the man who first discovered the pools of hot water hidden along a creek just up from the Lochsa River? I’ve asked Forest Service rangers, and researched it on the internet. No one knows. But in my mind’s eye he is the man that I met there one morning many years ago.
I had heard stories about the land of the Lochsa and in late fall decided to travel through Missoula and over Lolo Pass to a place that now feels like home. I pulled over, as twilight set upon the valley, at a sign that read “Jerry Johnson Hot Springs”.
The parking area was full of people, so I thought I would check out the hot springs in the morning before everyone woke up. I made dinner along the river and went to sleep in the back of my 4runner. When I woke in the morning the parking lot was completely empty except for one beat up, old Chevy truck.
I pushed open my door and was offered a fresh cup of coffee from an old man with more lines in his face than I have ever seen. While we drank coffee, he explained that he was temporarily living in a tent in woods across the river. He had broken up with his girlfriend in Spokane and decided that a return to the places of his youth was what he needed. He was out of money and hoping to find some work in Missoula once his brother arrived. As the sun rose over the valley I thanked him for the coffee and walked across the “wilderness gateway” bridge and up the trail to the hot springs. I soaked until the pools became busy and went to look in the woods for the old man. I never found him, but as I left I slipped $10 and a thank you note in the window of his truck.
I have returned to Jerry Johnson every winter since that first visit. When my wife and I met, we discovered that we both shared a love for the Lochsa area. Our children have grown up running along Warm Springs Creek in the winter, sliding over rocks to explore the pools. My favorite time to go is November, when the hordes of people have left the valley for the winter and you can have the springs all to yourself, if you are determined enough. Whenever I pull into the parking area, I think of the old man and wonder whether he was Jerry Johnson.
The Lochsa Lodge provides the perfect home base for winter trips into the Lochsa valley. The springs are closed from sunset to sunrise, so we try to be the first people pulling into the parking area in the morning. We soak for a few hours, then return to the Lodge for breakfast and to lounge around the fireplace playing games.
On a recent trip we enjoyed the first snows of the season as we soaked in the springs, water ouzels (or American Dippers) bobbing on boulders and diving in the creek for insects, and a mink running along the creek across fallen logs.
Take Interstate 90 east to Missoula, then head south on Highway 93 to the town of Lolo where you will then head west on Highway 12 over Lolo Pass, back into Idaho. The Lochsa Lodge is about 12 miles downriver from Lolo Pass, and Jerry Johnson Hot Springs is about 22 miles from the pass. The springs are roughly a mile hike in and undeveloped. In the winter expect snowy and/or muddy conditions.
For those brave souls who love a shortcut, head south off I-90 just past the town of Alberton at the Petty Creek exit and skip Missoula altogether saving about 45 minutes. WARNING! In the past this road has washed out in the winter. It turns to gravel after just a few miles and there are some steep switchbacks on the road. It is much better than it used to be but even so, there were some white- knuckle moments on this road during our recent trip.
Check with the Lochsa Lodge before heading down to the springs. In bad winters Highway 12 is closed just beyond the Lodge and the springs are much harder to reach.
The springs are CLOTHING OPTIONAL, which is a nice way of saying everyone there will be nude.
Please don’t leave your trash behind. There’s no reason.