POWELL, Idaho — After a day on cross-country skis in the Bitterroot Range along the Idaho-Montana border, the dinner of spaghetti with elk meat was just the thing.
We had driven the 58 miles from Missoula to North Idaho’s Lochsa River corridor for a long weekend of Nordic skiing, the scenery a dazzling composite of mountains, snow-robed cedar trees and the rippling Lochsa, part of the congressionally designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
Jerry Johnson Hot Springs, three thermal pools in the Clearwater National Forest, beckoned with the prospect of a good soak.
We used Lochsa Lodge in Powell, Idaho, as a base for our adventures. From there it was just a couple of miles to a day of Nordic skiing across virgin snow blanketing the forest, and 12 miles to the U.S. Forest Service trails at Lolo Pass, where Idaho and Montana meet and the Lewis and Clark Expedition crossed the Bitterroot peaks in 1805.
The Lochsa River is an easy walk from the lodge dining room, which served the spaghetti one evening, and the next morning enough eggs, bacon and pancakes to carry us through a ski day with just trail snacks for lunch.
The log inn that opened in 2002, to replace a historic lodge destroyed by fire, faces about a dozen cabins and a building with four guest rooms. Cordwood for stove heat occupies the porches. Snowmobilers park their machines by some of the cabins and at others, Nordic enthusiasts stand skis on end in the white mounds shoveled high among the buildings.
Parking our car in a turnout on U.S. 12, we skied on national forest roads and then branched off to places tucked away. For the more adventurous who are properly prepared, there’s the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area. At Lolo Pass, the Forest Service offers seven miles of trails exclusively for skiers and another 27 miles for both skiers and snowmobiles. The trails are not patrolled, and not all are groomed. The visitor center has a helpful staff, sells parking passes and houses interpretive displays.
Reaching the first of the Jerry Johnson pools took us on a one-mile hike through old-growth forest, the trail easy for walking because visitors preceding us had compacted the snow. The second and third pools are within about half a mile of the first. The easy walk from U.S. 12 after crossing a footbridge is one reason for the popularity of the natural pools. We managed to miss the crowds, but people expecting to soak in solitude might be disappointed. The spectacular setting along Warm Springs Creek nourishes a convivial experience, though, and when the pools are busy, conversation tends to flow about as freely as the stream. Clothing is optional.
Also for the thermally inclined, there’s the privately operated Lolo Hot Springs seven miles inside the Montana border. Amenities include a concrete, outdoor pool fed by hot water; an indoor soaking pool; lodging; and a restaurant.
Driving back to Montana, we passed a grove of towering cedars designated in memory of historian, conservationist and public-lands advocate Bernard DeVoto, and then crossed the Idaho line.
Our weekend ended in Missoula, where lodging includes bed and breakfast inns and a hotel on the Clark Fork River waterfront, in the city’s eminently walkable downtown. The restaurants are eclectic, likely encouraged by the large presence of the University of Montana. No elk spaghetti, perhaps, but plenty of good alternatives.