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Road Trip: Goldbug Hot Springs and Salmon, Idaho

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Goldbug Hot Springs is just one must-see in the Salmon Valley in northern Idaho. PHOTO BY LESLIE KILGORE


Salmon, Idaho is one of those very special western towns. A place where people gather for a day, a weekend, a season, or a lifetime seeking outdoor adventures, guided outfitter trips, employment, provisions, small town culture and genuine people. 

I recently spent a few days in the Salmon area after heading out on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River with Boundary Expeditions, a guided whitewater river trip that’s worth visiting Salmon for in itself. After spending five days and four nights on the river, it was a nice respite to explore Salmon and the surrounding area.

Goldbug Hot Springs is a must-stop destination when in the Salmon Valley at any time of year. If visiting during the warmer months, an early sunrise or evening sunset visit is best, as the springs can be too hot on a summer day. What used to be a secret, word-of-mouth spot is now well known, thanks to social media and Google maps, so going early to scope out the pools is always best.

The first time I experienced Goldbug was in the mid-90s before cellphones and websites even existed. Spots like this were only discovered by word-of-mouth and an atlas. While the crowds have increased, Goldbug is still unique, even for the hot springs aficionados who have known this “secret” spot for decades. As a dedicated hot spring enthusiast, I still return annually for its remote location, pristine waters and gorgeous views. Other than more people on the trail and in the pools, and a more established parking lot, Goldbug still holds its magic and is conserved and revered by loyal soakers. 

While Goldbug has hardly changed, what has grown is the town of Salmon itself. With a lively Main Street, particularly in summer, it’s become a hub for those setting out on river trips, pack trips, hunting and horseback riding outfits and hiking excursions. Two health food stores, a substantial bakery with plenty of breakfast and lunch options, a fun and lively coffee shop, several dining options and plenty of shopping have now made Salmon more of an overnight destination than ever before. 

There’s plenty of camping right outside of town, which is usually my choice when in the area. But the Salmon River Inn and the Stagecoach Inn are both decent options for a bed and hot shower, or when it’s too chilly to camp but a perfect time to hike and soak.

The three-star Stagecoach is a good value with a free breakfast and a terrace and pool to enjoy right along the river during summer. The four-star Salmon River Inn is in a historic building on Main Street above the Salmon River Coffee shop. As a self-check-in hotel, it’s convenient for a late-night arrival with everything in walking distance on Main Street. While the building is over 125 years old, the rooms are modern and decorated beautifully. The Family Suite is spacious with a full kitchen, three queen-sized beds and a convertible couch.

For dinner, the Junkyard Bistro features American cuisine, a robust wine list and a fun vibe where locals and tourists dine and sit at the bar together. There’s indoor and outdoor seating on their patio in the summer. The Asian fusion bowls are always a good choice.

The Salmon River Coffee Shop serves freshly ground blends and is a good place to sit, relax, play a board game or read a book if variable weather is in the forecast and Odd Fellow’s Bakery never disappoints with dine-in or take-out breakfast and lunch options and delicious Sourdough bread baked in a wood-fired stove.

Nature’s Pantry is always a pleasure. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable, and their prices are very reasonable for organic foods, supplements, health and beauty options and gifts. Mountain Harvest Community Market, also on Main Street, has a robust selection of local produce and a wide selection of whole foods and groceries.

My favorite stop on Main Street is Arfmann’s Four Seasons. Locally owned and operated for more than 50 years, Loren and Erlene Arfmann run the store with a staff you’ll only find at a small-town business. I always make a point to stop in and support them by purchasing some new outdoor gear, cowboy boots, clothes for the river or hearty wool socks. Their inventory is plentiful and fun to peruse.

A trip to the Salmon Valley is less than five hours from Big Sky and a beautiful drive at that, particularly in the summer. Be sure to save time to stop at some of the eclectic spots along the way and be ready for some wildlife and bird sightings on the drive. While the town of Salmon as a destination is worth the trip, especially for a soak in Goldbug Hot Springs or a Salmon River excursion, the journey is always a highlight too. But I find that to be true on all road trips in the Mountain West—lucky us who get to live here and explore!

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