Montana Colors and Idaho Hot Springs along Hwy. 12

October 21 – 24, 2017 – 2017/2018 Solo Winter Travels ~ Part 3

On the night of the 21, after soaking in the hot springs at The Boiling River, I camped just north of Gardiner in the Gallatin National Forest, then continued my drive along the Yellowstone River heading towards Bozeman, MT.

Walmart Camping in Butte, MT (my horrible experience).

Not one to drive very far each day, I only got as far as Butte, MT on the 22nd, and rather than drive a long way into the national forest I opted for the Wal-Mart parking lot in Butte (google map link). It was horrible. I parked near the other RV’s, but not too close. There was one guy in a 5th Wheel that parked right in the middle of the area we were allowed to stay for the night, and he had a very noisy generator running on the back of his truck. Everyone could hear it, but he didn’t care. I tried to tuck in a place where I was away from that noise but, also not near the main thoroughfare for traffic, however, it was impossible. Butte is a mining town, and there was an excess of adrenaline-filled men with big trucks with noisy exhausts. They seemed to take great delight in driving through the area we were parked and revving up their engines to make their noisy exhausts reverberate as loud as possible. If that wasn’t enough, one of the Wal-Mart employees started up the parking lot sweeper at about 9:30 PM, and proceeded to sweep around all the RVs. He finished at 11:30 PM at which time it started to quiet down a bit. I read other travelers comments about this Wal-Mart in a few places, and one had mentioned the sweeper had gone through at 2:00 AM on his stay, but other than that, most folks said it was quiet. I sometimes wonder if many of these RV’ers are hard of hearing because I’ve never stayed in a ‘quiet’ Wal-Mart parking lot yet. I guess there are some advantages to getting harder of hearing as one gets older.


Fall began in September back in Estes Park and the mountains of Colorado and was quite stunning as I drove north towards Yellowstone National Park. However, in Yellowstone, the golden aspen leaves had fallen, and there had only been evergreens left along with rusty colored grass and bushes, so imagine my surprise when I started to see (what I thought were) golden pine trees. I’d never seen this transformation before, so I had to look up what they were and it turns out that they were The Western Larch or Tamarack.

3618-Lolo NF Montana

The next day I explored some side roads that led into the Lolo National Forest, then camped the night in the Walmart Parking lot in Missoula, MT. This was a much smaller lot and it made it harder for drivers to speed through, so I found it to be much quieter. There were no parking lot sweepers, and it did actually get quite peaceful during the evening hours and I slept well. Other people have had the opposite experience to mine, so I guess it’s all just hit-or-miss when it comes to noise. The reason I’d chosen this option, was because of my finances. This particular trip was going to be very tight indeed financially, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on gasoline driving into and out of the national forest. In some cases, it was a 25+ mile drive into the National Forest boundary, which is 50-miles round-trip, hence the decision to camp the economical way.

Jerry Johnson Hot Springs

My goal for this trip was to travel down the Oregon coast, and walk on as many beaches as the weather would allow me. So from Missoula, it was time to start heading west. I wasn’t in a hurry, so I decided to take the beautiful and scenic Hwy 12, through the northern part of Idaho and into Washington State. This road parallels the Lochsa River the whole way. Over the millennia the Nez Perce people (Nimiipuu) lived, hunted, gathered roots, camped and fished here.


While Highway 12 doesn’t follow the exact route of the Lewis and Clark expedition, you could drive the Lolo Motorway, just north of Hwy 12 which traverses the exact country that the original explorers passed through. I didn’t do this but I hear it is quite is rugged terrain.


I’d heard there were a couple of natural hot springs along Hwy 12, and that was my goal. I got better details at the Lolo Pass Visitor Center, which is one of the nicest visitor centers I’ve ever been in. Not only were the people friendly and helpful, but they also had free coffee and hot chocolate. There was an L.E. Ranger (law enforcement) there, and he was super friendly and helpful. Often times I find the L.E. Rangers to be more aloof than that. I learned that I could camp anywhere in the forest as long as the spot was already established, even right along the road if I wished.

I found a nice spot for the night, not far from the first hot springs I intended to visit, called Jerry Johnson Hot Springs, also known as Warm Springs. There were toilets at this trailhead (no camping here) and it was a 1-mile hike to the springs. I had the place to myself at first, and it was sheer heaven. However, I failed to take into account that the sun only reaches this valley for a very brief time period at this time of the year, so I only had sunshine at the springs for about 10-minutes due to the tall trees in addition to the deep valley, and then it got really cold again once out of the pool.

That night I camped at the trailhead for Weir Creek Hot Springs so I could visit them the next day. This was only a half-mile walk in, but it was a little steeper hike. When I got there, there was a young couple in the pool. They left after a short while, and I was alone briefly before two very nice young men came along. We visited for some time with good conversation. That is one of the things I love about certain hot springs, they are very conducive to good conversation because when half-naked (or naked) strangers are thrown together in a tiny space, it is just polite to converse. It’s a good way to get some company for a short time, after being on one’s own for weeks at a time.

I found a lovely spot along the Lochsa river that afternoon and relaxed, and in the evening I had a campfire because someone had left a pile of already chopped wood behind.

I considered staying another night and just resting, but in the morning I was reminded by the thick morning mist that there would be little sunshine to take the chill of these October days.

One of the things I enjoyed most about camping along the Lochsa was the intense darkness around my camp at night. It was as black as coal in the woods and so quiet it almost hurt the ears. I found myself clapping my hand to be sure I hadn’t turned deaf. I imagined what it was like for the Nez Perce when they lived here to be in such a thick forest, with such blackness, and cold and damp, and with skies totally untouched by light pollution. Indeed, I was in total awe of the stars at night, with no light pollution nearby I could almost believe there was no society beyond this canyon.

Roxy ~ A Nomad for Nature


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