Okay, I admit it; Im a hot springs fanatic. After all these years, it still seems magical to me that hot, soothing water can flow right out of the ground without water heaters or utility bills. There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but with a good hot spring, you can get a free hot bath. Among my favorite backcountry fly-in destinations are a few special sites where an inviting pool of naturally heated hot water beckons the weary hiker or aviator for a soothing break. While I do love the isolated and rustic wilderness hot spring, there are times when a few amenities are nice also. For these occasions I try to keep it as simple as possible. No mega-resorts or Mariachi bands for me. A nice hot spring and a few basics will do just fine. Let me tell you about one such place that is easily accessible and available year round.
Nestled just on the north side of the Nevada-Idaho border, in the middle of miles and miles of rather unremarkable Bruneau Desert flats, lies a small gorge carved out of the desert by the East Fork of the Jarbridge River. The Gorge cradles a lovely little canyon with a healthy Cottonwood filled streambed and the small (very small) settlement known as Murphy Hot Springs. The hillside above the village is the source of the purest artesian water found anywhere around. This perpetually flowing water exits at a steaming 149° F and makes its way down into the river below.
The spring was first discovered by the native Indians who roamed the area in search of game and shelter. The first acknowledged proprietor of the Hot Springs was a young lady named Kittie Wilkins, whose father filed a squatters rights claim on the land in 1885. Kittie Wilkins was a lady of some repute in her time. She was educated first at St. Vincents Academy in Walla Walla, Washington, and later at the Convent of Notre Dame in San Jose, California. Moving with her family to the Southern Idaho area in the early 1880s, she was able to indulge in her love for horses. She eventually became known as a master horse trader, and her fame stretched across international borders. She was commonly referred to as the "Horse Queen of Idaho," and ran as many as 700 to 800 horses at a time. Kittie cleaned up the spring and made a small pool in which it collected. She was able to divert some of the cool river water to create a refreshing spot for the weary ranch hands and cowboys who managed the horses and other concerns of her fathers ranch. The spring became known as "Kitties Hot Hole," and cowboys and ranchers from miles around soon became regulars at the site.
In the early 1900s, the springs fell into the hands of a Patrick Murphy, who developed a small resort on the property and renamed it "Murphy Hot Spring." Mr. Murphy is long since gone, but the name lives on. The next owner was Harry Showalter, who stumbled upon the hot spring one day after taking a wrong turn during a fishing trip. He ended up 70 miles from his original destination, but what he found impressed him so much he bought the place. He developed a small resort with a few very basic cabins and amenities. He built a large swimming pool to contain the water, and some simple changing rooms around the edge so visitors could stop by and take a quick dip.
The resort is rustic with a humble, yet friendly atmosphere. The current owner, Matthew Olivas, and his family will cook up some mighty fine Mexican food, or just about anything else you might want. It takes half a day on a long and dusty dirt road to get to any other outpost of civilization, so if supplies are low the menu might be a bit limited. There are nine simple cabins a bed, a chair, and no plumbing which can be rented for those looking for a few days getaway. The rates are extremely reasonable, and its safe to say you wont be bothered by the hustle and bustle of the everyday world. When I visited Murphy Hot Springs there was no TV, radio, or Internet.
The resort maintains the swimming pool, where the hot spring water is allowed to cool naturally, providing a very pleasant 104° to 105° F swim. There are a few other full and part time residents who maintain cabins, mobile homes, or camping trailers at Murphy Hot Springs on a year-round basis. The population can vary anywhere from 10 to 30 residents. The mail is delivered three times a week, and the Owyhee County Sheriff comes around every so often to keep an eye on things.
Life is pretty laid-back at Murphy Hot Springs, but there are plenty of other things to do between dips in the pool. Visitors can hike or mountain bike throughout the canyon, or just find a quiet place to relax and enjoy the step back in time. The river sports excellent fishing, and the area has plenty of game for hunting. Matthew says people are pretty free to do just about whatever they want, and it is this unfenced-in feeling that gives the sense of freedom not found at large fancy resorts.
For those who like to get out and explore there is plenty to see in the area. A few miles down the road into Nevada lies the ghost town of Jarbridge, established in 1909 after Dave Bourne and his companions found a rich outcrop of gold ore in the hillside. By the end of that year, over 71 claims had been filed and the town swelled to over 1,500 residents. Bourne claimed that there was over $27 Billion of gold, but the ore was difficult to work and soon the town was down to just 300 people. Between 1913 and 1937 two large mining companies moved in. They were able to employ technology unavailable to the small-time miners, and by the time the Elkoro and the Elko Prince Mining companies were through, their 90,000 feet of underground mines had yielded, by todays standards, over $155 Billion in gold and silver.
The town of Jarbridge was known for another distinction in history. During a snowstorm on Dec. 5, 1916, the townsfolk became worried about the overdue mail stagecoach. A search soon found the body of the murdered driver, one Fred Searcy, and they discovery that over $3,000 was missing. Eventually, Ben Kuhl, a petty criminal and horse thief, was arrested along with an accomplice. He was arrested on the strength of a bloody palm print from the stolen mailbag. This was the first time a palm print was allowed as admissible evidence in a court proceeding, and it led to his conviction and incarceration for the next 28 years. His buddy, Ed "Cut Lip Swede" Beck, was given 6 years for his part in the robbery and murder. This was the last recorded stagecoach robbery in the United States.
The Jarbridge ghost town now sits inside the Tsawhawbitts Ranch, with all surrounding area bounded by the Humbolt National forest. Those wishing to include a visit to the Tsawhawbitts Ranch will find varied activities, including fishing, hunting, pack trips, kayaking, trail biking, jeep tours, gold hunting, and gambling. It is open for visitors from early spring to mid-fall. You can reach the ranch by calling Krinn McCoy at (755) 488-2338. She will be happy to provide more information, and can even arrange for an airport shuttle to meet your plane.
Though the area will always be known as "Murphy Hot Springs," the resort has been renamed "Desert Hot Springs Resort." Matthew is now engaged in bottling and shipping the pure artesian water around the world. He uses the hot water right out of the mountain, which is pure and free of sulfur or any other disagreeable mineral. When cooled it is the freshest drink of water you can find. You may find it on your stores shelves under the name "Purity Sweet Bottled Health Water."
A mile-long turf strip located on the plateau above the canyon serves the resort. The arrival is clear and unobstructed, and easily approached from any direction, with open range land for miles around. The 2.5 miles of winding dirt road down the steep canyon provides an exhilarating mountain bike ride, or for those who choose more conventional transportation a phone call to the lodge followed up by a fly-over upon arrival will bring Matthew, or one of his hands, out in a truck or van. If you arrive unannounced, a few passes might be required, but be careful not to get too low, as winds across the plains can do interesting things as they dip down steep canyon walls. The Bruneau MOA and a military restricted area, R-3202, lie to the northwest, so a call to Mountain Home Approach Control for traffic advisories would be a good idea. They can be reached on 124.8.
Fuel is available at Jackpot, Nevada, roughly 30 miles east of the springs. As a counterpoint to the rustic charm of Murphy Hot Springs, you will find luxurious lodging, fine restaurants, and non-stop casino games in Jackpot. The Cactus Pete Resort-Casino is within easy walking distance of the airport, and also offers free airport shuttle service. Call (800) 821-1103 for more information.
Murphy Hot Springs is on the Salt Lake Sectional and can be found in most databases under the identifier 3U0, or at Lat. N.42.01.24 W.115.202.30. If you are thinking about a visit to Murphy Hot Springs, or just want additional information, you can give Matthew a call at (208) 857-2233.