LAVA HOT SPRINGS — Wellness tourism and mineral and thermal springs took a bath during the COVID-19 pandemic, but both sectors are predicted to rebound dramatically over the next five years, according to a press release from the Lava Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce. Lava Hot Springs in Idaho is already seeing “a robust turnaround,” said the release.
Prior to the pandemic, wellness tourism expenditures and mineral and thermal pool revenues were experiencing strong growth in North America and worldwide, according to the Global Wellness Institute’s December 2021 report, “The Global Wellness Economy: Looking Beyond COVID.” As the coronavirus surged, wellness tourism expenditures and mineral and thermal pool revenues in North America dove 38.5% and 25.6%, respectively, while they sank 39.5% and 38.9%, respectively, worldwide.
Lava Hot Springs attendance dipped 22% during that same timeframe.
“There is no question that wellness tourism, spas, and thermal/mineral springs are the wellness economy sectors that were most adversely affected by COVID-19,” the report’s authors write. “These sectors require a physical presence and/or full immersion for the current experience. Although some businesses have tried, it has not been easy to replicate the experience of a retreat, a massage, or a hot spring soak through virtual or mechanical (touchless) offerings or through products.”
GWI forecasts all 11 sectors of the global wellness economy will grow over the next five years, with wellness tourism and thermal and mineral springs leading the way, boasting annual growth rates of 20.9% and 18.1%, respectively.
Meanwhile, Lava Hot Springs is already recovering at an astonishing rate, said the release. The Idaho state park’s pools attracted 12% more visitors in 2021 — 498,155 — than they did in pre-pandemic 2019 — 444,565. This represents 44.7% growth compared to the 344,223 guests in 2020 at the peak of COVID-19.
“In the wake of the pandemic, hot springs owners who were able to continue to operate did so at reduced capacities, but they had record-breaking years,” Hot Springs Association Executive Director Vicky Nash said.
“Historically, US hot springs facilities have always been packed on weekends,” Nash, who is actively involved with the Global Wellness Institute’s Hot Springs Initiative, said. “But the pandemic forced everyone to spread guests more evenly throughout the week, which was great, and more operators introduced reservation systems that required guests to designate soaking times. This regulated capacity levels more efficiently, which actually made for a better experience all around and maximized reservations.”
Lava Hot Springs rests in Eastern Idaho beside the mountainous Portneuf River Valley along the historic route of the Oregon and California Trails, and people have gathered there for centuries to bathe in its “sweltering, soothing, mineral-rich waters,” said the press release . Once part of the original Fort Hall Reservation of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, Lava Hot Springs was ceded by Congress to the State of Idaho for public bathing use in 1902.
The Lava Hot Springs Foundation, an agency within the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, is charged with the operation, management, control, maintenance, and improvement of the lands and property.
The foundation’s executive director, Devanee Morrison, said Lava Hot Springs has become increasingly popular as a destination for health and wellness over the last two to three decades.
“Our hot springs have developed significantly over time since the construction of the park’s first bath house in 1918 to the five pool complexes our guests enjoy today,” Morrison said. “Our facilities include the world-famous hot pools — which range in temperature from 102 to 112 degrees Fahrenheit — plus our outdoor Olympic swimming complex, an indoor aquatic center, the indoor Portneuf Kiddie Cove, and an outdoor water slide park.”
Morrison said what makes Lava Hot Springs water unique is that it surfaces at an optimal temperature — 112 degrees Fahrenheit — and it has a remarkably low sulfur content.
“We don’t have to heat or cool our natural geothermal water,” Morrison said, “and it doesn’t have that rotten-egg-like smell like you encounter at a lot of other hot mineral springs. Our pools are incredibly clean, too, with 2-1/2 million gallons of fresh, hot mineral water coming in and out each day.”
Lava Hot Springs Inn & Spa owner George Katsilometes — who holds a bachelor’s degree in zoology from UC Berkeley, a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Washington State University, and a Ph.D. in endocrinology from UC Davis — is the resident expert on local water chemistry. He said the health benefits of his water from him and eight mineral hot springs are numerous and well documented and high concentrations of at least five minerals set Lava Hot Springs water apart: calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, and zinc.
“The most important mineral is calcium, and there is a lot of calcium carbonate in our water,” Katsilometes said. “It’s good for your bones and teeth and everything else. Your heart, muscles, and nerves need calcium to function properly, too.
“After that is iron, which carries life-giving oxygen within our red blood cells. And then there’s magnesium, which helps relieve depression and elevates your mood. It also helps in the transmission of nerve impulses, body temperature regulation, detoxification, energy production, and the formation of healthy bones and teeth. Magnesium is especially important for women’s reproductive health.
“Manganese is similar to magnesium. It helps in bone formation, thyroid function, formation of connective tissues, sex hormone function, calcium absorption, blood sugar regulation, immune function, and fat and carbohydrate metabolism.
“And the high amount of zinc in our water promotes proper functioning of the immune system, aids in digestion, helps control diabetes, reduces stress levels, improves energy metabolism, and speeds acne and superficial wound healing.”
Beyond the state park itself, hot springs are abundant throughout the area. The Home Hotel, Lava Hotel & Spa, Lava Hot Springs Inn & Spa, and Riverside Hot Springs Inn & Spa offer hot mineral soaking experiences, as well as Downata Hot Springs about 30 miles south of Lava Hot Springs. Although it does not offer hot pools, the historic Harkness Hotel in nearby McCammon operates a luxurious and well-renowned spa only 10 minutes from Lava Hot Springs (and 10 minutes closer to the local ski resort, Pebble Creek).
Morrison said Lava Hot Springs, which the website DataUSA.io reports had a population of only 232 fulltime residents in 2019, averaged more than 37,000 visitors per month that same year.
She said the destination attracts visitors from around the world — including England, Germany, Korea, and Australia — but draws most of its guests from Utah, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. She said the community also sees a lot of traffic from Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and the Dakotas, as well as from Canadian tourists traveling south or heading home.
The town lies 40 minutes southeast of Pocatello, Idaho, two and a half hours north of Salt Lake City, and three hours south of West Yellowstone, Montana, along US Route 30 near Interstates 15 and 80 and US Route 91.
There are many other features and activities that make Lava Hot Springs an idyllic health and wellness destination, Morrison said.
“In general it really is a good destination to come and get more than one activity in,” she said. “There are several things to do. In the winter there’s a ski resort called Pebble Creek and the Mink Creek Nordic Center that are not far from us, so you can come ski or snowboard for the day and enjoy a soak afterwards. You can go snowshoeing above Dempsey Creek, too, and there are several places around here to go snowmobiling.”
Lava Zipline Adventure operates a zip line and ropes course all year round that is available by reservation.
When fair weather prevails, Morrison said outdoor recreation options include mountain biking, hiking, golf, two disc golf courses (with a local retailer, Mountain Mayhem Adventure Rentals, that sells and rents discs), fishing, and floating the Portneuf River, which winds through town. Lava Hot Springs also sports outdoor tennis courts and a pickleball court.
It’s very walkable, too.
“Lava Hot Springs is such a small town,” Morrison said. “It’s supremely walkable. Our city limits are about one square mile total. The biggest challenge is finding a parking space, but once you do you can park for the day and walk everywhere. Our downtown is downright charming, with a great collection of locally owned restaurants and stores. And we have eight scenic parks, including our Sunken Gardens that showcase native and imported flowers and plants and the ancient remains of algae reefs.”
The town also organizes an annual Wellness Festival each spring designed to nourish body, mind, and spirit. The event is presented by the Lava Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, and the format changes every year.