This is an easy run between fabulous places to stay. Its roughly 3 hours between them if you don’t stop but you have plenty of time to stop should you want to. You also can visit Driggs, Idaho on this route if you want to. We decided to save that for another trip.
West Yellowstone, Montana to Lava Hot Springs, Idaho is generally along US 20 and US Interstate 15. You pick up the interstate at Idaho Falls. The start of the journey is through the beautiful Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
We didn’t make any side trips but decided to go directly to Lava Hot Springs. My desire was to visit the hot springs in the town and I knew there was a water park so that would be fun. We managed to park across from the water park in a large grassy area and there were several other RVs there. We decided to check out the town first and when we did Michael saw people going tubing down the river (Pontneuf River) and that was all it took. He wanted to do that. I admit I was a little apprehensive but after seeing younger kids going down it I figured it had to be okay.
We stopped at the KOA which is right in the town and they also rented tubes. We asked if they had any availability for camping and they did not. So we ended up doing the tube rental. I don’t even remember how much it was now but it was something in the range of $30 for the two of us. The vendor, Gator Tube Rentals, was located up the street and she explained they would bring us back from the bottom and we could ride for half a day.
We were both prepared for the water park so i had my wallet and phone in a plastic baggie just in case and we had on bathing suits. we walked through the main street in the town and found it absolutely charming and were really hoping there would be a cancellation so we could spend the night.
We walked up the hill to where they told us we could get tubes and were given tubes and the option of a life jacket. I declined the life jacket as I’m a fairly good swimmer but Michael took one. We got a tandem tube and were told where to go to put in. Having never done this we probably should have heeded the warning signs which I only saw when I looked at the photos later on.
We slid a little down to the put in and I can’t tell you how cold the water was. It was very cold. It didn’t occur to me (when you’re on vacation you sometimes don’t really think) that this was freshly melted snow from the mountains that was flowing so of course it would be bloody freezing. We got into the tube. There was no one to help. We started going down the river. Someone was drinking a beer out of a glass bottle. We were really moving fast and you could feel the rocks just under the water.
Probably about 5 minutes into the run we really were hitting some rapids and the tube turned us over right into the fast moving freezing water. Somehow I managed to get hold of the tube and was braced against a retaining wall that was about 20 feet high and Michael was upstream about 8 to 10 feet from me. I had tumbled and had my legs bruised and cut from the rocks and actually went underwater whereas Michael said he just slid right off the tube and landed on his feet.
I had trouble hanging onto the tube until I managed to position it better. I couldn’t believe how strong the current was. Michael made his way to me and we managed to get the tube flat in the water with us both holding onto it so we could kind of float down as it was impossible to get back into the tube. We managed to get close to the opposite shore to be able to rest and figured we could just leave the river at that point as it was far too dangerous.
Somehow at this point my wallet and phone floated out of my pocket and downstream. There was no way to get it and at this point I was happy to leave the river with my life and if it meant sacrificing a phone and wallet I was good with it. We got out and caught our breath (we were still not quite used to the altitude let alone freezing waters). Our strategy was for me to go back to the RV and get Michael’s phone so I could track mine. I was certain it was gone or lodged somewhere on an embankment.
He walked back to return the tube and was going to wait for me there. I managed to track my phone and found that it was actually on land so I called it. Ashley answered it and said she pulled it out of the river as she had just gone down it and was staying at a nearby hotel, the Home Hotel, and she would meet me there. At this point I nearly cried and still catching my breath headed back to the tube rental to meet Michael. I noticed the hotel on the way (everything is within a compact area) and stopped to see Ashley.
I met her with her family. Her son had cuts and bruises and was bleeding from his trip down the rapids. We shared our experiences. I so wanted to give her something. I didn’t even get their last names. What wonderful people. I will never forget them and their kindness. We went back to the RV and the parking lot was rather full so we had to do some maneuvering but got out.
We stopped at the Flying J just outside town in McCammon (I-15 exit 47) on Highway 30 near the Interstate for gas and decided to just spend the night there as we got a parking spot with an incredible view and we could relax here. There was some shopping we could do in the store and we could grab dinner there as well. We love Flying J’s and look for them on any road trip.
We never made it to the hot springs. We didn’t even make it to the water park. But we were thankful to have a phone, wallet AND our lives. Somewhere there must be a homemade video of the two Florida men falling out of the inner tube and freezing in the rapids. Until then, there’s no photos. The lesson here is to always check your birth certificate before engaging in any activity and to read the warning signs and take them seriously. Also a little research can’t help. I since found an article published the month before that five of the river tube rental vendors were not renting tubes because the river was too high and dangerous!
All said though we’d go back here in a minute as it is a great destination and I would strongly suggest a visit. Plenty of people had no problems going down the river and plenty of people loved it. There are hot springs, great shops and restaurants as well as camping within the town and a water park. This is the ideal destination for us and we really wish we could have stayed and enjoyed it.