There seems no colder, or warmer, place on Earth than Lava Hot Springs

One of the hot pools at Lava Hot Springs Inn, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2012.
Photo: John Katsilometes

A very Lava holiday

Lava Hot Springs is a funky little place. When my brother and I were children, we used to spend many days and nights playing in the water in Lava, a tiny town that sits about 30 miles southeast of Pocatello in Idaho’s southeastern nook along the Oregon Trail.

In the summer, we were always bronzed, and we grew our brown hair really long. A lot of people who didn’t know us actually thought we were little girls. Somehow, in the summer, we never burned. But we about froze on these short winter sojourns to Lava, where the overnight lows in December commonly dive to below zero.

By the time I turned 13, we were off to Chico, Calif., and the sub-zero winters were a frosty memory. But during the holidays, we drift back to the snow to spend the Christmas season together, as the family has spread out from Pocatello (Dad) and Boise (Mom, Grandma, Brother Bill and most of the rest of the clan).

On this year’s crisscrossing adventure, the first leg has been in Pocatello and the tiny, watery resort town nearby. As the name implies, Lava Hot Springs sits on a bed of hard lava rock. Beneath are zillions of gallons of hot water, and natural hot baths are plentiful at the handful of bed-and-breakfast resorts that line the Portneuf River, which cuts through the middle of town.

The entire town of Lava feels about as large as MGM Grand; it takes about as long to walk the entire length of Main Street in Lava as it does to walk from the valet to MGM Grand Garden Arena. It’s a different walk, though. There is just one stop sign in Lava, and it was stuck into the cement 23 years ago. There is no traffic light. The official population is 407. When I was 9, it was 614.

In 1989, Dad bought into Lava by purchasing a decommissioned brick building built in 1925 as a military hospital, referred to as at the time a sanitarium where war veterans came to get well from wounds and burns. The natural mineral water helped speed the healing for those servicemen.

Over the decades, Dad has snapped up a few nearby structures, old motels and residences, and the collective rooms and hot baths make up the Lava Hot Springs Inn. Soon after he bought the main building, Dad hired a massive drill rig to plunge into the hard surface abutting the main building in an attempt to find hot water beneath. After 72 feet, it was geyser time.

Today, multitudes of families and vacationers from all over the world visit this hamlet called Lava. A few nights ago, Dad hosted a holiday party, a citywide potluck, where we listened to classic holiday music played live by a pair of terrific musicians, one a pianist and music teacher and another a violinist with the Idaho State Civic Symphony.

We sat in the steaming outdoor baths and talked for hours about nothing. Every so often, I needed to remember to dip my head into the hot water. This was to keep my hair from freezing.

As someone once crooned, baby, it’s cold outside. But the week before Christmas, there is no warmer place on Earth than Lava.

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