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updated 7/10/2006 2:48:39 PM ET 2006-07-10T18:48:39

A natural hot tub gives you a singular kind of pampering. You get hours of muscle-relaxing heat while seated with strangers on a bed of river gravel.

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Idaho's vast wilderness holds a wealth of natural beauty - and a huge network of natural hot springs that have been tapped over the years by enterprising explorers. At these natural springs, reached by unmarked trails that snake through steep woods, rubber hoses divert boiling water from the surrounding rock into stone-and-cement enclosures where you can sit at peace for hours in a cloud of steam.

The best tubs are the ones near the bracing waters of rivers like the mighty Salmon, where buckets or PVC pipes allow you to moderate the temperature by letting in cold water from the river.

For years, many of these soaking spots were known only by word of mouth. But lately they've made their way into the pages of books and onto the Internet, and now anyone who wants to drive up a mountain road and follow directions can find a place in the hot water.

At http://www.trails.com you can find a list of the best hot springs in Idaho, led off by a clothing-optional spot near the South Fork of the Payette River, where there are custom-made valves for regulating the water temperature.

Things are a little more formal at the Lava Hot Springs resort community in eastern Idaho, where clothing is not optional, and where local hotels and motels offer their visitors a civilized dip in geothermally heated swimming pools. The local chamber of commerce has photos of the area's "Mineral Hot Pools."

Somewhere in between are Molly's Tubs in the Boise National Forest, where someone took the trouble to haul a half-dozen or so old bathtubs through the woods to the south fork of the Salmon River. The water is piping hot; to cool it, you have to carry a few buckets of cold river water to your tub. Someone has thoughtfully left a bucket for that purpose, with instructions not to remove it. The spot, like most other natural hot springs in the area, is clean and free of litter. It's almost as if hot-tub users were governed by a communal agreement to take care of their places.

Nobody knows how many handmade hot tubs have been hewn out of rock, logs, and cement that was hand-carried in through twisting trails. And nobody knows who to thank as they bask in chest-deep steaming water, conversing with strangers.

If you can't quite picture all this, check out http://www.idahohotsprings.com, which has up-to-date video and reviews of several natural hot springs in Idaho and nearby eastern Oregon.

The state of Idaho also offers some photos on its web site, http://www.visitidaho.org. It lists hot springs all over the state - with directions for finding them. Geothermally heated water is such a part of Idaho's past and present that several buildings in Boise, the state's largest city, are heated geothermally - including the Statehouse and an entire neighborhood of older homes. Far from Boise, farmers use the free hot water to raise tropical fish or to heat greenhouses.

How hot is this water? At http://www.soak.net you'll find the latitude, longitude, and temperature of several hot springs around the state. It says the thermometer reaches a foot-scorching 160 degrees at Indian Hot Springs in Idaho - not to be confused with the more temperate Indian Springs Resort in Idaho Springs, Colo.

If you want to learn more about Idaho's geothermal aquifers, check out the U.S. Department of Energy's helpful site at http://geothermal.id.doe.gov. The site explores the economic potential of geothermal energy, not the body-soaking benefits - but it's a useful look at how these natural pools came to be.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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