Idaho is known for being the land of potatoes, but in all honesty, while potatoes are delicious, that characterization is doing the Gem State a disservice. Who would have thought that a state known for spuds would be home to countless waterfalls, rare fossils, tons of geothermal hot springs, rich history, and roadside kitsch? Idaho's Thousand Springs Scenic Byway makes the most of all the features that set the state apart. And yes, it's still worth it to end the trip at the Idaho Potato Museum... because Idahoans really do grow excellent potatoes.
Start at Three Island Crossing State Park, dedicated to the history of one of America's oldest road trip routes: The Oregon Trail. This was where pioneers emigrating to the West Coast had to cross the mighty Snake River, one of the biggest obstacles on the journey. Three Island Crossing was one of a few risky options that many pioneers chose to take, and not all were successful. You can also see wagon ruts worn into the ground by the wheels of the pioneers' Conestogas, alongside replica wagons. The park also has a great Oregon Trail History and Education Center, which interprets the past through the lens of the Shoshone and early settlers who left their marks here. The park is a perfect blend of history and natural beauty.
From the park, you can head to the main attraction of the trip: the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway. It's just under 70 miles long, so it should only take about an hour and a half, but you'll want to leave extra time for side stops to hike, check out the views at overlooks, or explore downtown Twin Falls and other attractions along the way. The route starts near Bliss, which is appropriately named, and highlights the beauty and unique geology of the Snake River Canyon along the way. In addition to the waterfalls and parks, take some time to walk across the Perrine Bridge, closer to Twin Falls. The parking area here also provides access to the Canyon Rim Trails.
Thousand Springs State Park is an essential stop along the byway. It's actually a system of several units, all close by one another, although each has its own unique features. Malad Gorge is a canyon on the Malad River with a scenic footbridge, the Devil's Washbowl, and crystal clear spring-fed ponds and streams. Kelton Trail has more Oregon Trail-era wagon ruts and was once the site of a bridge that pioneers along the route crossed. Earl M. Hardy Box Canyon Springs Nature Preserve's main feature is Box Canyon Springs, which flows at an impressive rate of 180,000 gallons per minute. There's also a viewing platform that overlooks a 20-foot waterfall. Billingsley Creek offers wildlife spotting and fishing, as well as the former home of author Vardis Fisher. Ritter Island has natural springs and tons of history, as the site preserves structures from an old dairy farm and ferry crossing. And Niagara Springs is a National Natural Landmark featuring a spring-fed cascade on the side of the canyon with distinctive icy blue water.
The Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument is a must-visit site along the byway. The fossil beds are historically significant, as they preserve the richest deposits from the late Pliocene epoch, which was roughly 3.5 million years ago. The Pliocene period was important, because though it predated the Ice Age, some of the fossils are representative of early appearances of modern plants and animals. It's also interesting to note that one particular fossil bed here, the Hagerman Horse Quarry, contains the largest American concentration of fossils from Hagerman horses, also known as American zebras. Remains of extinct North American camels, mastodons, saber-toothed cats, and bone-crushing dogs have also been discovered. While you can't view fossils in the ground or being excavated here, you can stop by the visitor center to learn all about paleontology and the Pliocene era, or take a gorgeous hike through the rocky landscape.
After enjoying views of the springs, you can soak in a naturally-heated spring-fed pool of your very own. Buhl, ID, is home to Miracle and Banbury Hot Springs, both of which offer general admission for $10 a day, private pool rentals, and private Jacuzzis as well as massages at Miracle and kayak/paddleboard rentals for use on the Snake River at Banbury. General admission to Miracle includes access to the four outdoor public pools, and Banbury's general admission gets you into a large geothermal artesian swimming pool. All of the pools at both locations are kept impeccably clean and the water is odorless, naturally heated, and cooled to a comfortable temperature. The whole family will be able to enjoy a relaxing afternoon soaking in the perfect natural spring waters at either spot.
When it's time to call it a night, book a spot at the Twin Falls / Jerome KOA Holiday. In addition to the variety of Tent and RV Sites, the campground offers Camping Cabins, Deluxe Cabins, and a rental RV. Guests can take advantage of a variety of activities, including pedal boats, mini golf, a heated pool, and bike rentals. You don't even have to worry about food at this KOA. There's a general store with snacks and drinks and a seasonal cafe that can deliver meals to your site, as well as ice cream socials and pancake breakfasts.
Right near the Perrine Bridge is a marker for an important moment in American history: Evel Knievel's failed 1974 attempt to jump the mile-wide Snake River Canyon. The notorious daredevil's specially-built, rocket-powered "Skycycle" malfunctioned, and its parachute opened on takeoff, sending him floating to the bottom of the canyon. While he's incredibly lucky that he landed on the shore and not in the water (where he would likely have drowned), the attempt is still a testament to his determination. From the site of the memorial marker, you can see the massive dirt ramp built for the jump two miles to the east.
It's easy to see why Shoshone Falls is sometimes called the Niagara of the West. It's 925 feet wide, 212 feet tall (a whole 45 feet higher than Niagara Falls) and water can flow over its edge at a rate of anywhere between 300 and 20,000 cubic feet per second. It never dries up since it has irrigation and hydroelectric power stations built on it; in the drier months and years, the dam diverts water over the falls. It's been an important site to Native Americans for generations, and has been attracting tourists since the 1860s. Shoshone Falls Park was only recently completed on the south bank of the Snake River. It features an overlook, interpretive displays, and marked hiking trails, including one to the Evel Knievel jump memorial.
Even though the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway eventually ends, Idaho's beauty does not. Extend your trip past the route to hit up a few more awesome Idaho attractions like Massacre Rocks State Park. Volcanoes, floods, and the Ice Age carved and shaped the dramatic and rocky landscape. This area was also along the Oregon Trail, and it was a place of note for pioneers, as they were particularly worried about attacks from Native Americans hiding among the rocks and boulders. Several skirmishes believed to have taken place here, such as the Clark Massacre of 1851, may have actually occurred further east or west. But the park does contain Register Rock, where many emigrants carved names and dates. Massacre Rocks also offers plenty of hiking and access to Snake River as well.
You won't find a campground that's comfier or more convenient than the Pocatello KOA Journey. It's got everything you need to rest and recover from time on the road, including gas, laundry, WiFi, a dog park, and a convenience store. You'll find grass and gravel Tent Sites with fire pits (firewood is sold here), RV Sites with full hookups, and Camping Cabins that can sleep up to four people. But the best part about this KOA is its location. Pocatello is home to Idaho State University, and is surrounded by mountains for skiing, hiking, and rock climbing. The town has a zoo, a natural history museum, hot springs, and tons more, and the Pocatello KOA Journey is the perfect spot to come back to for some relaxation after a long day of exploring.
The Idaho Potato Museum is not too far away, and it's well worth the extra few miles. It's an old train station that has been converted into an incredibly thorough but amazingly fun look at anything and everything potato. Video, interactive exhibits at the Potato Lab, displays, and photos go in-depth on potato history, the growing and harvesting process, nutrition, trivia and educational potato facts. You'll get to see what is probably the world's largest collection of potato mashers and the world's largest potato crisp. If you find yourself craving potatoes at the end of your tour, The Potato Station Café serves them in many forms, including in salads, cupcakes, dipped in chocolate or as bread. Don't miss out on a photo op with the giant potato out front, and make sure to stock up on kitschy souvenirs at the gift shop.
From the unexpected to the obvious, an Idaho road trip along the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway and beyond won't disappoint. The unique and memorable landscape hides all kinds of natural beauty, from hot springs to waterfalls. Add in a pinch of Oregon Trail history and a dash of potato kitsch, and you've got a perfectly Idaho adventure that you won't soon forget.
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