I’m submerged in a bubbling pool of warm mineral water at Miracle Hot Springs between Hagerman and Twin Falls, Idaho, staring up through wisps of steam at popcorn clouds drifting across a seamless blue sky.
It is all about water, this journey of 130 miles or so from Boise to Twin Falls that finds me and my brother Al tracing Snake River through verdant Hagerman Valley – aptly nicknamed “Magic Valley.” It is a route defined by the Snake, largest and longest tributary of the mighty Columbia River, which rages like a torrent when squeezed through steep-sided canyons and yet flows as smoothly as molasses along Hagerman’s flat bottoms, flanked here and there by fields of potatoes, grain and sugar beets.
A 30-mile stretch of the route along U.S. Highway 30 between Hagerman and Twin Falls reveals so many water features – rushing steams, tumbling waterfalls and seeping springs – it has been appropriately designated Thousand Springs Scenic Byway.
All of this cold, clean, highly oxygenated water is not only a joy to fishermen, water sports enthusiasts and sightseers, it is also the source of more than 70 percent of the country’s commercially produced trout. Some of it, too, is diverted for irrigation purposes – to help grow those famous Idaho spuds and other crops.
Our trip gets underway in the city of Boise, Idaho’s small but vibrant and inviting capital, where we enjoy strolling downtown streets dotted with fountains and sidewalk cafÃ©s. Like many other visitors, we must also have a look at the famous blue football field at Bronco Stadium, home to the national powerhouse Boise State Broncos.
While water will soon become the dominant theme of the journey, the first of our three days dawdling along the Snake is spent clambering about in ankle-deep sand at Bruneau Dunes State Park, south of Mountain Home. Notable as home to the tallest single-structure sand dune (470 feet) in North America, the park’s dunes rise from a horseshoe-shaped basin about 3.5 miles across formed by an ancient meander channel of the Snake River. Hiking the huge mountains of sand is the most popular activity in the park, but lake and marsh habitats at the base of the dunes also provide opportunities for swimming, fishing and bird-watching. Located far from any city lights, Bruneau also has an observatory for stargazing. It is one of two public observatories in Idaho, and we ultimately visit both of them. We overnight at the park’s Broken Wheel Campground, an attractive layout of 80 serviced campsites ($22 a night) plus some cabins.
The following day unfolds in and around Hagerman, a farm town and tourist center of about 800 people. Divided into six units, Thousand Springs State Park holds creeks, springs, waterfalls and gorges. We locate the Billingsley Creek and Malad Gorge units but even after following directions from several locals we never do find picturesque Niagara and Crystal Springs as signage for this state park is sorely lacking.
During our search for the springs we do encounter state and national fish hatcheries. While there isn’t much of interest to visitors (watching fish grow isn’t terribly exciting), the hatcheries are indicative of the region’s importance in both the breeding and commercial production of trout.
Hagerman is well-known among paleontologists as home to Hagerman Fossil Beds, which contain the world’s richest known fossil deposits from the late Pilocene Epoch (about 3 million years ago) and the largest concentration of fossilized horses in North America. It is also known for the Hagerman Horse, a beast not considered a true horse but a closer relative to the Grevy’s zebra of Africa. Protected now as Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, the 4,400 rugged high desert acres are regularly studied by a National Park Service (NPS) paleontological team that conducts digs at one or more of about 600 active sites. Visitors are not welcome to dig – and there isn’t much to see – although you can hike along portions of the Oregon and Emigrant Trails that thread alongside Snake River and through the monument.
We learn that a reconstructed skeleton of the Hagerman Horse along with other important fossils can be seen at the NPS Fossil Beds Visitor Center in Hagerman, so we drop in for the obligatory photos of each other posing with the famous fossils. We also get word of the area’s best restaurant and, ready for some lunch, we soon find ourselves in the company of Kirt Martin, the ebullient and talented owner/chef of Snake River Grill.
The fame of this Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef extends far beyond Hagerman. Martin once hosted his own nationally televised show, “Cooking on the Wild Side,” on the PBS Outdoor Channel. He has also written cookbooks, produced videos and carried out product/recipe development for major food companies. He paraded out a number of tasty creations, with my favorite a delicately smoked sturgeon filet. Martin specializes in wild game and fish and Snake River hides a healthy population of the huge sturgeon, which typically reach 6 feet in length and weigh as much as 400 pounds.
History buffs will find legendary pioneer trails in the Hagerman area. Our visit to Three Island Crossing State Park on the Snake at Glenns Ferry provides a bonanza of information of this important aspect of the nation’s history. The park’s Oregon Trail History and Education Center features some fine exhibits, including a nicely restored covered wagon and other pioneer artifacts.
Oregon Trail pioneers knew this spot well as it was the most famous river crossing along the 2,000-mile route from Missouri to Oregon. Pioneer travelers used Three Island Crossing from 1841 to 1869, when Gus Glenn constructed a ferry just upstream. There’s a full-service campground at the park but we opted for an evening at Hagerman RV Village, a grassy, well-shaded Good Sam park with full hookups.
Referring to a map available at the center, we crossed to the south side of the Snake and followed Slick Ranch Road to locate the rutted remnants of the Oregon Trail. These old tracks, so vital to the westward expansion of America, seem somehow hallowed to us.
In this region of Magic Valley, the Snake River creates a microclimate ideal for grape growing. We see (and taste) the results at Carmela Vineyards, a classy wine estate snuggled next to the river in Glenns Ferry that produces a number of varieties including riesling, chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon. Carmela also features a restaurant, nine-hole golf course and small but first-rate RV park.
On our way to the town of Buhl, the “Trout Capital of the World,” we discover yet another winery, Snyder Winery, where we taste some of Russ and Claudia Snyder’s prize-winning chardonnay, riesling and syrah wines while enjoying a big view overlooking the valley.
Curious about the trout business hereabouts, we drop in at Clear Springs Foods in Buhl, where we learn that “water, people and technology” have combined to make this company the world leader in the commercial trout industry. It raises, processes and ships the lion’s share of 40 million pounds of trout produced annually in the region. We explore a network of ponds where trout are raised and check out the resident visitor attraction – a large, lazy sturgeon of some 6 feet in length.
Trout may be the big thing in Buhl but the town gets our vote for producing the best ice cream we’ve tasted in years. It comes from the contented cows of Clover Leaf Creamery. Housed in a landmark art deco-style building from the 1930s, Clover Leaf does everything the old-fashioned way. The cows eat grass and that’s it. And they still use a processing line from the 1930s to put milk and cream in glass bottles. Remember those? There’s a snack bar up front where you can choose from umpteen flavors of ice cream, including potato. I can’t recommend the spud cone but you really should give it a try – seeing as how you’re in Idaho.
We’re on to Twin Falls next, where we tie up at Twin Falls 93 RV Park, a spiffy 60-space Good Sam campground near the junction of Highways 30 and 93 just west of the city. With a population of 41,000, Twin Falls is the largest community in Magic Valley. It is a city very much connected to its river, which cuts a mighty swath through 500-foot-deep Snake River Canyon on the city’s northern flank.
We find there’s plenty to see and do here and lead things off with a visit to Shoshone Falls. Called the “Niagara of the West,” these are magnificent falls by any measure, but Shoshone can put up some impressive numbers – tumbling 212 feet to the canyon floor, more than 50 feet farther than the famous falls on the New York-Ontario border. The falls offer some great photo possibilities, especially as rainbows rise from the swirling sheets of water. The site is RV-friendly with plenty of parking.
Namesake Twin Falls, just upriver, would be more appropriately named Mono Falls since a dam constructed in the early 1900s diverted one of the cascades. It is not on the city’s short list of visitor attractions.
Herrett Center for Arts and Science at the College of Southern Idaho is, however, on that list. It is an engaging combination of museum, art gallery, planetarium and observatory. Here you can gaze upon a fully reconstructed mammoth skeleton and stargaze through one of the world’s largest wheelchair-accessible public telescopes. The 24-inch computer-controlled Ritchey-Chretien reflecting telescope at Centennial Observatory is indeed a large and very powerful scope by any standard. There’s a busy schedule of evening events, including astronomy talks, free public star parties and family nights.
Faulkner Planetarium next door features the expected sky/star tours but also wildly exciting computer-generated light shows created around concerts from legendary rock bands that play most evenings at 8:15 p.m.
On the final morning of our Magic Valley adventure we make an early hike along the rim of the Snake to have a look at the famous, or perhaps infamous, Evel Knievel Jump Site. This is where, in 1974, the showy daredevil unsuccessfully attempted to clear the quarter-mile-wide canyon on his rocket-powered “Skycycle.” The dirt ramp that remains fails to impress – just like Knievel’s jump.
Looking for a bit more action, we join an Idaho Guide Service pontoon boat ride on the Snake, departing from Centennial Park, right beneath the towering Perrine Bridge. The 1,500-foot-long, four-lane truss arch bridge stands nearly 500 feet above the river. Unique in that it is the only structure in the country from which BASE jumping (jumping from a building, antenna, span or earth) is allowed year-round and without a permit, the Perrine sees a lot of action from jumpers who come from the world over to dive into Snake River Canyon. We are crossing our fingers that we might catch jumpers in action, and, as luck would have it, we do when a trio of BASE jumpers, deploying compact sporting chutes, bail from the bridge right above us. They soar and then spiral down for a controlled landing on the riverbank. Wow!
Nature takes the stage next as our captain delivers us to Pillar Falls, where we walk along the dramatically sculpted canyon bottom. The river roars and rushes in and out among the boulders all around us. It is a watery and wonderful climax to our Magic Valley meanderings.
For More Information:
Hagerman RV Village
Southern Idaho Tourism
Twin Falls 93 RV Park