August 1-7, I used Idaho Falls as a base for vacationing/exploring the area. My husband, I and two teens stayed at the Red Lion Hotel (see review).
I am going on the record to say that Idaho Falls is one great place with lots going on, friendly people and a good centralized location for Craters of the Moon, Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone. Just to give you an idea of how active a city it is: We arrived Aug. 1 to find a professional bike race going on throughout town. People lined the streets cheering and ringing cow bells for the bikers, there were bands playing and stores stayed open late. There was also a Farmer's Market this day. By mid-week there was the weekly music event along the greenbelt, which is a park area with a jogging path, picnic tables, etc. along the Snake River...a beautiful spot where my kids ran a 10K each morning. By the time we were getting ready to leave, the Firefighters Combat Challenge had arrived at our hotel for a weekend of hose fighting, body carrying up scaffolding, etc. The scaffolding reached the 6th story of the hotel, hundreds of firefighters from the northwest came to participate and all local news stations arrived to cover the event...very exciting stuff in a small city.
Some of the other highlights of our trip:
Craters of the Moon is a great rift of volcanic fissures 66 miles west of Idaho Falls to Arco and then about another 10 minutes on Rt. 20. Some of the astronauts trained here for the moon in 1969. We hiked the 3.5 mile North Crater trail, which takes you to various volcanic cones and winds through the vent of the North Crater. It is a tough hike with lots of scrabble and uphill climbing and even tougher because of 90 degree temperatures. Here's a tip: The trail does not loop. So, you have
a choice to hike the road back to your car, which is another 4.5 miles, or return the way you came, which is another 3.5 mile tough hike. We took the road because we also wanted to explore the cave area of Craters of the Moon, which are lava tubes that were used by Native Americans. The walk out to the caves is paved, but the caves themselves require flashlights, climbing over large boulders and crawling through small openings. We were very tired after our hike, and thus, only got through two of the caves.
Grand Teton National Park is about 100 miles east of Idaho Falls. We drove there through the Teton Pass, which is beautiful but has very steep grades and lots of switchbacks. It makes the distance longer, and on return we went through Jackson, WY and came back into Idaho by the Pallisades Dam, another beautiful drive. While at Grand Teton we hiked the 3-mile partial trail around Jenny Lake to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, another 1.5 miles. You have the option for a $7 fee to boat one or both ways across Jenny Lake and then you only have to hike to the waterfall. We chose to hike one-way and return by boat. We saw lots of moose feeding in the creeks and shallows at Grand Teton. On the return to Idaho Falls, we stopped in Swan Valley at Rainy's Mini Mart, which is famous for the square ice cone. I had huckleberry, a berry that grows wild in areas of the Rockies and is in season in August.
Yellowstone is the longest drive from Idaho Falls, and many people opt to stay closer to the park for this reason. We didn't simply because there aren't many good lodging options close to the park and campgrounds fill up fast. The inns in the park also book almost a year in advance. The other problem with driving to Yellowstone through the west entrance is road construction and lots of it. While we were there the Madison/Norris road was down to one lane with 30-minute delays. They will close it completely for the year on Aug. 17. Yellowstone is the earth in action, bubbling with geysers, fumaroles, mudpots, waterfalls and canyons. Bison lay among the geysers, feed on open ranges and walk down the middle of the two-lane park road. Mule deer feed in the creeks and bald eagles were in huge nests at the top of dead pine trees. We didn't see any bear or wolves, but the temperature even at the elevations of Yellowstone were in the high 80s, so most wildlife laid low during the day. We saw most of our sightings between 4 and 6 p.m.
We also did some horseback riding at a guest ranch, Granite Creek Ranch. It is located half-way between Ririe and Swan Valley on Granite Creek Road, about a 25-mile drive from Idaho Falls. This is a great place to do a 2-hour ride (for $20/hour) because the ranch has 2,000 acres of cattle range and forest that border the Targhee National Forest. It was a beautiful ride. Other guests at the ranch were doing a cattle round-up and we could have also, but since we had been hiking so much, we opted for the ride, which was strenuous enough.
I have saved my description of St. Anthony sand dunes for last because it was the most disappointing, and because I didn't want my recount to portray badly on a trip that was tremendous. The sand dunes are about a 30-minute drive north of Idaho Falls. There are miles and miles of sand piled in hills, some 400 feet high. I had emailed the Bureau of Land Management before heading out there to be sure there were hiking trails because I had heard that it was a playground for dune buggies and ATVs. This is a beautiful area, but you would be crazy to hike it. ATVs are everywhere, bounding over dunes. There are trails designated for them, but they don't stay there. Even more disconcerting (and I am not opposed to hunting) were the hunters that were alongside the road. And, most of the directional signs, speed limit signs, etc. had been and were being used for target practice. Suffice it to say, we stayed in our car.
Here's a couple of other tips/recommendations:
Most of the areas that are mentioned above are very remote, without nearby lodging, restaurants etc. It was 90 degrees when we were there in high desert with dry air. Therefore, we carried a case of bottled water in the car. We also bought sandwiches, snacks and fruit each day so we could have lunch. There is a super WalMart on the west side of town at about Lindsay and Broadway. Sandwiches can be bought at Jimmy Johns (in the plaza by WalMart) or Gandolfo's, which is about a block south of WalMart on Pancheri.
Treat yourself to ice cream. Reed's Dairy at 2660 W. Broadway has delicious homemade ice cream, as well as homemade grilled cheese sandwiches and other dairy products. This is a real working dairy! It is open until 10 p.m.
So, after we went horseback riding and wished there had been a rodeo in town see, the next best thing was to go to Vickers Western Wear, 2665 N. Holmes, for some souvenirs. This place is reasonably priced for cowboy boots, jeans, shirts, hats, etc. They even have lassos!
Can you tell that we had a great time? We are now back in Illinois, which is so flat you can roll a ball from one end to the other. We wish that we were still seeing mountains in the distance.