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Welcome to Boise

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With just a little over two weeks remaining of our 91 days in Idaho, we pulled into Boise. We had originally planned on using the capital as the base for our entire three-month stay, but decided Idaho was too big to be stationed in just one spot. So we went on a road-trip through the state, and left our exploration of Boise for the journey’s end. Did we save the best for last?


Even by western standards, Boise has a young history. It was founded in 1834 as Fort Boise, 40 miles west of its present-day location. When silver was discovered in Bogus Basin, the fort was moved in order to act as a staging area for the booming Idaho City. Fort Boise soon became a thriving community in its own right, and was incorporated as a city in 1863. Although dwarfed in size by the northern city of Lewiston, and not nearly as influential as nearby Idaho City, Boise took the mantle the territorial capital in 1866 — a controversial move (or theft) that sent the Panhandle into a tizzy. Lewiston even threatened to secede from the territory and join Washington.

Boise’s capital coup isn’t the only thing controversial about it; there’s also the matter of its pronunciation. Idahoans say “Boise” differently than the rest of us. To most of America and the world, it’s boy-zee. But here, everyone uses the soft “s”: boy-see. The difference is unmistakable, and I suspect that locals are doing this deliberately so as to identify outsiders.

The name comes from the French for “the woods” (les bois), but the forests which impressed early Europeans have now been largely cleared away. Still, Boise is a remarkably green city. On our first day here, I saw a few deer grazing along the banks of the river, next to the Museum of Art. The city’s lively downtown centers around 8th Street and Idaho, with an expansive selection of restaurants and shops. There are more bikers and pedestrians than in most cities and, especially as home to Boise State University, the city feels young and vibrant. Boise is slimmer and better-looking than most cities of comparable size. It likes the great outdoors, and strolls along the river. It’s probably a fantastic kisser.

Boise frequently appears on lists like Outside Magazine’s “Best River Towns” or Forbes’ “Best Places to Raise a Family“. It’s not hard to understand why. Not only is there great culture within the city — concerts, museums, theater, dance, public art — but recreational activities abound in the near vicinity, from skiing to mountain climbing to whitewater rafting.

It didn’t take long for us to regret the fact that we had so little time to spend in Boise. Two weeks was nowhere near enough. Seeing the rest of Idaho was wonderful, and we probably made the right decision, but 91 days in Boise wouldn’t have been bad.

Location On Our Idaho Map

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January 3, 2013 at 4:40 pm Comments (3)

Vegas Flair at Cactus Petes in Jackpot, Nevada

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There are a few Indian reservations scattered about Idaho, which means that there are a few casinos. But due to rough anti-gambling laws, these are rather drab venues offering nothing more than slots. Table games are completely verboten in Idaho, even on reservations, so when it comes time to hit the craps table, Idahoans in the know head south to the border town of Jackpot, Nevada.


The tiny casino town of Jackpot is just past the Idaho state line, 50 miles south of Twin Falls. While technically in Nevada, it’s an Idahoan town in spirit, and even disregards Nevada’s Pacific Time so that it can share Mountain Time with its big brother to the north. Jackpot was founded in 1954, immediately on the heels of Idaho’s gambling ban.

We had been invited by Ameristar Casinos to stay for two nights at Cactus Petes, the oldest and best hotel in Jackpot. Despite its age, Petes has kept up nicely with the times. We were booked in the newly refurbished wing, and our room were surprisingly upscale. I had assumed that a casino in an Idaho border town might be on the dingy side, but Cactus Petes vanquished my low expectations. This was one of the better rooms we stayed during our 91 days in Idaho, and it even had blazing-fast internet.


The casino was better than expected, too. There’s a Las Vegas feel to Cactus Petes, but without any of the headaches that Vegas can cause. Less people and affordable tables; there were even a couple $5 blackjack tables, which have all but vanished from most casinos. The dealers were amusing and talkative, the clientele were down-to-earth sorts eager to have some fun, and the atmosphere inside the place was refreshingly relaxed.

Gambling is the focus, as it should be, but Cactus Petes has other things to recommend it, including some surprisingly big-name musical acts. The Blue Öyster Cult was due in Jackpot shortly after our visit, and it’s also hosted names like Kenny Rogers, ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. (As you can probably tell from that lineup, the casino tends to draw a somewhat older crowd.)

Along with the concerts, Cactus Petes boasts an incredible restaurant. Apparently, it’s not uncommon for non-gamblers to make the drive from Twin Falls just to eat in the Plateau Room. We grabbed a table on our second night. The restaurant is very chill, very chic, and the steaks are exquisite. Our waiter was great, too, and certainly earned her tip: she wheeled out a cart and prepared a spinach salad right at our table, as well as flaming Bananas Foster for dessert.

We really enjoyed our time in Jackpot. Especially since we walked away big-time winners! Well, perhaps that’s not entirely accurate, but we did break even. Yes, we broke even. Kind of. Now that I think about it, maybe we lost a little. Or a lot. Alright, alright, we lost everything we had brought to play with. But that’s just part of gambling, and we can accept it. The fact that we still enjoyed ourselves speaks volumes about how much fun Cactus Petes is.

Location on our Idaho Map
Link: Cactus Petes Casino

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January 2, 2013 at 2:39 pm Comments (4)

Twin Falls and the Snake River Canyon

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Great Place To Stay In Twin Falls: Red Lion!

After exploring eastern Idaho, we slowly made our way back west. The eventual goal was Boise, but first we’d be spending a few nights in Twin Falls, to see the city and investigate the surrounding area, which goes by the promising name of Magic Valley.

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To enter Twin Falls from the north, you have to cross the Perrine Bridge across the Snake River Canyon. Dropping down 500 feet and stretching across a quarter mile, the canyon serves as a jaw-dropping front door for the city. From the bridge, the view of the valley takes in the Snake River far below, winding its way west, and a golf course on the canyon floor. You can walk across the bridge or take a pedestrian path leads most of the way along the canyon’s rim.

The Snake River Canyon is well-known as the site for one of Evil Keneival’s bravest, most death-defying stunts. In 1974, the daredevil attempted to jump the canyon on his Skycycle X-2. He didn’t even come close, but it was a spectacular failure.

Unfortunately, apart from the amazing front door provided by the Snake River, Twin Falls itself fails to impress. For a city of over 40,000, the downtown is surprisingly small. There are a couple decent joints, such as O’Dunkens Draught House where we had a delicious lunch, but otherwise you’ll not find much to do. Immediately outside of downtown, it’s all strip malls.

No, the real reason for a stay in Twin Falls is the beauty of the surrounding area. The Shoshone Falls are found here, just a few miles from the city center. These massive waterfalls on the Snake River are called the “Niagara of the West”, and are in fact bigger than their more famous eastern cousin. Unfortunately, during the late-autumn season in which we were visiting, the water had mostly abated, leaving it much less impressive than in the spring, during the winter run-off.

Location of Twin Falls | Shoshone Falls

Bear Spray!

Shoshone Falls: A trickle now, but raging in the spring
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December 31, 2012 at 7:22 am Comments (2)

Preston, Idaho: Home of Napoleon Dynamite

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Everything Napoleon Dynamite

Gosh! Preston is the sweetest freaking town in Idaho! Well… that might be a stretch, but at least it was the setting for one of the past decade’s most popular cult films: Napoleon Dynamite. We took a self-guided driving tour of Preston, and ended up with an appreciation for what life in small-town southeastern Idaho must be like.


First, a quick confession: I didn’t particularly like Napoleon Dynamite. For a comedy, it was strangely unfunny. The kind of film that uses the wackiness of its characters as a substitute for actual humor. I never understood the hype around the film; if I wanted to watch weird people act goofy, I could just turn on Honey Boo Boo.

But we enjoyed our tour of Preston. We drove past the homes of both Napoleon and his buddy Pedro, and the high school they attended. We went inside the thrift store where Napoleon bought his sweet suit. And we got to see the Pop n’ Pin: the bowling alley frequented by Kip and Uncle Rico.

Preston itself is an unassuming town of about 5000, heavily Mormon, without a lot to recommend it besides the undying mythos of Napoleon Dynamite. It’s a safe assumption that any tourism Preston sees is from the movie’s many fan-boys. And every time we stopped to take a picture of a store or house that had appeared in the film, I felt distinctly embarrassed. The last thing in the world I want to be confused with is a Napoleon Dynamite fan-boy!

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December 26, 2012 at 11:23 am Comments (2)

The South Eastern Corner of Idaho

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After driving through Soda Springs and Montpelier, we continued along Highway 30 into the southeastern extreme of Idaho, occupied by Bear Lake and a handful of small towns. It was late October, but winter had come early to the region and a fresh layer of snow was blanketing the ground.


The border between Idaho and Utah cuts through the middle of oval-shaped Bear Lake. Set on top of limestone deposits, Bear Lake has a unique ecosystem which supports several endemic species, such as the Bear Lake Whitefish. And the strange, intensely turquoise color of the lake’s water have led locals to call it the “Caribbean of the Pacific Northwest”.

But Bear Lake is most well-known for the legendary creature which haunts it. The story of the Bear Lake Monster stretches back to the 19th century, and the arrival of the original settlers. The deadly beast hunts in the water, but can run onto land in pursuit of its prey. Like an Alligator-Shark-Bear. And it totally exists! If you don’t trust me, perhaps you’ll believe that shining beacon of journalistic integrity: Animal Planet.

Perhaps some skepticism is warranted. After all, the man responsible for the original reports of the Bear Lake Monster, Mormon missionary Joseph C. Rich, eventually admitted it was all a scam; a ruse to drum up curiosity about the region. Usually, a full confession would be enough to close the case, but nothing can apparently deter the charlatans at Animal Planet from peddling their sensational myths. And, apparently, being a hoaxster doesn’t put off the voters of Idaho: Joseph C. Rich went on to become a state senator!

The sky was overcast when we visited, so we weren’t able to appreciate the famous blue water of Bear Lake, and neither did we encounter any monsters. But it was still a gorgeous drive. We drove along the lake’s northern border, on a narrow strip of land that separates it from the rather less enchanting Mud Lake, then picked up Highway 89 which brought us into Paris.

A tiny town in Bear Lake County, Paris best known for its tabernacle, built in 1889 by Mormon pioneers. A Romanesque structure of red sandstone, the tabernacle is completely out-of-place in the unassuming little village. But the impressive temple is in wonderful condition and still in use today.

We also swung by the Oregon Trail Museum in nearby Montpelier. Although it was closed for the season, we managed to charm our way inside so that we could snap a few photos. More than just a collection of information or dry exhibitions, this museum attempts to recreate the experience of being a settler on the trail; visitors first equip themselves at a general store, then walk along the trail with stops for camp songs and stories.

Location of Bear Lake | Paris, Idaho

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December 24, 2012 at 12:24 am Comments (4)

The Wonders of Soda Springs

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Towns as tiny as Soda Springs should count themselves lucky if they have one special attraction or unique characteristic that brings in tourists. But Soda Springs lays claim to at least three.


The settlement of Soda Springs got its start as an oasis along the Oregon Trail, eagerly anticipated among emigrants for its thousands of fresh mineral water springs. A couple of enterprising pioneers recognized the commercial potential of these springs, and began bottling the water under the name of “Idanha”. This was before the days before water could be artificially carbonated, and the lightly bubbly Idanha was a hit, winning the top prize at Chicago’s World Fair in 1893, and again in Paris in 1900.

There are multiple places around town to try out the water, which is still bubbling unabated out of the ground. We took a cup to the Hooper Springs to sample it. Not bad, it tastes like lightly carbonated bottled water, a bit sweeter and more mineralized.

Not far away from Hooper Springs (and in fact, too close for comfort) is the Monsanto Phosphorus Plant. Soda Springs sits on top of one of the largest phosphate deposits in the entire world, and Monsanto’s large-scale mining and purification plant has changed the town’s landscape. Literally. As part of its manufacturing process, Monsanto frequently dumps red-hot slag down the side of a massive, man-made hill. It cools quickly, but as the molten metal is poured out of the truck, it looks just like lava running down a volcano.

A huge hill of man-made lava, naturally carbonated springs of drinkable mineral water, and we haven’t even arrived at Soda Springs’s top highlight. In 1937, during an attempt to find hot water for a pool, a drill accidentally unleashed a geyser in the middle of town. It roared for months, nearly flooding the little village, before engineers were finally able to get a handle on the situation. They capped the geyser with a timed valve, making Soda Springs the proud owner of the “the world’s only captive geyser“. It erupts every hour, on the hour; more reliable than Old Faithful.
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December 17, 2012 at 9:39 pm Comments (2)

Taking a Break in Lava Hot Springs

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Hot springs play an important role in the leisure scene of Idaho, but nowhere are they as celebrated as in Lava Hot Springs. Since its inception, the town has been a place of relaxation for weary travelers and anyone looking for a place to soak their bones. We spent three blissful days here; allowing our bodies to recuperate after a few long weeks on the road.

Foot Bath

Lava Hot Springs has been attracting tourists since the days of the Oregon Trail, when it was famous as an oasis for settlers headed west. Nowadays, entrance to the pools will set you back $6. The main baths range in temperature from “pleasantly warm” to “crazy hot”, and are as popular with locals as with tourists. But don’t let the crowds put you off: the park is so large that you can always find a quiet corner to soak.

We used Lava Hot Springs as a base for excursions to Soda Springs and Bear Lake. While in town, we stayed in Greystone Manor: an old Mormon church which has been converted into a lodge. There are only a few rooms available, and they’ve been outfitted luxuriously, with giant beds, fireplaces, jacuzzi baths, lounge chairs, and elegant decoration. After roughing it through Idaho, Greystone Manor provided just the sort of ultra-comfort we desperately needed.

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December 13, 2012 at 11:12 am Comment (1)

The Spencer Opal Mines

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The sun was hot on the back of my neck as I crouched down over another pile of rocks, wielding my hammer and garden fork. My legs were getting sore, and I kept forgetting to drink water, but the growing exhaustion didn’t matter. Every time I had almost convinced myself to quit, a shiny glint appeared underfoot. Yes, my precious, another opal!


Spencer, Idaho, is a small town near the Montana border which owes its existence to the opal. The mines here are the best in America, producing stones renowned for their fine layers and exquisite color. Discovered in 1948 by a couple deer hunters, the Spencer Opal Mines have been owned and operated by the same family for the past 48 years. In 1968, after realizing they were producing more rock than they could work themselves, they opened a mini-mine for amateur gem hunters. For $10, you can scour the stones as long as you want, and keep up to a pound of opal-laden rock for yourself.

When we first read about the Spencer Opal Mines, I was more than a little suspicious. “Sure”, I thought, “like they really dump it into a public mine, without first removing all the good opals”. But as soon I saw the pit, I realized that this is exactly what they do. It’s big, with tons of rocks, and there’s no way they screen them all in advance. And my skepticism was completely dispelled when I found my first opal, a yellow-colored gem, after about five minutes of hunting.

The chances of discovering a truly valuable opal in the Spencer Opal Mines aren’t that bad. While demonstrating how to water the stones down and bring out their full color, the mine’s owner told us about a 10-year-old kid who had recently found a huge pink opal in the public mine. He estimated that the gem could probably pay for the kid’s first year of college.

After about an hour, we left the mine with two full bags of rock, our one-pound quotas easily met. In fact, I had to choose some opals to leave behind, although I could have paid a bit extra to take them all. Most of the gems we found were fairly common, the shiny white color of quartz, but we ended up with a few colorful opals were suitable to be polished and set into jewelry. Not a bad haul.

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December 8, 2012 at 5:41 pm Comments (2)

Philo Farnsworth – Rigby’s Favorite Son

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Potatoes aren’t the only thing to spring from the fields of southeastern Idaho. In 1921, a brilliant young engineer had a “Eureka” moment that forever changed the world. While working on the family farm in Rigby, Philo Farnsworth figured out the principle of the image dissector, leading to his invention of the electronic television. He was fourteen years old at the time.


The only son of a humble Idaho farming family, the future genius showed engineering prowess at an early age, repairing generators and charging his mom’s old hand-powered washing machine with an electric current. Young Philo was fascinated by electricity (a novel innovation in rural 1920s Idaho) and spent his time brainstorming its possible uses. One day while working in the field and contemplating the even, wavy rows of dirt, he realized how light waves could be manipulated into a series of lines to display images.

Excited, Philo ran down to the schoolhouse and drew a diagram on the chalkboard for his science teacher. It was the first sketch of a television device and although the teacher likely couldn’t understand a bit of it, he encouraged the boy to continue developing his idea. Philo did so, and in 1928 was ready to demonstrate the world’s first all-electronic television system to the press.

Philo’s innovations weren’t limited to the world of TV — he would go on to invent the baby incubator, and make essential contributions to radar, the electron microscope and infrared glasses. It’s surprising that the Mormon farm boy from Idaho never became a household name; he certainly deserves to be. TIME Magazine, in fact, named him as one of the most important people of the century.

We visited a museum dedicated to the young scientist in his hometown of Rigby, where we saw some of the original models of his television, read about his life, and gave ourselves headaches by trying to figure out his scientific diagrams. We also learned the story of how the RCA Corporation (which became NBC) first tried to hire Philo, and then shamelessly attempted to steal his invention as their own. The ensuing years of court cases and patent fights threatened Philo’s mental well-being, and even his place in history.

It’s baffling how unknown Philo Farnsworth is. We’re a country that regularly puts individual genius on a pedestal; consider the almost embarrassing fawning over Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. But here’s this kid who invents our favorite device ever and nobody knows his name. It’s something that should be corrected. Philo’s story is fascinating, and the chance to learn about his life is definitely worth a side-trip to Rigby.

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December 8, 2012 at 10:50 am Comments (0)

Arco and Atomic City

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In 1955, tiny Arco won fame as the world’s first nuclear-powered city. Today, it mainly serves as a jumping-off point for excursions into the nearby Craters of the Moon National Monument. Arco is one of Idaho’s strangest little towns, although nearby Atomic City manages to be even stranger. And littler.


Besides the lava-scorched earth to the south and a range of mountains to the north which include both Idaho’s highest peak (Mt. Borah) and its most awesomely-named (Appendicitis Hill) the most striking feature of Arco is its “Hill of Numbers”. For decades, the senior classes of the local high school have been decorating the nearest mountain with the last two digits of their graduation year. Graffiti on a grand scale.

Arco’s story has been tied to nuclear power ever since our country started experimenting with it. The reason that the government chose this corner of eastern Idaho as one of its nuclear sandboxes is fairly self-evident. Remote and sparsely-populated, Arco is the kind of place that a nuclear accident might go unnoticed. Or at least under-reported. Case in point: did you know that the USA’s only fatal nuclear accident occurred in Arco, Idaho? In 1961, there was a core meltdown in the National Reactor Testing Station which killed three servicemen. [Uncle Sam clutches his chest in mock concern… “Oh, you didn’t know about that?”]

Thirty miles to the southeast, Atomic City is even more closely associated to nuclear power than Arco. A ghost-town for all intents and purposes, Atomic City still clings to life with a bustling population of 29. We cruised slowly down the town’s only street and were vaguely creeped out. Although we didn’t see a soul, I was certain that radiation-scarred monsters were watching us hungrily from behind curtained windows, and refused to get out of the car. Jürgen chanced it, for a picture of a trailer that had been designed to look like a boombox.

Giant Idaho Radio
Jürgen, boom-box trailers are how the mutants lure you in!

Close by Atomic City is the Experimental Breeder Reactor I (EBR-I), a nuclear plant decommissioned in 1964 and today designated as a National Historic Landmark. The world’s first atomic-powered electricity was generated here and, during the summer, you can tour the interior of the plant. It’s supposed to be pretty cool, but we were visiting too late in the year to get inside. Frustrating. There was no one around, and I briefly considered opening a window, but I’m pretty sure that breaking into a nuclear reactor, even a decommissioned one, is the kind of thing that lands you in Guantanamo.

We contented ourselves with examining the prototype reactors from the Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion project. This attempt to build nuclear-powered was a failure, abandoned in 1953, but it left behind some marvelous pieces of engineering to admire.

Location on our Idaho Map: Arco | Atomic City

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December 6, 2012 at 11:53 am Comments (16)

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Welcome to Boise With just a little over two weeks remaining of our 91 days in Idaho, we pulled into Boise. We had originally planned on using the capital as the base for our entire three-month stay, but decided Idaho was too big to be stationed in just one spot. So we went on a road-trip through the state, and left our exploration of Boise for the journey's end. Did we save the best for last?
For 91 Days