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The Bruneau Sand Dunes

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Sand Dunes We Visited in Bolivia

The Bruneau Dunes are perhaps the most bizarre natural phenomenon in the state. Trapped in a low-laying basin just south of Mountain Home, they’re thought to have originated during the Ice Age, in the aftermath of the Bonneville Flood. Unlike most sand dunes, those at Bruneau don’t shift dramatically with the wind. They’re trapped in the basin, and the highest peak stays at about 470 feet year-round.

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We parked our car near the foot of the dunes at a small lake and, after walking through a wetland forest, began our ascent. 470 feet sounds manageable, but we started having trouble well before reaching the top. Sand is never easy to walk on, and Bruneau has particularly loose sand which can gobble a leg up to the knee. It took about thirty minutes of tiresome crawling before we made it to the top.

Our shoes, clothes and mouths were filled with sand, and our thighs and calves were burning from the exertion, but I felt only glee upon cresting the summit. Yes, the view was remarkable, but most importantly: we were standing on top of North America’s biggest sand dune, and were about to run down. The softness of the sand, so troublesome on the way up, now beckoned to me: “Jump! I am so very soft!” And jump, I did. Jumping, rolling, sprinting, leaping through the wonderfully soft sand, it took about 20 seconds to reach the bottom.

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January 2, 2013 at 5:30 pm Comment (1)

Malad Gorge & Balanced Rock

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Shaped during the Ice Age by the cataclysmic Bonneville Flood, the Magic Valley is something of a geological wonderland, loaded with canyons, rivers, boulders, cliffs and fossils. We embarked on a long driving loop starting at the Malad Gorge, through the Thousand Springs State Park to Balanced Rock, near Buhl.

Malad-Gorge

Interstate 84 passes right by the Malad Gorge, so close that you could roll down your window and throw your litter into it (if you were a thoughtless pig, which thankfully you’re not). Despite the proximity, it’s impossible to see the canyon from the highway, and so thousands of people blaze past daily without even registering its presence. But it’s worth getting off the highway at Tuttle (exit 147) to take a quick walk.

Malad Gorge, a part of the Thousand Springs State Park, is 2.5 miles long and 250 feet deep, and there’s a trail on either side of the divide. Near the highway, a pedestrian bridge places you in front of the Devil’s Washbasin, where the Malad River crashes spectacularly into the canyon.

The Thousand Springs State Park isn’t a park in the traditional sense, but a collection of five different units in the area around the town of Hagerman. Malad Gorge is the only one of these units which we explored, but others include Ritter Island, a birdwatching paradise in the Snake River, and the Kelton Trail, which preserves wagon wheel ruts from the Oregon Trail.

The Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument are another protected area in the valley. It was here that, in 1928, the Hagerman Horse was found. At 3.5 million years in age, it’s one of the oldest horses on the fossil record, and is thought to have resembled a zebra. There have also been mastodons and bone-crushing dogs found in the Hagerman beds. As might be expected, it’s off-limits to the casual visitor but there’s an interpretive center in town with a few exhibits and fossil replicas.

A few miles east from the small town of Buhl is the Balanced Rock. An impossible geological formation, this rock perched precariously on a pedestal weighs over 40 tons, reaches a height of nearly 50 feet, and is shaped just like Africa. And it looks as though it would tumble over at the slightest breeze. We climbed up to the rock and enjoyed a packed lunch with an amazing view over the valley.

Locations on our Map: Malad Gorge | Hagerman Fossil Beds | Balanced Rock

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January 2, 2013 at 7:51 am Comment (1)

Twin Falls and the Snake River Canyon

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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

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December 31, 2012 at 7:22 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.

Snow-Camping

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.

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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)

Table Mountain… and Crime in the Tetons

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While we were visiting Driggs, we couldn’t resist sneaking over into Wyoming for a hike in the Grand Tetons. Sure, we’re supposed to be concentrating on Idaho’s sights, and yes, there’s plenty to see without ever leaving the state. But look at them! How could we resist?!

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We had chosen to embark on an eight-mile hike to Table Mountain. While parking our car at the Teton Campground trailhead, just over the state line, we should have sensed the sinister shift in the air. We had left the safe haven of Idaho for Wyoming, a lawless land of thievery and malice, and it was a decision we’d regret. But we’ll get to that later, because the hike was amazing, and it’s better to concentrate on the positives.

The trail to Table Mountain was exhausting, sharply uphill for the first six miles, with a gain of over 4000 feet in elevation. But it was a glorious day; autumn was in full swing and the Tetons provided such a dramatic backdrop that it was easy to ignore our burning thighs. As we neared the flat cylinder-shaped summit of Table Mountain, the unmistakable profile of the Grand Teton came into view. After cresting the top, we took a long break to appreciate the landscape below us. Fresh air, unforgettable views, pure nature, exhausted muscles and the satisfying feeling of accomplishment, there’s nothing that makes me happier than hikes like this, and I was in tremendous spirits during the walk back to the car.

My mood changed immediately, though, once we arrived. Thieves had broken into our car and stolen my laptop and tablet. Unbelievable. Here, we travel around the world, Sri Lanka, Buenos Aires, Bolivia, and the first place we’re the victims of crime is Wyoming. The cops told us later that, although they have suspects, it was unlikely we’d ever see our stuff again. There’s a gang which targets cars parked at trailheads. Pretty clever; it’s a remote location where people are guaranteed to be gone for hours.

The theft was a setback, but we got off pretty lightly. Everything we own was in that car. I can deal with a lost laptop, especially since it meant that I’d be getting a new one. But it was a rough end to what had been a wonderful day. Sorry, Wyoming; you have some amazing nature, but the chances we’ll someday be spending 91 days with you have dropped significantly.

Location of the Trailhead

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December 13, 2012 at 8:59 am Comments (0)

Craters of the Moon

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Comprising 618 square miles of other-worldly lava-formed landscape, the Craters of the Moon National Monument is one of the strangest geographic areas in the entire country. Harsh, dry and largely barren, this craggily beautiful region has remained largely untouched by a humanity that never figured out a use for it. We visited one morning in late October, after a light layer of snow had covered the ground.

Moon-Hole

Instead of bursting out the top of mountain-sized volcanoes, the lava of Craters of the Moon seeped out of fissures and low-lying spatter cones. The volcanic activity only ceased around 2000 years ago, so the landscape is still rather young, and the fissures aren’t dead but merely dormant. Scientists expect them to become active again in the next 1000 years. Possibly even within the next hundred.

Although it’s open to the public, the vast majority of the Craters of the Moon is virtually inaccessible — settlers and Indians alike looped around this unforgiving land, and no roads transverse the black terrain. So if you want to get into the center, you’re looking at a long and difficult multi-day hike. Luckily, there’s a corner of the park which has been developed for touristic purposes, with a driving loop, and a number of short walks that introduce some of the lava fields’ best features.

After stopping by the visitor’s center and grabbing a map, we started our day with a two-mile walk to the Lava Tree Molds: a cluster of trees which had been incinerated by a boiling hot river of lava. As the lava cooled around the trunks, hollowed-out molds were formed, like the inverse of a tree. Snow had recently blanketed the ground, and the only other tracks on the trail were of deer and rabbit.

Next up was the Cave Area, where four caves formed by the lava flow are open to the adventurous. This was the section I had been most excited about — actual, explorable caves — and I had made sure to bring a flashlight so that we could spelunk into the furthest reaches. But these thrilling plans were dashed on discovering that our flashlight was out of batteries. Grrr!

Mike On The Moon

So, we weren’t able to get far into the first three caves (Dewdrop, Boy Scout and Beauty Cave) but flashlights weren’t required to appreciate Indian Tunnel, which has abundant light from holes in its ceiling. The tunnel was formed during a geological event known as the Blue Dragon Flow, when a river of lava hollowed out the earth before receding into fissures opened in the crust. A very cool walk.

Our final stop of the day was at the Devil’s Orchard, where a short paved path winds through a field of cinder cones. Interpretive signs along the way detail the irreversible environmental damage done to the park by humankind. I get it, but such a tsk-tsking felt superfluous in a place like Craters of the Moon, which is almost completely inaccessible to even the most determined vandal.

Craters of the Moon was named before people made it into space, and it must have been a disappointment when it turned out that the moon’s surface doesn’t resemble this lava-scorched landscape much at all. But the name stuck. Accuracy aside, the area does look otherworldly, and is a must-see for any fan of nature’s bizarre side.

Location of the Visitor’s Center

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December 4, 2012 at 4:47 pm Comment (1)

From the Peaks to the Craters

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After an extended stay in Sun Valley, we got back on the road. Destination: Arco. We took Highway 26, which is also known as the Peaks to Craters Scenic Byway. It couldn’t be more perfectly named. The picturesque aspen-covered mountains of Sun Valley slowly give way to the bizarre lava-formed landscape of the Craters of the Moon National Monument. We were lucky to have stunning weather during the drive: a perfect showcase for Idaho’s stunning natural diversity.

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November 28, 2012 at 2:47 pm Comments (4)

Around Redfish Lake on Horseback

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We had done whitewater rafting, zip lining, mountain biking and a whole lot of hiking — but there was still one more outdoor activity we wanted to try: horseback riding. And we couldn’t have chosen a better place to knock it off our list than in the Sawtooth Mountains around Redfish Lake.

Idaho Cowboy

Our trip was organized with the friendly folks at Redfish Lake Corrals. It was right at the end of the season, a spectacular fall day, when we met our guide Cody at the corrals. Cody the Cowboy. Perfectly named and a great guide; friendly, knowledgeable about the area, and patient with our bumbling horse skills.

I was eight years old the last time I was on a horse, and Jürgen has kept his distance ever since one bit him as a child. So we’re not exactly expert riders. Luckily, our horses, Bennett and Wyman, were tame as could be and easy to manage. After a few tips from Cody, I was up in the saddle and steering Bennett around with no problem. I asked Cody how I was doing. “Pretty good!” Just like a real cowboy, huh? [… silence].

Our 90-minute “Alpine Ride” took us up into the hills around Little Redfish Lake, offering unforgettable views of the Sawtooth Mountains in the distance. I was surprised by how quickly I became accustomed to being on horseback; it was comfortable and I liked getting out into nature without having to do any exercise myself. Bennett didn’t seem to mind carrying me around. He was a trusty walker… kind of gassy, but that only won him points since Jürgen was right behind us, groaning with every sloshy-sounding fart.

It was a memorable day out, and one I’d repeat in a heartbeat. If you’re interested, get in touch with the guys at Redfish Lake Corrals. I doubt it’s even possible you could be dissatisfied.

Redfish Lake Corrals – Website

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November 12, 2012 at 5:34 pm Comments (0)

Copper Creek Falls

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The day after our grueling hike to Hidden Lake and Red Top Summit, our hearts weren’t yet finished exploring the wilderness of Northern Idaho, but our aching bodies were. So, a simple one-mile round-trip walk to Copper Creek Falls sounded like a good compromise.

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The trailhead is found almost on top of the Canadian border, less than a mile south of Eastport along Copper Creek Road (NF-2517), and we arrived 30 minutes after setting out from Bonners Ferry. At the Ranger Station, we had picked up a self-guided walking tour describing different aspects of the forest trail, such as old logging ruts and trees, but we quickly stored this away. I didn’t care much whether I was looking at a lodgepole or an eastern white pine: we were there for the waterfall!

We didn’t have to wait long. After a brisk ten-minute hike, we arrived at the viewpoint. The Copper Creek Falls drop 160 feet into a pool of water which you can wade into. I wasn’t about to take a shower, but would bet that people do in warmer weather. Copper Creek provided a neat excursion, perfect for families or anyone who’s not up for a major hike. And it’s nicely secluded, despite the ease of access. We didn’t see another soul during our time there.

Location of the Trailhead

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November 2, 2012 at 12:34 am Comment (1)

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