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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.

Fresh-Mineral-Water

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.
Location of Soda Springs
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December 17, 2012 at 9:39 pm Comments (2)

Craters of the Moon

Volcanoes Of The World

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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Fog On The Moon
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December 4, 2012 at 4:47 pm Comment (1)

The Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway

Don’t Come To Idaho Without Binoculars

33 miles of paved road between Banks and Lowman constitute the Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway. Although we didn’t see any elk during our trip, they’re a common sight during the winter. Along the road, there’s even a turn-out with binoculars pointed at a large plain called Gallagher Flat, where they especially like to congregate.

Scenic-Drive-Idaho

The road hugs the South Fork of the Payette River, passing waterfalls of varying sizes and breathtaking canyon scenery. Sheer walls of rock infused with pitch-black streaks lava tower overhead, while far below the river winds its way through the valley. There are frequent turn-outs at spots of special historic importance, as well as at places with particularly beautiful views. And we took advantage of every one.

Check out the route on Google Maps

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September 14, 2012 at 5:44 pm Comments (2)

The Lava Lakes in Payette National Forest

Hiking Boots

Idaho has no shortage of incredible hikes, and we were overwhelmed with options when choosing the destination of our first big day out. Browsing through a formidable collection of books, pamphlets and online guides, the name “Lava Lakes” popped out. The eight-mile round-trip hike in the Payette National Forest sounded perfect, promising unforgettable wilderness, sweeping views, strange geology, wildlife and solitude. And it delivered.

Hiking Guide Idaho

Nearly 20,000 miles of public trails snake throughout Idaho. How exactly do you narrow that down? At a 15 minute/mile pace, that’s 5000 hours of hiking. Even if you just concentrate on the top 1% of trails, you still have 200 miles to look forward to! The sheer abundance of possible hikes is almost disheartening. We pride ourselves on exploring our new homes comprehensively, but had to accept that completing even a tiny fraction of Idaho’s beautiful hikes would be impossible.

We didn’t leave much to chance for our trip to the Lava Lakes, making sure to stop by the Payette Forest ranger station in McCall before embarking. The ranger on duty was helpful in pointing out the best trails and recommending which paths to avoid; not all of Idaho’s bountiful trails have been recently “cleared”, meaning that sections might be impassible due to brush or fallen logs. The four-mile track to the Lava Lakes, though, had his green light.

The drive to the trailhead alone would have made for a satisfying excursion. We passed by the Brundage Mountain Ski Resort, picturesquely tucked away in the forest. The road, rough and gravelly, also took us past Brundage Reservoir, Goose Lake, the Hazard Lakes, and along a cliff which overlooked the Grass Mountains and Lloyd’s Lake. Assisted by GPS and a detailed map, we found the trailhead easily (location), and were happy to see that no other cars were parked there.

The trail was as clear and easy-to-follow as the ranger in McCall had promised, and it led on a slight incline through some unbelievable scenery. Fields of wild flowers and old-growth forest, much of which had been burnt in a wildfire years ago. Charred, dead trees struggled with the wind, swaying and creaking a bit too much for my comfort, but adding immensely to the lovely strangeness of the landscape.

Lava Rock Idaho

After a mile or so, we came upon the first evidence of volcanic activity in the area: large mounds of lava rocks. The area was shaped by the same natural forces that formed Yellowstone seventeen million years ago, and much of the lava is still exposed. The trail culminated at the Lava Ridge, where the rising mountain that we’d been ascending suddenly drops straight down into a craggy black cliff.

Due to haze caused by forest fires plaguing the state, we couldn’t see as far from the top of the Lava Ridge as one normally could, but the view was still impressive. Below us were the Lava Lakes, a trio of sparkling ponds set spectacularly in the fire-devastated forest. I could make out a pair of deer at the edge of one lake, and we monitored their progress as they jumped through the forest.

Turning around and starting on the trail back, we heard a snort. No more than fifteen meters away, a large buck was staring at us. He was watchful and perfectly still, but twitched when Jürgen brought his camera up and then bounced away. Ten minutes later, the same thing happened with another, younger buck. It was incredible; they weren’t nearly as skittish as I would have imagined. In fact, they seemed almost curious about our presence.

The hike back down the hill was easy, and we had returned to the trailhead about four hours after starting out. The Lava Lakes Hike (Trail #149) was a perfect place to begin exploring Idaho’s wilderness, and made us eager to get back out discover more.

Location of the Lava Lakes Trailhead
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September 1, 2012 at 5:26 pm Comment (1)