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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)

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)

Grizzly Patrol Hikes to Hidden Lake

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I was walking about fifteen feet in front of Jürgen, when suddenly I spun around, grabbed the canister of Bear Spray strapped to my hip, and pointed it right at his face. “You’re toast, grizzly punk!” Jürgen didn’t even flinch… it was, after all, the 23rd time I’d practiced this maneuver.

Hidden Lake Idaho

We were hiking on a remote path in the northern extreme of Idaho, close to the Canadian border. For days, people had been warning us about bears on the path and suggesting counter-measures, but we had laughed them off. “Bear bells? Please, we want to see bears!” But the laughter stopped after visiting the Ranger Station in Bonners Ferry. With a disquieting sternness, the ranger warned us that not only were there grizzlies in the area, but they were likely to be grumpy because of hunting season. Ten minutes later, we were in a sporting goods store, searching the shelves for Bear Bells.

Sharp as a tack, the salesman recognized the easy mark, and sold us not only Bear Bells but a $49.95 can of Bear Spray as well.

We didn’t see any grizzlies during our nine-mile round-trip hike to Hidden Lake and Red Top. In fact, we didn’t see any wildlife. But that was fine. The incredible northern nature gave us plenty to gawk at, and an endless vista of pine-covered mountains isn’t going to tear your chest open with its claws or gnash your skull into sludge.

Bear Spray

It had snowed a couple days before our visit, and we immediately noticed that ours were the only human tracks on the path. There were some deer and rabbit footprints, but despite this hike’s general proximity to Bonners Ferry, we were the only people who had journeyed to Hidden Lake in at least two days.

Hidden Lake lays just a mile and a half from the trailhead. Deep blue water ringed by pine trees, it’s beautiful, but there didn’t seem to be anything especially “hidden” about it; it was, in fact, rather easy to find. But our trail continued up Red Top mountain and, once we had gained some elevation and could look back on the lake, the name made a lot more sense. Hidden Lake is completely encircled by mountains and obscured by tall pines.

The rest of our hike, to the summit of Red Top Mountain, was rough but completely worth the effort. From the top, we had views of the entire region. We could easily see into Canada, and enjoyed a panorama encompassing the Selkirk Mountains. We ate lunch on the remnants of an old fire station (destroyed by a long ago fire), and then started back down the hill.

Location of Trailhead | Hidden Lake | Red Top Summit

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November 1, 2012 at 11:04 pm Comments (4)
The South Eastern Corner of Idaho 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.
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