Southeast Idaho Touring

Someone on the Newton Schools email system posted a question about sightseeing in southeastern Idaho. By the time I finished answering, I had written so much that I figured I’d post it here.


My mother lives in Pocatello so we’ve been there many times. Usually we spend most of our time at her house and often add an overnight trip from there or a long day trip.

Of course you want to hit the big things like Yellowstone & the Tetons if you haven’t been there.

Between the Tetons and Idaho Falls you go along the Snake River, which has a moderately scenic canyon. Nothing like the Grand Canyon, but we don’t have that kind of scenery in the East.

After that, Craters of The Moon National Monument is pretty amazing. It’s a lava landscape with exhibits about different types of lava flows, one big cinder cone you can walk up and a couple of small spatter cones. It’s about ninety miles from Idaho Falls, out in the sagebrush desert. On the way to it you go through Arco, a small city which was the first place ever to get its electricity from nuclear power. There’s an exhibit at the Idaho National Energy Lab (used to be National Reactor Test Site, people around there still call it “the site”) about nuclear reactors, too. Nothing on that side trip is close to each other, but I definitely recommend Craters of the Moon.

Do you see a big blank area on the map between Craters of the Moon and I-86? There is NOTHING there except sagebrush and lava. Maybe a few pronghorn and jackrabbits.  Because of the porosity of the lava, what little rain there is sinks into the ground immediately and leaves the surface very arid. Just so you know. Also just so you know, the road between Twin Falls and Boise is interminable. I expect to drive a long time with nothing to see when I cross Nevada, but that stretch in Idaho surprises me in how long it seems.

There’s a very nice museum about the Oregon Trail in Montpelier, Idaho, southeast of Pocatello. It’s further from Pocatello than Lava Hot Springs, where you can soak in naturally hot water. When you look up at the hills around you at Lava, you realize you’re in the middle of an ancient volcano crater. Also in that direction is Soda Springs, where there’s a partly controlled geyser. Last time we were there we parked in the lot across from the geyser and got the rental car sprayed with geyser water, which contained minerals which only dissolved in the superheated geyser water and wouldn’t wash off the car! So if you do go there, pay attention to the signs warning you not to park too close. 100 yards is too close.

Thirty miles off the main road somewhere southeast of Pocatello is the townsite of Chesterfield, Idaho. It used to be a Mormon farming town, but was abandoned when it proved to be too far from transportation routes to be viable. People are trying to restore it, and you can see a few of the old buildings. It’s definitely a low priority place to visit, but if you happened to be interested in what it feels like to be in really isolated country where people once tried to farm, keep it in mind. I think it’s north of Bancroft, between Lava and Soda. I like Chesterfield, but expect people to say, “we drove 30 miles off the main road just for this??!!”

North of Idaho Falls on US 20, you go along the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River. It’s one of the most famous fly fishing rivers in the country. Big Spring, a little off the road, is the source of the Henry’s Fork. It’s off limits for fishing, and there are huge trout in it. Harriman State Park is a good wildlife area, not quite so much as Yellowstone (which is very close but in a “can’t get there from here” way) but not overcrowded with tourists.

OK, farther west on I-86, stop at the rest area before American Falls that has a sign about the Oregon Trail. There’s a rock, Register Rock, in the rest area on the south side of the highway that has graffitti left by Oregon Trail emigrants. Do it now, it’s vandalism. Do it then, now it’s history, with historical marker and a fence to protect it. Across the way from the rest area the hillside still has wagon wheel ruts from the Oregon Trail. That one at least is not a long way from the beaten path!

We haven’t spent much time southwest of Pocatello, but one place on that side that we do recommend is City of Rocks, south of Rupert (or Burley?). It’s a very strange landscape with huge rock outcroppings. If you go there, there’s a general store in the last town before it (coming in from the East), I think Almo, that has a far corner that looks unchanged from 1920. Some places you’d pay $5 admission to see a reproduction of it. Just stop for a can of soda every place you can, you’ll be thirsty anyway, and you’ll bump into it.

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