Idaho is filled with gorgeous scenic drives, and for visitors to south central Idaho, the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway should be on your list of things to do and see.
The Thousands Springs area takes it’s name from the natural springs that roar out of the canyon walls and tumble down into the river below. The views are really quite amazing and one that will have the kids eagerly counting the number of falls they can see. Unfortunately, due to the ever increasing irrigation needs in the Magic Valley and various hydroelectric projects, there aren’t “thousands” of springs any more, but there’s still plenty to marvel over.
So where do the springs come from? The source of these springs is the Snake River Plains aquifer, which is one of the largest ground water aquifers in the world. The water moves beneath miles and miles of basalt to emerge in the Hagerman Valley in a rather spectacular fashion.
The Thousand Springs Scenic Byway is 67.8 miles long and takes about 1.5 hours of driving time. If traveling with kids, you might as well quadruple the time because there are so many things to do and see along this wonderful stretch of US Highway 30.
The Malad Gorge is not part of the Thousand Springs Scenic Byways tour, but it’s so darned close that it’s just a shame to pass it by. We call it the “Grand Canyon of Idaho” and it’s pretty spectacular. Amazingly, this gorge passes beneath Interstate 84 and is easy to miss from the freeway.
There’s a very easy two mile trail system that starts practically beneath the Interstate. The trail starts with a footbridge that spans the Devil’s Wash Bowl, which is a deep cauldron of sorts that bubbles with cascading water that falls from above. While the kids might not be interested in walking the entire trail, they won’t want to miss stepping out onto the narrow footbridge.
For families on a tight schedule, this side trip to the gorge can be done in less than 20 minutes, though your kids might want to stay a bit longer.
Malad Gorge can be accessed from Exit 148, 5 miles east of Bliss. The city of Bliss is the starting point of the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway, also known as US 30. From here it’s a short drive to Hagerman which has plenty to see for squirmy kids.
Hagerman Fossil Beds
The Hagerman Fossil Beds is a National Monument administered by the National Park Service. The visitor center, located on Highway 30 across the Hagerman High School is a great place to stop at before exploring the fossil beds. The center has a great information video and lots of fossils on exhibit, including the Hagerman horse. Kids can dig for fossils, examine fossil casts, and spend some time in the nature corner. They can also pick up an application to become a “junior ranger.”
The visitor’s center will provide you with a map to the fossil beds which contain one of the world’s richest collection of prehistoric horse fossils. During our day trip to the site, we simply drove out to the fossil beds which was something of a mistake since we couldn’t figure out what we were supposed to be looking for or even at. In the future, we’ll definitely plan ahead and arrange our visit at a time when the park rangers are giving tours or at least, ask some better questions at the visitor’s center.
Admission to the Visitor’s Center and Fossil Beds are free. During the winter, the visitor’s center is only open Thursday – Monday from 9am to 5pm. During the summer, the center open 7 days a week from 9am to 6pm. Access to the Fossil beds closes at dusk.
Families should plan for a minimum of 30 minutes at the Visitors Center, and between 1-2 hours at the Fossil Beds. For more information about the Hagerman Fossil Beds, visit this link which brings you to the home page of the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument.
Hagerman National Fish Hatchery
After leaving the visitors center, Highway 30 veers to the west and past the Hagerman National Fish Hatchery. The clean water from those “thousand” springs maintain a constant temperature of 58 degrees, which is an ideal temperature for raising trout. The hatcheries in the Hagerman Valley raise nearly 70% of the trout produced in the United States and the hatcheries are something the kids will definitely want to see. Watch for the sign noting the entrance to the National Hatchery, it’s pretty easy to miss.
Once inside the Hatchery grounds, visitors can check in at the kiosk and pick up a self guided walking tour. The tour takes visitors around the “raceways” which hold some 1.5 million young trout, and towards the read of the facility where the young fingerlings are raised in “rearing” troughs.
After the walking tour, visitors can walk around to the back of the offices to the viewing ponds, where they can see an enormous white sturgeon that looks like a living dinosaur fish.
Raising steelhead trout takes about a year before they can be released in the wild. In April and May, visitors can see the young fingerlings in the rearing troughs. By late July, the fingerlings are moved to the larger “raceways” where they are housed until the following April. For more information about the Hagerman National Fish Hatcheries, visit this link for more information and a virtual tour.
Cost to the facility is free and it is open during regular business hours. For families watching the time, plan on spending about an hour at the hatchery. Speed walkers can probably trim it down to 15 minutes.
Shortly after leaving the hatcheries is where visitors will see the highest concentration of springs. They can easily be viewed from the highway. We’ve noticed signs for tours and hot springs in this vicinity, but have never taken advantage of that particular attraction.
From Thousand Springs, it’s a pretty drive to the city of Buhl. Buhl is a small town of about 4000 people with the bulk of the business district clustered around the main thoroughfare of Broadway Avenue. There’s plenty for the grownups to see including a trip to the local winery, but for kids, they’ll want to stop at the Smiths Dairy (on Broadway) for fresh ice cream. We somehow missed the “famous” potato ice cream the chamber had noted on the handouts, but settled for the flavor of the week called “Tuxedo.” Yep, it was scrumptious and besides, we really didn’t want to try the potato ice cream THAT badly.
If you’ve got the time, your kids will want to see Balanced Rock, 17 miles west of Buhl. This geographic anomaly is 40 feet high, shaped like a camel’s head, and balances on a teeny tiny perch measuring just a few feet across. The directions to Balanced Rock are fairly well signed except for one crossroad where we weren’t sure if we should go straight or follow the curve. (You follow the curve). The takes about 20 minutes to reach from from downtown Buhl. Once at Balanced Rock, your kids will want to scramble up to the rock which takes another 10 minutes. But, the view from up there is definitely worth it. Kids need a potty brake? Back up 500 feet to the Balanced Rock Park for restrooms and a chance to wade in a refreshing, cool canyon stream.
After returning to Buhl, it’s another 10 minutes before your family will reach the city of Twin Falls, the end of the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway, and what we’ve dubbed “Fast Food Alley” for those hungry kids. For more information about the scenic byway, visit this link which is full of helpful information, points of interest, and a map which can help you in planning a family excursion through this fascinating part of Idaho.