When I tell friends who live outside the area that Southern Idaho offers a display of beautiful scenery, they give me a strange look.
“Southern Idaho?” they scoff. “Isn’t Southern Idaho just covered with sagebrush?”
Of course, outsiders only know the view of Southern Idaho from the freeway. Comments like this should make us locals happy, because we know the freeway view is protecting Southern Idaho’s abundant beauty from becoming overpopulated.
When a friend says, “Isn’t Southern Idaho just covered with sagebrush?” I chuckle to myself, load up my truck, and take a short drive to some spectacular, even majestic views. One of my frequent adventures is paddling along the Snake River. While many motorboat and jet ski locations are well-known, paddle trips can offer a more serene experience and scenic perspective.
Here are five favorite paddling trips within a short drive from anywhere in Southern Idaho. As with any outdoors adventure, remember to wear sunscreen and carry plenty of water. Generally, shade is limited along the Snake River, and the paddling trips can take several hours.
On an average day, thousands of people drive across the I.B. Perrine Bridge. Only very few travel under the bridge, nearly 500 feet below. One of the more spectacular sites of the trip to Pillar Falls is paddling directly underneath this part of Idaho’s history.
The Pillar Falls paddle trip begins at Centennial Park. To arrive, turn off Blue Lakes Blvd. onto Canyon Springs Road (just north of Costco). This road quickly descends into the canyon. On the waterfront is Centennial Park, a good place to have a picnic before or after the trip. A boat ramp and docks provide easy access to the water.
While paddling east and upriver, the first noticeable feature is the majestic Perrine Bridge on the horizon. As paddlers travel under the bridge, they will find a short strip of shade provided by the bridge itself. You might get a unique view of BASE jumpers leaping off the bridge, releasing their colorful parachutes, and descending to a safe spot on the south side of the river.
What makes this trip unique is the wilderness experience you will enjoy so close to the city. You might see geese flying overhead or prairie falcons and eagles circling in the air. I have even seen a small doe exit the trees to get a drink of water and then nervously leap back into safety. Paddlers enjoy an uninterrupted experience amidst the massive 500-foot canyon walls.
Reaching Pillar Falls takes nearly two hours. It’s 1.5 miles upstream from the Perrine Bridge, preceded by several bends in the river. Pillar Falls was named such because of the 100-foot tall Rhyolite columns which rise out of the riverbed, creating the falls. The portage of Pillar Falls has a green grove of trees and excellent spots to dock the boats and rest.
After stopping for a short break to view the falls, if a trip to Shoshone Falls is not in the schedule, then head back to Centennial Park. If planned accordingly, the sun will set just behind the Perrine Bridge. Floating along the glass-smooth water during the evening while watching the sunset behind the canyon walls is an unforgettable Southern Idaho sight.
Pillar Falls is the halfway point for the Shoshone Falls trip.
Continuing past Pillar Falls, you can navigate up the Snake River for a rare view of Shoshone Falls. The massive 212-foot waterfall is one of the most sensational sights along the Snake River. It is best viewed during the spring when water flows are high.
Indeed, reaching Shoshone Falls by canoe or kayak offers the paddler a unique perspective of this geological wonder; however, it is no easy feat and should only be attempted by advanced paddlers. Because Pillar Falls cannot be negotiated, paddlers must carry their canoes to another launch point above Pillar Falls. There are accessible paths to do this, but please take extreme caution, especially with children. The water flowing through the rocks is dangerous. Hundreds of years of water pressure has cut deep ridges under the rock and can trap anyone who falls in.
The trip to Shoshone Falls continues where paddlers can re-enter the water above Pillar Falls. Paddle up the river around several bends and watch as the 900-foot wide cascade comes into view. The massive waterfall crashes into the river below, sending thousands of gallons of water downriver and filling the air with a cool mist. It is safe, but keep out of harm’s way. From this view, the reasons for not getting too close are more apparent than ever.
The entire trip to Shoshone Falls can take four to six hours. Bring plenty of drinking water.
About 25 miles down the river from Shoshone Falls is another famous waterfall display known as Thousand Springs. In addition to the enjoyable river run, perhaps one of the most exciting parts of this trip is the drive. The Thousand Springs Scenic Byway begins on US-30 just after leaving I-84 at Bliss. The byway descends into the expansive Snake River Canyon, providing a grand entrance to the upcoming attractions. As the byway meanders south, the visitor can discover “melon” boulders, Hagerman horses, the Devil’s Washbowl, wind farms, fish hatcheries, and wildlife habitats.
The float trip begins at Banbury Hot Springs, located 10 miles west of Buhl and nine miles south of Hagerman on Highway 30. Simply follow the Banbury signs to arrive at the departure point for the Thousand Springs paddle trip.
It’s best to park one vehicle at Banbury Hot Springs and another shuttle vehicle at Sligars, seven miles down the road. That way, no upstream paddling will be required, saving you a long, arduous, muscle-aching return journey.
While on the river, paddlers will see remarkable geological features. Thousand Springs is one of the largest ground water systems in the world. The Snake River Plain Aquifer flows underneath volcanic rock for 1,308 miles from St. Anthony to the Snake River before reaching Thousand Springs. The pure, oxygenated water maintains a constant temperature of 58 degrees Fahrenheit, ideal for the trout in nearby hatcheries. Thousand Springs is clearly visible from the byway, but an even more stunning view is available while paddling on the river.
A highlight is the famous Thousand Springs waterfall, which gushes from the canyon wall and into the river below. Like other trips along the Snake River, this run offers spectacular views of the canyon, including Box Canyon and the Nature Conservancy. You could also see pelicans, geese, deer, owls, osprey, raccoons, porcupines, foxes, and eagles.
My favorite part of this paddle trip is a crystal-clear water cove called Blueheart Springs. Whereas the main channel of the Snake River carries heavy amounts of sediment and even some pollution, Blueheart Springs is a direct and pure source of aquifer water. “The spring water bubbles up from the bottom,” says Steve Meckler, 1000 Springs Tours owner, “and you can see the water come up through the sand. It is the 13th largest natural spring in the nation. Box Canyon Springs is the eleventh largest.”
While paddling around Blueheart Springs, paddlers can see directly to the bottom of the river. Swimming in such sparkling blue water is enticing, but remember that the temperature stays at a consistent, brisk 58 degrees.
During the trip a variety of springs gush from the steep canyon walls and cascade into the river below, including Riley Creek Falls. The last protected springs emerge at The Nature Conservancy’s Thousand Springs Preserve. These springs protect a score of unique and endangered aquatic species, including the Shoshone Sculpin, a fish species found nowhere else in the world.
A surprisingly refreshing state park exists south of Buhl in the Salmon Falls Creek Canyon. The main attraction is the world-famous Balanced Rock. Standing over 48 feet tall and weighing over 40 tons, the rock balances precariously on a pedestal only three feet by 17 inches.
To arrive, follow the signs from Buhl to Castleford, then drive six miles northwest through farmland to find Balanced Rock. The entry point for the paddle trip is down in the canyon in nearby Balanced Rock Park.
The great thing about this trip is that paddlers will almost certainly have the entire stretch of river to themselves. Although the park is popular for visitors, only a select few bring canoes or kayaks to ascend the river.
This scenic trip is different from the others in this article. Instead of paddling the main channel of the Snake River, this is on the Salmon Falls River just before it joins the Snake near Hagerman.
Paddlers travel up the winding river for approximately one mile. At this point the river narrows significantly and is only passable with a small kayak. During high water levels, travel up another difficult section of the river to see a rare glimpse of a delightful little waterfall. The trip stops here because the waterfall blocks any further access.
The difficult thing about paddling the Balanced Rock/Salmon Falls trip is the steady current. Ascending the river will cause some fatigue, but the journey back is enjoyable as it only requires minimal paddling.
In their book, A Guide to Paddling Idaho, Katherine Daly and Ron Watters say, “Finding a flat water stretch on the Snake on which you feel comfortable taking a family isn’t easy. Fortunately there’s a solution: the calm water through Massacre Rocks State Park.”
Massacre Rock was named after Oregon Trail emigrants who passed through this section on their journey. They referred to the area as “Gate of Death” and “Devil’s Gate.” It is easy to see why travelers feared an ambush at the narrow passage. In an area just east of Devil’s Gate, a series of skirmishes occurred involving four wagon trains. In the end, 10 pioneers and an unknown number of natives died.
A favorite location for birdwatchers, Massacre Rocks contains over 200 species of birds. The desert environment produces about 300 species of plants in the park. You can also see cottontail, jack rabbit, coyote, muskrat, and beaver.
Due to the slow current, paddlers can explore both upstream and downstream to get unique glimpses of the huge park boulders. Some 14,500 years ago, the Bonneville Flood torrent ripped massive chunks of rocks from the mountainside. The large boulders were smoothed by the water flow and rolled for hundreds of miles to where they currently rest at Massacre Rock State Park.
One such rock is Register Rock, made famous by Oregon Trail emigrants who engraved their names and dates on the rock. Today the stone register is protected by a weather shelter.
5 New Places to Explore
These five trips are just a short drive away. After visiting these locations, you will be able to tell friends and family who live outside the area that Southern Idaho has much more to offer than just sagebrush next to the freeway. Indeed, we have some of the most beautiful scenery in the nation.
Major Features: Perrine Bridge, Hiking around Pillar Falls, Centennial Park
Distance: 4 Miles Round Trip
Major Features: Shoshone Falls
Distance: 7 Miles Round Trip
Major Features: Thousand Springs, Wildlife, Blueheart Springs, Box Canyon, Nature Conservancy
Distance: 7 Miles One Way
Major Features: Solitude, Quiet River, Balanced Rock,
Distance: 3 Miles Round Trip
Major Features: Register Rock, Bird Watch