Sunday, July 19, 2009

Where the rocks weep

Originally published in the Post Register.
BUHL -- On the northern edge of the Snake River in south-central Idaho, the rocks weep.

The Thousand Springs region is where much of the water in the gigantic Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer beneath eastern Idaho emerges after a 200-year trip underground. A three-hour one-way drive from Idaho Falls, Buhl doesn't technically qualify as an eastern Idaho destination, but since the water feeding its springs originates in our corner of the state, we've made an exception.

Apparently, the folks around Buhl and Hagerman -- not to mention the Idaho Parks and Recreation Department -- figure we all know precisely where the springs come out, because they don't provide many clues where the goodies are hidden. If you don't do your homework beforehand, you could easily spend half your time wandering the back roads looking for the region's magical springs, from Box Canyon to the Malad River Gorge.

For example, Niagara Springs on the north side of the Snake River west of Buhl has a nice campground and picnic area and features a beautiful spring gushing out of the canyon wall, but there are nearly no signs that provide direction. And have you even heard of the Box Canyon unit of Thousand Springs State Park, a hidden paradise of cold, clear water recently donated to the state by The Nature Conservancy?

Here are the top five hidden gems of the Thousand Springs area, which also happen to be the five units of Thousand Springs State Park -- and we'll even provide you a map and directions:

1. Earl M. Hardy Box Canyon. Like much of the topography around the Snake River in this part of Idaho, there's little to suggest that Box Canyon exists until you stand at its edge. The canyon is home to America's 11th largest spring, not to mention a variety of birds of prey (and a fair share of poison ivy). It remains unimproved and essentially undiscovered. A trail from the canyon's edge takes you to a world of springs and waterfalls, with good odds that you'll also spot a few eagles and hawks.

2. Malad Gorge. You've driven over the gorge a million times on your way to Boise, but have you ever stopped to give it a look? No, huh? For shame. It comes gushing out of the basalt and terminates in the Snake River at the end of a 250-foot-deep canyon. The surrounding park includes trails and a footbridge that provides a view of the spot where the river pours into Devil's Washbowl. (By the way, don't believe some sources that claim the Malad River is one of the shortest rivers in the world. It's not even close.)

3. Ritter Island. In December 2006, The Nature Conservancy transferred management of this beautiful spot near an Idaho Power plant (many of the "Thousand Springs" have been tapped for power generation), then known as the Thousand Springs Preserve, to the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation. It's now known as the Ritter Island unit of Thousand Springs State Park and includes Ritter Island, two miles of riverfront, nearby springs and Minnie Miller Falls. There are trails and historic buildings on the site plus a great picnic area. This is a particularly difficult park to find -- take our map with you or download one from the Department of Parks and Recreation's Web site.

4. Niagara Springs. Icy cold, Windex-colored water gushes from the basalt at 250 cubic feet per second. Niagara Springs is justifiably a National Natural Landmark and by itself worth the trip. The park includes camping and picnicking areas.

5. Billingsley Creek. Formerly known as the Emerald Valley Ranch, this is the unit nearest to Hagerman and includes an indoor horse arena, fishing, wildlife viewing and events.

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