Our family loves road trips, and ever since the kids were toddlers, Jake and I have packed up the van and chosen a destination we could get to on four wheels. Whether driving two hours or ten, we love the adventure of getting to our destination almost as much as being there.
Last year, we drove up to Yellowstone, enjoying the campestral beauty of eastern Idaho along the way. We found ourselves heading east on Highway 20, and pulled over at the curiously named Hell’s Half Acre. Now that Matt is ten and Carrie is eight, a name like that is irresistible. We had no idea there was a lava field right there, waiting to be explored. Always up for a spontaneous adventure, we grabbed water bottles, and hiked the trail until we got to the lava flats. Jumping over crevices, marveling at the vegetation that managed to grow in the silvery-black soil—it was a mind-blowing experience.
We drove right through Idaho Falls, caught a glimpse of the long stretch of falls from the car window, but didn’t have time to stop and explore the trail that seemed to meander for miles alongside it, because we wanted to make our reservation at the cabin in Yellowstone.
Our time in Yellowstone was great—the sights were beautiful, and I’m glad we went, but—have you ever wanted to get away from it all, only to reach your destination and feel like it all came with you? Crowds, long lines and tourist prices on everything made Yellowstone feel more like a theme-park attraction than the great outdoors. It was awesome, but it lacked the intimate family adventure feeling that we’d had scrambling over lava fields, and made us wish we’d had the time to explore the flowers along the Idaho Falls greenbelt.
This year, we decided to create the vacation we wanted, instead of the one everyone else was having. The first night, we stayed in Idaho Falls at the Hilton Garden Inn, with a view of the river, and spent a couple of hours wandering the River Walk. At every turn, there was something new to see, from animal-shaped benches (there was some horseplay on the horse-shaped bench), to the stunning bronze eagle waterfall. The Giant Eagle Waterfall nest was a nice surprise, tucked inside a roundabout near the river walk.
After building up an appetite exploring the trails, we found a dinner place in easy walking distance. Stockman’s Restaurant was everything you could want in a local eatery, with friendly service and excellent food. Jake had a steak that made him swoon, while I fell in love with their prime rib and the kids devoured their burgers.
I thought nothing could be as colorful as the abundant flowers that grew in the gardens by the River Walk—vibrant purples and yellows, dancing in the late afternoon breeze—but then the sun began to set and the sky put on a gorgeous display as we leisurely strolled back to the hotel. Jake and I held hands, the sound of moving water in the distance, the kids chasing ahead of us on the trail and the whole sky painted in pinks, gold and tangerine.
Idaho Falls would be home base for the next couple of days as we explored the nearby attractions. We started with Yellowstone Bear World in nearby Rexburg. To use the words of my eight-year-old, this place was off-the-hook. We drove through the park, seeing goats, turkeys, buffalo and the main attraction—bears. So many bears! They wandered around, playing in mud puddles, rolling in the grass, completely undisturbed by our dumbfounded faces staring at them through the car window. Park staff let visitors watch (and even participate!) as they fed the baby bears. They were the cutest things in the world, as their keepers brought out the wooden pallets and they eagerly climbed on top of them and commenced drinking bottle after bottle from human hands. Both Matt and Carrie, who have begun to act too cool for stuffed animals, insisted they wanted to take a little toy bear from the gift shop home to remember the experience.
That afternoon, we drove down the road to the Mountain River Ranch. The event starts with a gun show in the open air that is as much slapstick as it is old Western, making us all laugh while we watched. Later, we lined up with blue tin plates to receive our ranch-style feast: slow roasted beef, barbecue baked beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, and, for dessert, huckleberry ice cream made at the local dairy. The kids were nervous when the staff told us we had to sing for our suppers, but soon they had joined into the audience’s slightly tone-deaf rendition of “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” After that, the performers put on an entertaining magic show and a few rollicking musical numbers for a one-of-a-kind “dinner theatre.”
The next day, we went to the Idaho Falls Zoo at Tautphaus Park. From the Red-necked Wallaby in the Australia exhibit to the tiger in the Asia exhibit, this zoo delighted the whole family. The zoo was just the right size so that we weren’t overwhelmed, and the animals were exotic enough that we still learned a lot.
After a morning at the zoo, we headed to Heise Hot Springs. Jake and Matt were excited to try the zipline, while Carrie and I were more interested in checking out the warm water pools, heated by a natural mineral hot springs. The boys soared through the air, taking in breathtaking birds-eye views. When the boys joined us, we all took turns in the “summer pool,” riding the 350-foot waterslide and splashing down into the cool water.
For the last night of our trip, we moved to the Lodge at Palisades Creek. It’s not far from Idaho Falls, but we wanted the full experience of staying on the South Fork of the Snake River in a cozy cabin. Once again, we were attracted to different activities, with Carrie and Jake wanting to go on a horseback ride, and Matt and I taken in by the graceful arc of the fishing line as an expert fly-fisherman cast into the swiftly moving river.
I figured we would stand on the shore and get a few lessons, but what we did was so much better! Our guide took us out on the river and taught us how to stand and cast our lines into the water. He told us how to look for the tension in the rod once we had a bite, and then told us the exact moment we should reel the line in, and when we should relax. We both caught big brown trout, and Matt caught a Snake River Cutthroat. We took photos of our prizes and then gently slipped them back into the river. Neither of us had tried fly-fishing before, and having the guide there allowed us to enjoy every part of the experience.
Jake and Carrie felt like they, too, made lasting memories, as they rode horses from nearby Hincks Paradise Creek Ranch and explored the countryside led by a wrangler who knew the area like the back of his hand.
All too soon, it was time for us to pack our bags and head home. On the drive, instead of talking about where we would go next year, we were preoccupied with when we could return to Idaho Falls.