Family Fun Just Two Hours from Your Door
Story and photography by Pete Grady
At Eagle Magazine we often feature our beautiful river and greenbelt, our spectacular mountain views, our vibrant town center full of places to shop and eat, our excellent schools, and our numerous family activities.
But when you add up all the incredible things that make Eagle a fantastic place to live, you can’t forget one feature that isn’t about Eagle at all. Nestled at the foot of the hills just a few miles west of Boise, removed from the big city’s ever-present buzz of traffic and activity, Eagle residents know that trading the urban life for a weekend escape is surprisingly easy. Our location makes Eagle the perfect basecamp for a day trip or weekend excursion. In just an hour or two, you can be rafting the Payette, taking an historical look at Boise from Bonneville Point, or rubbing elbows with celebrities in Sun Valley. In this feature, we highlight some lesser-known destinations to inspire your perfect spring family staycation.
If you’re ready to stow away the skis and lace up the hiking boots, there’s no better time to visit one of the Northwest’s finest geologic attractions, Leslie Gulch.
California bighorn sheep, mule deer, and golden eagles make their home among the red rocks, amber cliffs, rugged canyons, and hoodoos. Good hiking trails abound, and the road ends at the Owyhee Reservoir for those inclined to bring their boats. Camping is plentiful in the canyon and the surrounding plateaus, but it’s primitive and dispersed, so bring plenty of water. The cooler months will bring occasional rain, so it’s always a good idea to research the weather and avoid what can become a pretty muddy trip. The cooler temperatures also mean that snakes are still in their dens. Bird of prey activity starts to increase as the more diminutive wildlife emerge, so definitely bring your binoculars. The best part is that even though it’s off the beaten path, the dirt and gravel roads that provide access are easily negotiated by most cars, SUVs and trucks. Nonetheless, always make sure your vehicle is in running order and your spare tire is in good shape with tools at the ready.
Start your journey heading south on Eagle Rd. to I-84, then head west. At the Hwy 55 exit in Nampa, go southwest to Marsing. Drive through town to the Hwy 93 turnoff and go south 19 miles to the McBride Creek exit. A sign points to Leslie Gulch on the dirt road that starts there. Take your time to enjoy the views, and check out the various ranches along the way. If you’re a novice to back country travel, take along a good map as the terrain can be confusing for some travelers.
If you want to get outdoors, do a little hiking, and see some amazing natural wonders without the potential hazards of off-road and off-grid travel, maybe Hagerman is more your style.
Perched on the banks of the Snake River just 35 miles this side of Twin Falls, Hagerman is the launch point for a great mix of outdoor fun, while providing local accommodations, groceries and supplies, and a good selection of restaurants. The Hagerman Fossil Beds is a National Monument that protects one of America’s most productive fossil sites. Known mostly as the birthplace of the modern horse, the fossil beds also contain the remains of saber toothed cat, mastodon, camel, ground sloth, and bear. The beds are largely off limits to visitors due to their fragile state and the importance of their treasures, but the visitor center in the middle of town has excellent displays of bones, flora, and fauna found in the area and a welcoming and knowledgeable staff that can help make your trip fun and interesting by pointing you in the direction of other, equally terrific natural attractions.
Chief among those is Malad Gorge State Park. In addition to extensive walks along the basalt cliffs overlooking the Malad River, the park features plenty of grassy spaces for the kids to play, picnic areas for those smart enough to have brought their own lunch and the usual information displays, restrooms, and paved parking.
Just south of town are both state and national fish hatcheries that have self-guided and hosted tours. Taking advantage of year-round flows of cold, pristine water from the East Snake River Plain Aquifer, the hatcheries produce millions of trout, steelhead, and sturgeon and provide visitors with a close look at the fish and these excellent facilities. If seeing the fish gets you excited, you can always grab your tackle and fishing license and shuffle over to the nearby ponds at Hagerman Wildlife Management Area where the fishing can be very good.
All those fish need water and as noted, the Hagerman area is home to the outlet for the East Snake River Plain Aquifer. What’s amazing about it is the way this water makes it into the river. Water from Idaho’s central mountain ranges settles through the ground, then takes up to 250 years to travel some 140 miles or more to Thousand Springs, a miles-long string of water falls and seepages from the basalt walls that loom over the river.
If a cold shower isn’t what you had in mind, maybe a hot water soak is. Like many other areas of Idaho, the Hagerman Valley has several great choices for enjoying hot springs. Try popular places like Miracle Hot Springs (HS), Thousand Springs, or Banbury. While you’re at Miracle, check out the alligator farm. No kidding! They have an alligator or two on site to view. Several farms in the area raise them as food and sell to restaurants locally and around the country.
If you’ve got the itch for more adventure, a short drive further to Twin Falls brings you to Centennial Waterfront Park. Kayaking, boating, waterskiing, and zip-lining are a few of the featured activities. Adrenaline junkies can base jump off Perrine Bridge that looms over the river. The rest of us can watch as we play golf at Canyon Springs Golf Course.
Want to keep things more local but no less interesting? In about an hour, you can be in Walter’s Ferry, Idaho, home of Swaynes’ Ferry Museum.
Tucked behind a gas station and convenience store on the slope above the Snake River. Swaynes’ spot is an eclectic “attraction” museum, animal farm, religious shrine, and botanical garden offering a surprise around every corner as you navigate the paths and trails of its grounds. Created by local resident Pappy Swayne and continued by his widow Cleo, there’s something fun to explore for every taste.
Sit on a park bench next to Einstein or play a game of marbles with some of the neighborhood kids who are all part of a vast collection of bronze sculptures by Gary Lee Price depicting various historical figures along with representations of children at play, cavorting in a parade or riding a skate board into the sky. Exotic peacocks strut their stuff among the amazing old river rock buildings, farm equipment, giant replicas of African wildlife, and ponds full of swans. It’s a fun and funky day you’ll want to share with the family and perfect for selfies with your loved ones.
How many times have you blasted up Highway 55 on your way to McCall or Tamarack and barely slowed down in the town of Donnelly other than to fill up your tank with gas? Many folks have no idea that by making a right turn in the center of town, they can visit what was at one time the largest town in all of Long Valley. Bypassed in 1915 by the Pacific, Idaho, and Northern rail line, Roseberry, Idaho had grown to be the hub of the area with a hotel, blacksmith shops, stores, a butcher, logging mill restaurants, and a creamery. When the railway was built two miles to the west, Roseberry descended into ghost town.
Today it’s a quaint and lively center for summer music events, a fabulous crafts fair, private events center, and various historical exhibits. In fact, the entire town is a museum of sorts, with plenty to occupy visitors for a half day or more. Check out their website at www.historicroseberry.com to find out what’s happening there.
Another Donnelly treasure is also easy to overlook. Buffalo Gal, a friendly, casual eatery with Western-themed décor, is the shrine to good food and better living brought to us by owners Julie and Tom Steinberg.
Originally a produce stand and deli in a former 19th century one-room schoolhouse on the edge of town, it has evolved to a more elaborate, mostly eat-in restaurant in a newer building serving an eclectic menu of internationally inspired plates. “People stop in all the time and tell us how they’ve been driving by for five years, always promising to give us a try,” says Julie.
She goes on to explain the demographics and eating habits of their clientele, a mix of out-of-state visitors in search of recreation and a large contingent of Boise and Eagle metro folks with second homes in the area.
She acknowledges that McCall is the major draw for the area and the more likely location for their upscale style of cafe. A pair of avid snowboarders, Julie and her husband moved to Donnelly from Bend, Oregon in 2001 in search of less crowded snow resorts. Tom brought his well-groomed culinary talents, and Julie supplied the business savvy. She runs the dining room with immaculate efficiency, injecting her charm by way of her intelligent wit. Signs above the kitchen door and the office proclaim “The Freak Show” and “The Intelligentsia.” Spend just five minutes, under Julie’s care and you know whose ideas those were.
As for the cuisine, Chef Tom has a vigorous curiosity and a respect for authenticity. Added to that is a sense of textures and flavors that one has to assume he was born with because the imaginative results appear so effortless. The menu evolves with the seasons, but some favorites persist, so there’s always something enticing and memorable. Slow down next time you are passing by and try what is arguably one of the best restaurants in Valley County.