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How to make the most of nature’s golden hour in eastern Bonneville County

Published in the October 2022 Issue Published online: Oct 07, 2022 Road Trips
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SUMMER’S MAD RUSH IS NOW BEHIND US. The tourist season, for all its benefits, has given way to another quiet fall in our region’s beautiful backcountry.

Now, at long last, we’re back on local time. Few pint-sized Western cities can claim to be so strategically perched in the middle of such an amazing geographical wonderland. In peak season, the wild spaces surrounding Idaho Falls offer a treasure chest of opportunities for all the masses to enjoy. With the shorter days, cooler temps and warmer colors of autumn, we can now explore it all in quiet peace.

The schedule is clear. The cooler is packed. Now, roadtrippers, which direction shall we go?

You could draw a 100-mile circle around Idaho Falls and find a worthy destination in any direction, but few autumn road trips can match an afternoon’s drive east on U.S. Highway 26. This is the gateway to South Fork Country in eastern Bonneville County. On a calm, cloudless day in the thralls of mid October, you won’t find a prettier place on Planet Earth. Need a primer to get you started? Here are six ways to make the most of it:

1.  Hop Over to Heise

After a pit stop at Hillview Sinclair for gas and snacks, keep heading east a few miles and you’ll see a turnoff for Heise Hot Springs and Kelly Canyon. Opportunities abound here, especially for families. Heise Hot Springs features swimming and hotpooling courtesy of a natural mineral spring that hovers around 104 degrees Fahrenheit. A cooler freshwater pool is also available with shallow depths, which is perfect for little kids. The resort also offers a quaint 9-hole golf course, a renowned pizza parlor, fly-fishing guide services and a spectacular zipline operation. (Got a taste for nightflying? Be sure to ask about Heise’s October Haunted Zipline.)

2. Hike it Up at Cress Creek

The same turnoff to Heise will also take you to some excellent trail systems. For an educational hiking experience, hang a left at the Heise Bridge and you’ll find the Cress Creek Nature Trail. It’s a short, pleasant hike–even for folks with mobility issues like Yours Truly. The views are spectacular, so definitely pack a camera. Watch out for deer, rabbits, lizards and the occasional moose or bald eagle.

3. Test Your Pedal Power

 Got a penchant for mountain biking? Hang a right at the bridge and follow the signage to Kelly Canyon. Make sure you’ve done your homework on the trailhead locations and routes. The canyon’s namesake resort has a new lift for downhill adventures, so be sure to look them up at kellycanyonresort. com. (Rumor has it that a new zipline will be coming to the resort as well sometime next summer.)

Another great option is the 7N Bike Park with its varied tracks for beginners and experts alike. It features an array of jumps, ramps and loops for building skills. The park is part of a larger operation, 7N Ranch, which caters to camping, events and a tubing hill for when the snow flies.

4. Make it up to Palisades

Make it up to Palisades Some high-country hike/bike trails might be dicey propositions in the late fall, but if you make your way to Palisades Creek, a fair-weathered October jaunt up to the lower lake can be a rewarding experience. The trail is moderately strenuous but extremely well maintained. The creek itself is a beautiful sight, marked by rolling cascades of crystal clear water. Fishing can be tricky with the low autumn flows, but the rewards of hooking into a small trout are well worth the effort. Fly-fishing works well, using small beadhead nymphs. (Be sure to de-barb your hook. It’s all catch-and-release for native cutthroat.) 

5. Drive the Forest Routes

Two main off-pavement excursions will beckon you to explore, depending on how far upriver you’d like to venture. You’ll find the first option on your way to Kelly Canyon. Take a right onto Burns Creek Road and you’ll follow the river for several miles, taking you into the lower part of the river’s majestic canyon. When the cottonwood leaves are in full autumn swing, you’ll encounter some of the most eye-popping natural spectacles that nature has to offer. Just bear in mind that the road ends at Burns Creek, so you’ll have to backtrack to get back out to the pavement. You can expect the same scenic splendor for 23 miles farther east as you travel on U.S. Highway 26, including majestic hillsides of spent grain fields flanked by pockets of blazing yellow aspens and orange canyon maples.

Just ahead of the highway bridge that crosses the river, take a right onto Snake River Road. In many respects, this is the nexus of the entire area. It takes you along the southern bank past the majestic Fall Creek Waterfall and all the way up to the dam. The scenic vistas that unfold on this route are absolutely stunning, including overviews of the dense cottonwoods and the river coursing southwest from its exit at Palisades Reservoir.

6. Cast Away at Conant

While you can marvel at your surroundings from the comfort of your car, creating contrails of dust up and down the shoreline does have its limits. To experience the South Fork in all its glory, you really need to hop aboard and let the river carry you. The natural companion activity for this experience is fishing, especially on the fly. If you’re new to the sport, don’t sweat it. Guided floats are perfect for novices, and usually include shuttle services.

For the uninitiated, a guided fly-fishing excursion on the South Fork in October can be a life-changing experience. Against a backdrop of blazing autumn foliage, small mayflies dot the water, bringing rainbow and native cutthroat to the surface to feed. Brown trout, protecting their spawning grounds, will pounce on a well-placed streamer. If all goes well, your biggest challenge will be whether to cast a fly or shoot a picture.

If these seven suggestions still leave you wanting for more, no worries. We could have easily given you 70. One of the South Fork’s many charms is that it’s conveniently close to Idaho Falls, providing endless opportunities to revisit and explore its every nook and cranny. That’s especially true right now, as the river lights up in its full seasonal glory. For anyone who cares, it’s only a matter of setting aside the time to gear up and heading out there to enjoy it.

South Fork Quick Links

Cress Creek Nature Trail

Heise Hot Springs

Kelly Canyon Resort

7N Ranch

South Fork Lodge

The Lodge at Palisades Creek


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