Exploring the Oregon Trail in Idaho and Wyoming: Lava Hot Springs to Kemmerer

Places Visited:

Lava Hot Springs

Portneuf River

Soda Springs Geyser

Hooper Springs Park

Fossil Butte National Monument

J.C. Penney Mother Store

 

Recap:

I woke up in Pocatello after sleeping for 9 hours. Yesterday, I climbed Mount Borah the highest peak in Idaho. I had all day to get back to Salt Lake City where my flight would depart the next morning. Rather than drive back along Interstate 15, I decided to take a scenic detour and explore 130 miles of US Highway 30 which follows the Oregon Trail.

My first stop was the town of Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, which is in the running for the coolest town name in America. The cute resort town is regionally famous, but is little-known outside of Idaho/Utah. True to its name, Lava Hot Springs is famous for its hot springs.

While some of the hotels have private hot springs, the main spot is a public facility run by a non-profit.  The non-profit also operates a local swimming pool and water park. The hot springs facility contains 5 large hot pools that vary between 102-112 degrees Fahrenheit. That is hotter than most hot tubs, which are set between 100-102 degrees. All of the pools are concrete and some have shaded areas to hang out. There are also shower facilities and a gift shop. I spent about 45 minutes here, but could easily have spent more time here if I was with someone else.

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One of 5 hot pools in Lava Hot Springs

In addition to the hot springs, the town of Lava Hot Springs has another fun attraction: tubing down Class 3 rapids! The fast flowing Portneuf River runs through the heart of the town. Tubes can be rented by the hour from a variety of vendors throughout town. The tubing route is a half-mile long and lasts about 15 minutes, so most people do multiple laps down the river.  The tubing company estimates tubers can complete two laps per hour. There is a beautiful trail for tubers to walk back to the start. For an extra few dollars, you can get picked up by a shuttle which will drive you to the start. Water shoes are not necessary, but can be purchased from the local market.

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Ready to tube!

This was the most exciting tube ride of my life- and yes this wasn’t my first tubing rodeo. The Class 3 rapids are very real and felt more like waterfalls when in the tube. The scenery was also beautiful. For me, the tubing was the highlight of my day.

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Whoa!!!

After drying off, I drove 30 minute east to Soda Springs, Idaho. This pretty town is on the shores of a large lake. Just north of downtown is the famed Soda Springs Geyser. This is the world’s only “captive” geyser, meaning its eruptions are controlled by an electric valve that releases on the hour. While the eruptions of the geyser are very real, the geyser was formed by humans- in 1937 a drilling operation accidentally hit a deposit of carbon dioxide and water. After months of uncontrolled eruptions, the town capped the geyser.

Even though the geyser isn’t “natural”, it still smells like Sulphur and erupts. The eruption drew a small crowd and lasted about 5 minutes. 70 degree water launched about 100 feet into the air. It was quite a sight!

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From Soda Springs, the road jogged south near Bear Lake. In the town of Montpelier, there is an Oregon Trail museum and the last bank robbed by Butch Cassidy (also a museum), but I did not have time to stop.

Past Montpelier, I lost cell coverage. Eventually, the road dipped into a wide valley and I reached the Wyoming border. Here there was a junkyard and firework stand.

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The roads in Wyoming were noticeably better than in Idaho, but the cell coverage was not. No service. 45 minutes later, I reached Fossil Butte National Monument.

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It is here in the desert of Southwest Wyoming that many of the world’s best fossils have been found. The reason is that this was the site of a humongous prehistoric lake the size of Lake Tahoe. Animals would flock to the lake to drink. If animals died near the lake, they might end up getting buried under mud, thus preserving their bones. Over millions of years the bones would turn into fossils.

While there were no dinosaur fossils here (the lake formed 10 million years after the meteor struck), there are many very impressive animals and plant fossils such as crocodilians and giant ferns.

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All the excavated fossils can be found in the park’s visitor center, which also features a short movie about the excavation process. There are also a few trails. I took the Historic Quarry Trail which led to a place where fossils have been found. Not only was the history interesting but the trail was beautiful and quiet.

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View from Fossil Butte

I then had a 2 hour drive back to Salt Lake City. On the way, I stopped in Kemmerer, the only town in a 30 mile radius. The town wasn’t much, but it did happen to have the original J.C. Penney store. In 1902, James Cash Penney was sent from Missouri to Wyoming to open a dry goods store called Golden Rule. Eventually, Penney opened two more stores, buy a controlling interest in all three stores, change the name to J.C. Penney and relocated the new company’s headquarters to Salt Lake City. He ran the company until the 1940’s, but miraculously stayed on as honorary chairman until his death in 1971 at age 95.

The Kemmerer stores itself is very small, but sells clothes just like any other JC Penney. There is apparently a museum in the back. Unfortunately, the store is closed on Sundays so I wasn’t able to go inside.

I then headed back to Salt Lake City.

This day was full of surprises. I expected desert, but instead got to experience both incredible natural scenery (Lava Hot Springs, Soda Springs and the Fossil Butte hike) and amazing history (Soda Springs, Fossil Butte Museum, Kemmerer). Interestingly, I learned very little about the Oregon Trail even though I spent all day on it. While certainly off the beaten path, I feel that this part of the country is a fantastic place to go road tripping and get lost.

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