Hidden Gems in South Central Idaho: A Pleasant Detour From the Ordinary


Walking over lava in central Idaho. photos by Amanda J. FreerksenWalking over lava in central Idaho. photos by Amanda J. Freerksen

By Amanda J. Freerksen

After leaving the bustle of Boise, we cruise along State Highway 75, or the Sawtooth Scenic Byway, confronting miles and miles of high desert vegetation: the ubiquitous sagebrush. The landscape doesn’t change much, which puts us in a kind of trance.

We pass by the town where my mother-in-law was born, barely stirring from the stupor in time to notice it. In just a couple of hours, we’ll be visiting with her and getting a taste of what she now calls home.

The scent of dairy farms wafting through the cracked window and the sight of lava extending to the horizon suddenly begin to transform into the Wood River Valley near the foothills of the Pioneer Mountains.

We approach a cluster of resort towns linked by Highway 75, cutting through the valley. First stop: Hailey.

Willis-Moore Town

My mother-in-law, DJ, lives in Hailey, which you may have heard of back when film stars Bruce Willis and Demi Moore were still married. Although they no longer share a home here, the former couple’s presence continues in other endeavors, a claim to fame residents don’t seem to mind disclosing.

DJ happens to live on the main drag, fittingly called Main Street, where you can find all the comforts of modern civilization, despite the feeling of being out in the middle of nowhere.

Just down the block from her home, we stroll right past Shorty’s, a diner locals hasten to point out was only ever worth a visit back when Bruce still owned it. We also pass second-hand shops, bistros, and boutiques and peek in the windows of Demi’s new unfinished project, taking guesses at what it might actually be.

Wagon museum in Ketchum, Idaho.Wagon museum in Ketchum, Idaho.

There are, however, a couple of noteworthy restaurants in town that are unassociated with Willis-Moore. Miramar Mexican Restaurant offers giant margaritas and generous portions of taco shop dishes. Da Vinci’s Italian Restaurant provides hungry tourists and locals alike with satisfying classic Italian entrees as well as inventive specials.

To Market

We make a pit stop at Atkinsons’ Market to shop for tomorrow’s homemade breakfast feast. Three locations in Blaine County, and the only three anywhere, provide customers with inexpensive produce, regional specialties (e.g. Sun Valley gourmet mustards), a salad bar, artisan bread, and more. Despite its supermarket size, Atkinsons’ feels more like a mom and pop corner market than any retail giant.

In search of some peace and quiet away from the hustle in town, we find sanctuary in a paved bike path. Pedestrians, inline skaters, cyclists, and wintertime cross-country skiers share the road and take in the tranquility of this apparent vacation home destination.

The real estate market has skyrocketed in this part of the state as the wealthy build their dream mountain retreats just minutes away from Dollar Mountain, where Lucille Ball once brought her children for ski trips. Perhaps the allure of running into a celebrity at Atkinsons’ is just too irresistible.

Main drag of Hailey, Idaho, pop. 6000.Main drag of Hailey, Idaho, pop. 6000.

See If You Can Ketchum

Leaving Hailey heading north on Highway 75 you’ll find yourself in Ketchum, Idaho. Equally posh, if not more so, Ketchum offers its visitors a variety of newly constructed business centers and streets lined with shops and art galleries resembling mountain cabins.

We gladly fill an afternoon with window-shopping, actual shopping at Gold Mine Thrift Shop, and a visit to the Ketchum Ore Wagon Museum.

With its spot-on name, I nearly squeak with joy at my fantastic finds at the thrift shop, which my mother-in-law explains is where all the rich people dump their unwanted goods. Indeed, rich people’s trash is this person’s treasure.

I overhear a fellow customer tell the shop clerk, in Spanish, about a local woman who sells homemade roasted chicken, Mexican rice, and beans for a reasonable price. For a ready-made meal, ask a clerk for the details, but only if you dare!

Dollar Mountain in Sun Valley, Idaho.Dollar Mountain in Sun Valley, Idaho.

The Good Old Days

The Ketchum Ore Wagon Museum is a bit of a misnomer. More of a display than a museum, the only way to view the wagons is by peering through the large windows surrounding the museum building.

This stand-behind-glass approach to sharing a bit of local history with the public probably explains why these ore wagons, dating back to the late 1800s when Ketchum’s economy basked in the heyday of the mining boom, are in such pristine shape.

In fact, the wagons require continuous maintenance and protection in order to participate in Ketchum’s Wagon Days Parade and festivities (held annually during Labor Day weekend), which is the only time they leave the confines of the museum. The wagon procession is a nod to the town’s history and success – after all, the mining industry is the origin of Ketchum’s constant prosperity.

Our next destination is Sun Valley, which experienced its own heyday as a celebrity ski resort during the golden age of Hollywood. Today, it continues to host winter visitors as well as summer visitors looking for biking, river rafting, and fly-fishing opportunities.

Over the years, the Sun Valley Lodge has hosted the likes of Clark Gable to Clint Eastwood. In fact, Hemingway completed For Whom the Bell Tolls while staying at the lodge.

Ice Cave in Hailey, Idaho.Ice Cave in Hailey, Idaho.

Excursion off Highway 75

If high-end resort towns don’t appeal to you, perhaps a side-of-the-highway tourist attraction will. Chief Washakie, leader to the Shoshone people and “friend to the whites,” welcomes us to explore the Shoshone Ice Caves.

Something about stopping here makes me feel proud to be touring my country – like this is what good old American road trips are all about.

We happen to be the only tourists waiting around for the next forty-five minute guided tour, which is the only way to see the cave. Before our departure, the guide looks down at my sandals, “You do realize this is an ice cave, right?”

Honestly, I had realized that to a certain extent, it’s just that somehow the thought of packing a pair of socks in my purse had completely slipped my mind. It’s important to note that temperatures can be quite high in the desert, so the contrast of a freezing cold cave can be quite alarming.

At any rate, we make our way down to the cave by climbing along volcanic rock, produced over thousands, probably millions, of years of eruptions from nearby (and dormant) Black Butte.

Icicles in the Shoshone Ice Caves.Icicles in the Shoshone Ice Caves.

We descend into a sinkhole to reach the cave, which is actually a lava tube, squeeze through the narrow opening of the entrance door, and are immediately confronted with the freezing temperature.

I pay no mind to the numbness in my toes and continue on. Walking along suspended wooden walkways and viewing platforms, we hover above the ice. After a glimpse at the ice wall and a black light show featuring gems and minerals from the area, we make our way back to the souvenir shop where we began our tour.

Some may call it a tourist trap, but I consider the Shoshone Ice Caves a pleasant detour from the ordinary. What’s not to like about a family owned and operated, interactive geology and history lesson?

Something for Everyone

Further north about one-hour on Highway 75, the Gem State offers much more to see and do. For outdoor enthusiasts, make your way to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho’s Rocky Mountains and relish countless hiking trails, rivers, lakes, and wildlife sightings.

After three days of playing urban tourist, it isn’t until we are crossing over the border into Montana when it occurs to me that I didn’t have one potato dish our entire trip. Only slightly disappointed by this fact, I vow to return to Idaho in the near future and go for the ultimate tourist trap: a potato farm.

Amanda Freerksen

Amanda J. Freerksen

is an American primary school teacher currently living in eastern Switzerland. Read her blog, Queso Suizo, about life as an expat in Europe.

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