Roadtripping Idaho's Stunning Thousand Springs Scenic Byway

By: Sara Sheehy + Save to a List

Explore lost rivers, find ancient horses, and see millions of steelhead trout.

The Snake River swipes a smile all the way across southern Idaho, its canyon an emerald necklace stretching across an otherwise dry desert. Formed by the same volcanic hotspot that now sits underneath Yellowstone National Park, the Snake River Plain, at first glance, isn’t much to look at. But drop into the canyons carved by the Snake River and its tributaries, and you’ll find a surprisingly beautiful landscape.

At least, beauty is the first thing that comes to my mind as I exit Highway 84 and stop at an unassuming roadside pullout near the tiny town of Bliss. When the folks at Buick reached out to ask if I’d like to spend a weekend road tripping in an all-wheel-drive 2021 Buick Envision, I knew I had to take it somewhere great—somewhere that I hadn’t fully explored before. My destination? Idaho’s Thousand Springs Scenic Byway.

Bliss

With a wanderlust playlist queued up on the Buick’s sound system, I make my way from my home base of Sun Valley to Bliss, at the western edge of the scenic byway. The hills around town are covered in windmills that are whirring quickly—it’s a windy day on the Snake River Plain. The canyon is a splash of green, blue, and black with sagebrush-covered hillsides, basalt cliffs, and the turquoise stripe of the Snake River.

Just outside of Bliss, the Malad River cuts in from the north. I turn onto a well-graded dirt road and drive through the deep Malad River Gorge, stopping at the Gorge Dam to check out the crystal-clear water as it rushes over the riverbed’s dark rocks. Upstream, a dam-controlled section of the Malad is runnable by kayak, its spring-fed water maintaining a refreshing 55 degrees year-round.

Billingsley Creek

Back in the Envision, I rejoin the scenic byway and make my way to Billingsley Creek, one of the seven units that make up Thousand Springs State Park. A quick hike with my pup, Cece, brings me to the creek itself, which is of the quiet, lazy, perfect-for-cooling-off-the-dog variety. Based on the number of access points that dot the shore, I’m betting it’s an excellent spot for fly fishing, too. For now, I spy a few birds through my binoculars, let Cece take a dip in the cool water, and hop in the car to drive to the nearby town of Hagerman.

Hagerman

Though there are plenty of ranches, farms, and homesteads along the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway, there are few towns. Hagerman is one of them, a quintessential Idaho ranching community with a few restaurants, a grocery store, a gas station, and—not to be missed—the Hagerman Valley Historical Museum. After paying my $5 entry, a white-haired volunteer launches into the formation of Idaho told through the history of the Hagerman horse. The Hagerman horse is the oldest known equine species, appearing about 3.5 million years ago. A replica skeleton exists in the museum, but the real fossils are in the Smithsonian, where over 200 individual Hagerman horse specimens were recovered from the nearby Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. After making it through the geologic history of Idaho with my tour guide, I spend a few more minutes poking around at the quaint and homespun museum exhibits.

Before leaving town, I detour to the historic Owsley Bridge and the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. The former is a must if you like turn-of-the-century engineering or are looking for a spot for neat selfies; the latter has sweeping views of the Snake River and wagon ruts from the Oregon Trail.

Hagerman National Fish Hatchery

Beautiful is what the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway has been so far...shady is what it is not. Here in southern Idaho, the heat sets in during spring and doesn’t release its grasp until late fall. The Envision’s finely-tuned climate control has been a welcome respite as I drive from place to place, but I’ve picked up a sandwich in Hagerman, and I’d rather eat outside. I breathe a sigh of relief at the remarkably shady, lushly vegetated grounds of the Hagerman National Fish Hatchery.

Hagerman National Fish Hatchery produces over 1.5 million steelhead trout each year, along with over 20,000 pounds of rainbow trout. The hatchery is open for visitors year-round, and my first stop is a shaded picnic table where I eat my sandwich while Cece stretches lazily on the grass. Afterward, we walk the grounds (dogs allowed on leash) and visit the steelhead runs and demonstration ponds filled with enormous sturgeon.

Ritter Island

Thousand Springs Scenic Byway and Thousand Springs State Park aren’t called “Thousand Springs” for nothing, and I’m determined to get up close and personal with their namesakes. I drive on winding, narrow roads on the canyon rim before dropping down to the Snake River. Though I’ve been in two-wheel-drive for the entire trip so far, I switch the Envision into all-wheel-drive for the steep descent to Ritter Island. The road is narrow with sharp switchbacks, and I work hard to keep my eyes on the pavement as the beauty of the canyon unfolds below.

Though the road in isn’t for the faint of heart, it’s worth every moment of concentration required. A wall of water rushes out of the dark cliffs just in the distance, the end of a journey that began almost 100 miles away at Craters of the Moon National Monument. One of Idaho’s “lost rivers,” this water disappeared into the porous lava rock near Craters of the Moon and traveled underground over all those miles to burst out of these cliffs.

I hitch on Cece’s leash and hike out to the springs. The trail passes directly at their base, close enough to reach out and feel the cooling waters. The trail continues around the bottom of the cliffs, paralleling the river. Back at the parking lot is the entrance to Ritter Island, a section of Thousand Springs State Park, and an easy put-in/take-out for kayaking on the Snake River.

Box Canyon

After climbing up onto the canyon rim, I switch the Buick back to two-wheel-drive and head to my final adventure stop. Earl M. Hardy Box Canyon Springs, or just “Box Canyon” for short, is another unit in Thousand Springs State Park. I walk to the canyon’s edge and look down into the bright blue waters of the spring, which is the eleventh largest in the United States and flows at 180,000 gallons per minute. Far below, birds catch radials and rise past the canyon walls in wide swirls. A 4.3-mile loop trail leads to a chilly lake for swimming—perfect on a hot day.

Box Canyon may have been my final adventure destination, but it’s not my last stop on the road trip. I hop back in the car and drive 20 minutes to the town of Buhl, home of CloverLeaf Creamery and their heavenly scoops of handmade ice cream. From there, full up with beautiful sights and a belly full of mint chocolate chip, I turn the Envision north for the ride home.


For more adventures in southern Idaho, check out Balanced Rock, Shoshone Falls, and the Little City of Rocks.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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