We are frequently asked, “What national parks are in Idaho?”
The answer is pretty straight forward: “Other than a thin slice of Yellowstone National Park, Idaho doesn’t have any national parks,” we say. That is the correct answer, but it is only part of the story. While Idaho doesn’t have national parks, we are fortunate to have national preserves, reserves, monuments, and historic trails, which, like national parks, are managed by the National Park Service (NPS). Consider visiting the following national monuments, historical parks and sites as you travel through Idaho.
Mesa Falls in eastern Idaho.
Yellowstone National Park
This is the one that started it all—Yellowstone – the first national park in the United States. Idaho’s portion of Yellowstone National Park includes a very narrow strip of the park’s southwest edge located along the Idaho/Wyoming border. Visitors heading to the park from Idaho typically enter at West Yellowstone, MT or just north of Jackson Hole, WY. The splendor of Yellowstone doesn’t stop at the park’s borders. In the shadow of the Teton Mountains, eastern Idaho is home to upper and lower Mesa Falls, blue ribbon trout streams, bike trails and wildlife viewing. With state parks, resorts and everything in between, visitors can experience the beauty of the Yellowstone region at a slower pace.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
Lava rock at Craters of the Moon National Monument.
While Idaho has just a sliver of Yellowstone National Park within its borders, the state’s landscape was most certainly affected by the volcanic activity of Yellowstone. At Craters of the Moon National Monument the lava field is made up of about 60 lava flows and 25 cones.
The Oregon Trail pioneers were hoping to find a route that was safer than the more popular Snake River Plain route to the south to avoid clashes with the native Northern Shoshone and Bannock tribes. Goodales Cuttoff, as it was called, led them to this weird and scenic lava landscape but it was not the easier path they were hoping for. In contrast, this desolate landscape was just the place for NASA astronauts Alan Shepherd, Edgar Mitchell, Eugene Cernan, and Joe Engle to explore in 1969 while training to visit the moon.
When planning your visit to Craters, you may want to do some research on the types of lava a volcano produces. If you don’t, how will you tell Pahoehoe toes from Spittle Bombs, or know when you’re looking at Breadcrust lava? Under the earth’s crust, caves that were once gas pockets can be explored with a permit.
Paved walking paths criss-cross the park, allowing visitors to explore the lava field’s interior. There is also an auto route available April-November. After the snow flies, paths are open for cross country skiing and snowshoeing. Craters of the Moon National Monument hosts a number of events throughout the year, including guided hikes and cross-country ski tours, family activities and more. Be sure to visit the Visitor Center, where you can see exhibits and pick up maps and interpretive information.
Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument
Hagerman Horse fossil.
Did you know that the horse evolved in North America? The Hagerman Horse, Equus Simplicidens, Idaho’s state fossil, was the first true horse. It was about the size of a modern Arabian horse. However, its bones most closely resembled those of the Grevy’s zebra. The Hagerman Horse Quarry is recognized as one of the most important sites in the world related to the fossil history of the horse.
The Hagerman Fossil Beds are home to over two hundred different species of fossil plants and animals. The list includes Sabertooth Cat, a Hyena-like dog, Peccary, Mastodon, Otter, Bear, Shrew, Camel, and Ground Sloth, as well as many other species. With over 3,000 new fossil fragments found each year, it is one of the most fossiliferous Pliocene-aged sites in the world.
Because of the fragile nature of the fossils, visitors aren’t allowed to explore the area where most of the fossils have been found. Begin your visit to the fossil beds with a stop at the interpretive center in downtown Hagerman. You can see a complete skeleton of the Hagerman Horse, watch an educational video, learn about the Oregon Trail and explore the Discovery Center. The Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument also includes a portion of the Oregon Trail. Interpretive programs include Hagerman Fossil Beds NM and Paleontologist Junior Ranger programs, paleo porch programs, Junior Paleo Camp, and Oregon Trail living history programs.
If you enjoy birds, Hagerman’s mild weather and constant source of 58-degree spring-fed water makes the area a magnet for migrating ducks and geese who winter in the valley. Check out the Idaho Power Hagerman Valley Birding Checklist or participate in the Hagerman Bird Festival in February.
Nez Perce National Historical Park
Nez Perce Artifacts
The Nez Perce National Historical Park is a non-traditional national park because it tells a story about a people rather than a location. The Nimiipuu – which means ‘the people’ – were also called Nez Perce – meaning pierced nose – by French fur trappers. The Historical Park includes 38 sites in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana, so if time allows, plan for a road trip rather than a single stop.
A great place to begin exploration of the Nez Perce Historical Park in Idaho is at the Spaulding visitor center, located 11 miles east of Lewiston on Highway 95. Here, visitors can view exhibits, pick up maps and information, and learn the stories behind the sites along your journey, including Coyote’s Fishnet, Whitebird, and Heart of the Monster. Following the Nez Perce trail, visitors will learn about epic battles fought between white men and the Nez Perce, and come away with a rich sense of Idaho’s past.
The Idaho panhandle was part of the Nez Perce home range for over 10,000 years. The park itself preserves some of the locations and stories of Idaho prior to the white man’s arrival, and retains many of the traditional names known to the Nez Perce. While in the area, consider exploring Lewis & Clark’s route. The expedition depended on the kindness and assistance of the Nez Perce, and is a big piece of the area’s history.
Minidoka National Historic Site
Commemorative plaques now stand at the entrance to the Minidoka National Historic Site. Photo credit National Park Service
The Minidoka National Historic Site is a monument to a difficult time in United States history: the internment of US citizens and their families because of their Japanese ancestry. In February 1942, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that moved nearly 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans into 10 isolated relocation centers in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Looking at the site between Twin Falls and Jerome, Idaho, it is difficult to believe that nearly 10,000 Japanese American citizens and legal resident aliens of Japanese ancestry once lived on those 34,000 acres. The Minidoka War Relocation Center was in operation from 1942 to 1945 and housed citizens from the coastal states of Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. In January 1945, internees were allowed to leave the camps and were given $25 dollars and a train ticket to return to their former homes.
The buildings from the camp were sold and moved, but today visitors will see a newly restored entry guard station, waiting room and rock garden. Visit the Relocation Center display at the Jerome County Museum in nearby Jerome and the restored barracks building at the Idaho Farm and Ranch Museum southeast of town. There is a small marker adjacent to the remains of the guard station, and a larger sign at the intersection of Highway 25 and Hunt Road, which gives some history of the camp. The Hagerman Fossil Beds visitor center also has some displays about Minidoka’s history.
Friends of Minidoka, a group that encourages preservation, education, and research of the WWII incarceration experience holds an annual pilgrimage and educational event to share and remember. Read about the 2014 pilgrimage in the Minidoka Pilgrimage’s Blog, and watch for the dates of the 2015 event on their website: http://minidoka.org.
City of Rocks National Reserve
Granite formations at City of Rocks.
Known as “The City” to its climbing devotees, the City of Rocks National Reserve is situated within Castle Rocks State Park near Almo, Idaho. The sculpted landscape of City of Rocks dates back 28 million years. Some of the granite spires are in the 2.5 billion year old Green Creek Complex, which contain some of the oldest rocks in the western United States. Emigrants of the California Trail described the rocks there in vivid detail as “a city of tall spires,” “steeple rocks,” and “the silent city.”
Summer is the peak season for visiting the City of Rocks, especially if you want to catch one of the lectures, tours, or educational programs put on by the Castle Rock State Park rangers. Park visitors can enjoy a wide variety of activities, with rock climbing, biking, hiking, camping and bird watching among the favorites. Over 22 miles of hiking trails wind through the City of Rocks National Reserve, leading to arches, windows, and dramatic overlooks. Auto touring is another great way to enjoy City of Rocks. Begin the drive in Albion, following the 49-mile City of Rocks Back Country Byway, or refer to the City of Rocks auto tour guide. In Almo, be sure and stop at the City of Rocks/Castle Rocks State Park visitor center for maps, information, and to watch an 8-minute orientation video of City of Rocks geology, history, and things to do.
For bird watchers, focus on the pinyon-juniper-mahogany forest, aspen-riparian areas, sagebrush flats, and spruce-fir forest above 7,000 feet to see the most variety. The birding hot spots guide will help you get the most from your visit. Keep an eye out for Idaho’s state bird, the Mountain Bluebird, enjoying the preserve.
If you don’t make it to the City of Rocks before the snow falls, no worries. You can still enjoy it on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Ice climbing is also popular. Be aware, some roads may be impassable from November through April. The park has gravel roads, but they are easily traveled by passenger car in fair weather.
Spending time at these monuments gives visitors an appreciation of the natural, cultural and social forces that have shaped the state of Idaho – not to mention the fun that comes with exploring someplace new. Start planning your ‘monumental’ road trip at www.visitidaho.org.