National Park Road Trip 2010: Pioneers Cross the Snake

Come to southern Idaho and you can see where Oregon Trail emigrants had to ford the Snake River, and toss in a side trip to Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument. Photos by David and Kay Scott.

Editor's note: David and Kay Scott this summer are living what many of us wish we could do: they're following a meandering path across the country to visit units of the National Park System. This installment of their trek comes from southern Idaho, where the 19th century pioneers encountered the Snake River and where our travelers explored the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument.

Greetings from Three Island Crossing State Park, located on the Snake River between Twin Falls and Boise, Idaho. It is the morning of July 7 and life is good here in the land of the spud.

The park’s two campground areas are blanketed with grass (they are heavily irrigated), have many trees, and enjoy a minimum of insects. In addition, there are few campers so we decided to stay a second night. Of course, a 50 percent Monday through Thursday senior discount on the camping fee was a consideration. This is a weekend park with few campers during weekdays. Although it can get very windy and hot in July, the current weather is nearly perfect with warm, cloudless days, and three-blanket nights. Reading a book in the shade of a tree is just about as perfect as life gets so long as you are not drinking cheap beer. You can view our campground video here.

The state park is located where most Oregon Trail pioneers crossed from the south to the north bank of the Snake River. The park has an excellent history and education center for the Oregon Trail that is open Thursday through Sunday.

The Snake could be a real beast to the pioneers who followed it for many miles but often had great difficulty getting fresh water because of the deep canyon walls. Emigrants who continued to follow the south bank beyond here encountered soft, sandy soil that made travel very difficult. Pioneers made use of two of the three islands when crossing here. Hence, the name for the park. The trail used by wagon trains to descend to the south river bank is clearly visible from the north bank where the park is located. View our video of the cut used by trail pioneers at this page.

As an aside, this morning we talked with the park manager who told us that the state had cut the state park budget by 80 percent. He has lost seven of nine part-time employees, while two of four permanent employees are each required to take 3-month unpaid furloughs. He said virtually all maintenance was on hold. Perhaps things are not quite as bad where you live.

Our last note was from Massacre Rock State Park south of Pocatello. That morning we drove into Twin Falls in hopes of watching brave Americans parachute off a bridge high above the Snake River. Unfortunately, the wind was strong and nobody was daring death on that day.

The view of the Snake River deep in the canyon is an impressive sight from near the bridge. A road leads to the bottom of the canyon where a golf course is located. On the day we visited, fire-rescue teams were rapelling down the side of the canyon. View our video of the canyon at this page.

Shoshone Falls, 4 miles north of town on the Snake River, is another interesting place to visit. The falls are quite impressive and must have been more so before a portion of the falls was diverted for hydroelectric power.

After picking up some groceries and ice, but foregoing gasoline (20 cents higher than Pocatello) we took Highway 30 rather than the faster and more direct interstate. This led us to Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, where scientists have found fossils of 180 animal species and 35 plant species. The small visitor center is in the town of Hagerman, but the main road into the park is about 5 miles south of town on U.S. 30. Here visitors can drive along a 3-mile road through the south end of the park. Fortunately for us, the road closely parallels the route of the Oregon Trail. A walking and horse path follows the trail for approximately 3 miles.

The visitor center in the town of Hagerman contains fossils and replicas of fossils found in the monument. These include the Hagerman Horse, the fossil most closely associated with the monument. The visitor center is also the temporary visitor center for a relatively new National Park Service unit, Minidoka National Historic Site in nearby Jerome. Minidoka is one of 10 World War II Japanese relocation centers in the United States. The maximum population of the center was approximately 9,400 people. Interestingly, more than two-thirds of the internees in the ten camps were American citizens by birth.

According to the Park Service person in the visitor center, the hope is to develop Minidoka along the lines of Manzanar National Historic Site near Lone Pine, California. We are great lovers of America’s national parks, but aren’t certain it makes sense to divert scarce money to an additional site that commemorates the same historical event as Manzanar, a site that is already developed and in operation.

One other interesting sight along U.S. Highway 30 is an area called Thousand Springs. Here, water cascades out the side of cliffs visible from the highway. The source of the water is two rivers that disappear into desert sinks and run underground to this point. The view is fascinating.

From Three Rivers Crossing, we're heading north. The pioneers followed two routes through this country and we are likely to choose the main route through Boise.

David and Kay Scott are regular contributors to the Traveler. Their book, The Complete Guide to the National Park Lodges was first published by the Globe Pequot Press in 1997 and is now in its sixth edition.