What is a road trip to the American West if not a chance to test your mettle against the great outdoors, shrug off the trappings of big city life for immersion in the western idyll, gaze in awe at snow-capped peaks, wonder if there’s good Wi-Fi coverage in the mountains (#instagram) and, perhaps most importantly of all, don a plaid shirt and a moustache and sip craft beer in a wholly unironic way? Idaho Falls is the quintessential road trip destination—adjacent to wild places like Grand Teton National Park to the east and Craters of the Moon National Monument to the west—while also showcasing craft culture charm, robust art and a few splashy places to dip your toes. My travel partner and I rolled in with a weekend’s worth of time on our side, ready to get at the heart of the Idaho Falls experience.
The River Walk called out to us with a siren song of romance and mystique. The city’s hallmark greenbelt follows the serpentine spine of the Snake River for five miles. The path is enhanced by beautiful parks, historical markers and monuments, picturesque bridges and lookout piers. After a walk through Russ Freeman Park (with ice cream cones in hand, naturally), we spotted an osprey nest platform on the park’s western boundary and spied a trio of birds in flight.
We strolled on, stopping to photograph the staggering spire of the Idaho Falls Idaho Temple, the 143-foot shimmering giant that overlooks the city’s namesake falls. The waterfalls themselves are a series of rocky faces that spill water more than 20 feet in some places, and nod to the city’s forward-thinking approach to hydroelectric power.
With the sun setting we flipped a coin—heads and a trip to Snow Eagle Brewing & Grill; tails for a quick hop across the river to the Copper Rill, for a taste of Chef Jud Wilcox’s Idaho. We were thrilled to see a glint in old George Washington’s eye, not only because Snow Eagle may be the best brewery name in the nation; we’d heard stories of a half-pound Kobe beef burger as marbled as Michelangelo’s David. We dined and sipped, sampling frothy brews like Beaver Dick Brown Pelt Ale and Dark Horse Milk Stout, nods to brewmaster Ty Blacker’s malt mastery and sense of humor. Satiated, we headed back down to the river for an evening stroll, ending finally at our fresh digs—the Destinations Inn. Each of the 14 suites is themed, so naturally we checked in to Venice for a dip in the gondola bathtub.
The next morning, we joined a parade of happy and healthy locals on a quick 5km run to burn off a few of the excess calories we planned to consume later that day. We were eager to immerse ourselves in local culture (#civilized) and agreed there was no better way to get at the cultural core of a place than at the end of a knife and fork. We decided on brunch at The Diablas Kitchen, known for clean comfort food (and a monthly five course beer pairing dinner); we tucked into brunch nachos (hello, apricot-red pepper sauce) and what is likely the finest Rueben outside of New York City.
Our cultural expedition continued at the Museum of Idaho, a hands-on educational center that features numerous interactive exhibits. Highlights include Exploration and Migration, a deep-dive into the Lewis and Clark Expedition (the next time you complain about the traffic in a National Park, imagine how long it would take you to walk from one side to the other in moccasins), and Atomic Advances (who knew that Idaho was first state to produce usable electricity from nuclear power?).
A short walk from the Museum of Idaho is the Art Museum of Eastern Idaho, located on the eastern edge of the Snake River. There’s a heady collection of contemporary pieces here, including works by Linda Aman, an Artist in Residence at Yellowstone National Park. We signed up to throw some pots in the clay studio because I thought it would make me look like Patrick Swayze in Ghost, which it most certainly did not. It’s here we caught wind of the Idaho Falls Cultural District, so we set out to visit the Colonial Theater, Actor’s Repertory Theater of Idaho and finally the ARTitorium on Broadway, a family-focused creativity center where my stop-motion animation short film was harshly criticized by a group of eight-year-olds.
Our day of artistic exploration ended at the Japanese Pavilion, a sublimely solemn green space located on an island in the river. The garden is stunning; the dragon’s path weaves through towering red maple and cherry blossom trees, water features and viewing decks. The park was built in homage to the Idaho Falls’ sister-city, Tokai-Mura, and is clearly a point of pride for the community.
For dinner, we couldn’t decide between Smokin’ Fins, a casual-chic gastropub, and Stockman’s Restaurant, a local mecca for chophouse favorites, so we decided not to decide and just went to both. We started with lobster stuffed avocado and lobster tater tots at Smokin’ Fins, and then headed over to Stockman’s where I ate a steak as big as my head.
As we walked back to our hotel, happy, full and filled with a new appreciation for Idaho’s eastern charms, it occurred to me that, while exploring Idaho for Idaho’s sake, we forgot all about what folks so often come way out west for—the wild, the great outdoors, the endless expanses of wide-open country. We focused instead on the city itself, and its almost endless array of attractions—so worth the trip, and worthy of even more time than we had. In the end, that’s the hallmark of any truly great road trip destination.