The Bruneau Sand Dunes in southern Idaho provide a great getaway for families with children.
Express photo by Jen Liebrum
The wonderful thing about summer is there is so much to do. The awful thing about summer is for many of us working folks, it is likewise the busiest time of year.
Trying to predict and prepare for the varying possibilities of the inclement weather of late spring can reduce one to staying in place as the prospect of getting out too far, especially with fair-weather children, is too much work.
But I have found that the people who most love being here year-round are the ones who regularly get out of town. If a flight to Hawaii isn’t in your price range, and you are ready for warmer environs for less, try this one tank trip to get out of your head and, find a whole ‘nother reason to love living here.
Normally, most of us jet to Twin Falls to big box shop, Boise for everything else, but ignore the vast playground just to the west and south of Interstate 84.
In two days and an overnight, we got in bike riding, swimming, hiking, history, tree climbing, star watching, porch swinging, nostalgia and a damn fine piece of pie for about $200, gas for the Toyota 4-Runner included, and a run to Walmart for staples. If you plan ahead, and get to the Department of Motor Vehicles, you can get a $10 state park pass that runs for the life of your registration. This saves on entrance fees and gets you discounts on camping.
The first stop was Glenns Ferry and its Three Island State Park. We reserved the Aspen cabin, a fully electric, heat and air conditioned tidy log house with a bunk bed to sleep three and a futon couch. The $50 fee got us riverfront on the Snake River, surrounded in a sea of well-maintained grass and trees so dense and leaves so thick that the outside world was shut out, even from the wail of the regular train nearby and people in neighboring cabins.
Bring your own wood for the fire pit, bug spray and a good book and enjoy the porch swing and the abundant wildlife from rare birds in the trees to pelicans clumsily landing on the river, mule deer so calm they seem tame and even the ever frantic quail seem chill.
Bikes are a must and can get you from your cabin to the Carmela Winery adjacent to the park where you can play 9-holes of golf, enjoy a meal on the porch, sample wines and get spa treatments. The girl behind the bar didn’t make us uncomfortable for coming in to check it out and even pointed out a kids’ menu. She also provided us the best tip of the trip, solid wheels on bikes.
“They don’t call it goat head city for nothing,” she said. In lieu of a new set of tires, pack the fix a flat. But if you forget, the market in town is close and open til 10 on Friday night. It has pretty much everything you need.
Across the street was The Fudge Factory. Now, I can’t account for the food, but the homemade ice cream and lemon meringue pie was to die for and a welcome stop on the bike ride. This is also the place to get insider info when the tourism office is closed.
Town has the historic Gorby Opera House, where you can check out an old time musical. On stage from June 7 to August 23 is “No, No, A Million Times No,” a melodrama that can include dinner and the show for $24 or just the show for $7. Designed in 1914 by Tourtellotte and Hummel, the same Boise architectural firm responsible for the Egyptian Theatre in Boise, it is next door to an old fashioned ice cream parlor, which I am sure is great, but did I mention the pie?
Absorb the history of the Oregon Trail at the education center in the park and learn about the perilous journey of the westward emigrants and how they came to rely on the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe to help them navigate the river using the islands as stepping stones. Lives were lost, cultures clashed and stories are retold from both sides giving a unique look into relationships still fought for today. It’s a short, visually rich museum for kids and adults with short attention spans.
Glenns Ferry is also home to the equine dentistry school, and those artifacts can be seen in a roll through downtown.
The Snake is a great place for fishing, and wading is doable in the quiet section that glides past the park. But there is a swimming pool in town for those who prefer their water chlorinated. There is also a disc golf course. The wide lawn also has plenty of climbable trees.
The next leg of the trip was accessed by the Scenic Byway through Glenns Ferry to Mountain Home. You know, that intersection with the interstate where you stop to pee en route to Boise?
The drive is in view of the interstate for the most part, but weaves through bucolic country with the requisite towns with places that inappropriately spell everything with an extra ‘e’.
Once in the arid town of Mountain Home, head to the historic downtown where there is a candy shop, Jackson Street Treats, in a stately brick building offering shaved ice, candy from the good old days when it was made with pure sugar, barrels of taffy in unfathomable flavors, most all made in the area or on site. Get a cold Big Red and a balsa wood airplane and feel like a kid again. There are chairs out front, but it’s pretty trafficked so take your memories and get back on the road toward the Air Force Base and catch the turnoff to Bruneau Sand Dunes.
Back at the Three Island Crossing, we did a little recon on our next stop. None of us had been there and the idea of desert, dunes, three kids, one not mine, had me seeing mirages of groveling children who had lost faith in their guide.
The volunteer at the interpretive center got a little sparkle in her eye when she told us how truly cool it was. She advised us to at least get some cardboard for a little derby action. We also confirmed that we needed no reservation for the star party later that night, which we had hoped we could enjoy despite the blindingly beautiful full moon.
What we learned. It is amazeballs! It is nothing like you can imagine being so far from any ocean, but was reminiscent of the grand old dunes of Padre Island in South Texas.
Having watched all manner of vehicle utilized on the dunes, and hearing tales of skiing and surfing, we decided that either the cheap, round disc sled to really get some speed, or simply tumbling arse over teakettle, were the best modes of transportation.
Bring tons of extra water for washing up. When a slight wind comes up, it’s like the Sahara with the fine sand finding all your delicate spots. We found a wet towel quite comforting.
Again you can bike all around the park, or, bring a horse if you are so inclined, and camping is recommended if you plan on attending the star party, which is held weekend nights from dark until about 11:30 p.m.
Unless you are a massive NASA nut, you can skip the 9 p.m. movie that’s designed to kill time while it gets dark enough to view the night sky through a handful of large telescopes manned by volunteer astral-nuts and the knowledgeable and jovial park staff. It’s $3 a person, and there was a $5 park fee that would have been waived had we gone to the DMV.
We covered roughly the same miles as a roundtrip to Boise, but came away with a new appreciation for a whole other side of Idaho.
And, we were actually happy to come home to boot.
For information on all of Idaho, visit www.visitIdaho.org.
For the Gorby Opera House in Glenns Ferry, visit