Blue lake, icy cave: Surprising summer Southern Idaho family travel

Follow our St. Clair family summer road trip of 4 weeks, 5 states, and 3,851 miles: All posts

The world round or in southern Idaho, family travel isn’t just about what you see. It’s about the time you spend together, and the chance to use travel to build, deepen, or repair the bonds parents and children hold with each other. Yet family travel is also about sharing the ups and downs of the road. Frustrations and disappointments. Discoveries and serendipitous adventures.

Southern Idaho family travel milestones! On the way from our campground to Bear Lake, we hit the first 1,000 miles of our summer road trip!
Southern Idaho family travel milestones! On the way from our campground to Bear Lake, we hit the first 1,000 miles of our summer road trip!

For us, Southern Idaho family travel brought endless surprises. We pushed ourselves on an epic sightseeing day—where, yes, we turned a 5-hour drive into a 10-hour marathon. The next leg of our Summer Family Road Trip took us from Twin Falls to the Bear Lake area in Idaho’s shouldn’t-be-overlooked southeast corner, a driving and camping adventure full of caves, geysers, mineral springs, and a beautiful blue lake.

Camping, swimming, caving, and hiking between Idaho’s Boise, Twin Falls, and Bear Lake

Learned

…Some of the Gem State’s best treasures are in Southeast Idaho…
…Travel serendipity can take you anywhere, from a surprise geyser to millions of years ago…
…Idaho’s Bear Lake is crystal blue in part because of limestone in the water…

Made

…Short work of ice cream cones and a “dole whip” after a day on Bear Lake…
…Footprints in snow, in late June…
…A 5-hour drive into a 10-hour adventure…

Majestic beauty on and off Idaho’s beaten paths

The hum of the road as you zip down the interstate. The crunch of gravel under camper tires as you roll into a campground in the dark, after a day of sightseeing. The low song of wind over bare rocks.

The vast American West truly does have its own call. We were ready to answer it, and to take in a new range of experiences: waterfalls, geysers, ice caves, crystal-clear lakes.

After starting our summer road trip in Boise staying with family, it was time for some serious camping, first in southeast Idaho, then in southwest Wyoming. Filling a Sunday morning with packing, grocery runs, and the kids learning more from Jodie’s cousin about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, we hit the road midday, and made our way into a very different part of our trip.

From Boise to Bear Lake, Idaho: The 5-hour drive that took 10 hours

Southern Idaho family travel video!

According to Google Maps, the drive from Boise to the Bear Lake area of Idaho should take about 5 hours.

It took us 10.

That’s not because of road trip drama, either. There were no accidents or breakdowns or freaky moments. There was, quite simply, a beautiful stretch of country, packed with incredible things to check out.

Whether taller-than-Niagara Shoshone Falls in Twin Falls, or tasty Hooper Springs and the every-hour-on-the-hour Soda Springs Geyser in Soda Springs, we took in everything from history to delicious mineral water.

We pushed ourselves, but every stop was worth every extra minute. (We also go into more detail about this part of our trip in our post about our Southern Idaho family travel, and our thanks to Visit Idaho for sponsoring that part of our trip!)

It’s also why, when we pulled into Paris Springs Campground at nearly 10 p.m., we weren’t exactly in a state to do anything other than barely set up camp and then go to sleep.

Maybe, then, it’s no wonder why in the morning we were so ready to be further amazed.

A perfect short hike at our campground: Paris Springs

Cooling down our hot feet at Paris Springs.
Cooling down our hot feet at Paris Springs.

As we took in our campground in the daylight, coming around a loop we saw a sign: “Paris Springs, 300 yards.” The short hike had a few stumbly, rocky areas, but overall the trail was smooth and easy to follow. Anthony and the kids followed the creek all the way back to the vertical wall at the end of the trail.

At some point, perhaps a waterfall had been there. Now, white rocks lay tumbled all about. From off in the greenery, the waters of Paris Springs came tumbling out, cold and clear. Along the trail, a side path led to a sluice gate across the stream bed. Another creekside spot, farther upstream, was grassy, flat, and shady, a nice spot for a picnic.

Back at camp, we all worked on improving our setup. Jodie reorganized the inside of the camper and got the cooler in better shape. After all, camping is about figuring out good systems. Jodie hung our new hanger for the jackets, near the door. We can still clothespin hats to the curtain, but the fleeces now have a better home.

The kids love exploring the campsites. They especially like the little side paths that go on the rear side of many of the sites, connecting them in a subtle loop. Aster spent ages exploring, giggling and exclaiming as she saw butterflies, or different insects, or the occasional critter. When we saw her, we called her our bear cub, and she would giggle, and roar, and bound off along the path.

Directions to Paris Springs Campground, Idaho

Now that’s a summer cool-off spot: Paris Ice Cave

Making our way across the cave's icy welcome mat.
Making our way across the cave’s icy welcome mat.

Even when summer rages across the American West, there are spots that are the coldest in the country. Summertime ice caves can still hold temperatures chilly enough to have you wishing you’d packed thick socks and a thicker sweater.

Naturally, these are also great places to visit on a hot summer afternoon. Leaving camp, we came to a junction and saw a sign we hadn’t paid much mind to when coming in the night before:

“Ice Cave,” said the sign. An arrow pointed down a gravel and dirt road.

No headlamp needed, but you might want a jacket

Southern Idaho family travel turns cave adventure! Just off the parking lot, you can carefully climb down into a ravine that's part of the cave system, complete with more snow.
Southern Idaho family travel turns cave adventure! Just off the parking lot, you can carefully climb down into a ravine that’s part of the cave system, complete with more snow.

Part of the Cache National Forest, Paris Ice Cave is a cool surprise. For starters, from the parking lot, a path to the left leads you down a slope to the main entrance. This isn’t the sort of cave where you need to have flashlights and helmets necessarily, but you will need sure footing.

Even at the cave’s entrance, the 90+-degree temperature plummeted about 50 degrees. Thick sheets of ice covered the ground like a lumpy rug. Through a narrow passage, a long, narrow, three-plank bridge with no sides spanned a stretch of water that was so cold, chunks of ice floated in it, like ice cubes in a wide glass.

Beyond the initial chamber, the cave expands out into a wide chamber that’s open to the sky. The kids kicked and scrambled up and down a large pile of snow. Connor whacked the snow with his “boko club” until, sadly, one hit too many broke his badly damaged stick.

If you have the right gear, there’s more to the cave. (Always is, with caves.) But as we headed back across the bridge from the icy world below to the sun-shining world above, we tried to hold on to the coolness for the rest of the hot, summer afternoon.

Directions to Paris Ice Cave, Idaho

Southern Idaho family travel gem: The crystal-blue waters, tasty treats, and swimming inspiration of Bear Lake

Paddling on Bear Lake.
Paddling on Bear Lake.

The pandemic has touched everyone’s lives in different ways. Yet one effect on Aster hadn’t struck us until this trip.

Prior to the pandemic, Aster had been making headway on learning to swim. However, around a year had passed since she’d last been in any sort of deep water, and her nascent skills had faded. So on our last full day in Idaho, we headed south, close to the Utah line, to Bear Lake State Park on the Idaho side of Bear Lake.

After all, who says you can’t go to the beach in Idaho? (And yes, y’all, the water of “The Caribbean of the Rockies” really is that incredible, clear, beautiful, blue.)

Bear Lake's blue water has quickly become a favorite for our water boy.
Bear Lake’s blue water has quickly become a favorite for our water boy.

Fun fact about Bear Lake: According to our completely non-scientific survey method, known as random chats with people in Boise, hardly anyone we talked with in Boise knew about Bear Lake.

Our own interest in Bear Lake had begun simply with seeing it on a map and finding it intriguing: A state-straddling lake in the very southeastern corner of Idaho. We’d read about Bear Lake. Marveled at pictures online. We were aware of its genius nickname: “The Caribbean of the Rockies.” Then we saw it for ourselves.

When you travel, you can get used to a certain level of hype around places, and then wondering how well they live up to their publicity. Bear Lake does. The waters of this long, narrow lake sparkle with a light blue like something from a gem, or a traveler’s dream.

Aster rediscovers the joy of water

More paddling on Bear Lake.
More paddling on Bear Lake.

We made our way along the north shore of the lake, toward an area that looked like it was being enjoyed mostly by splashing families and people on non-motorized boats. We could even pull up right onto the beach, and put a kayak in the water.

The best part, though, was Aster. Clad in her lifejacket, she hopped into the clear blue water. Built sand cities. Completed make-believe games of gathering “food” of various water plants. Then she kept going out into the water. Deeper. She’d let herself float some on the surface. Or paddle from parent to brother to parent. She was nervous, for sure. Sometimes she flailed and sputtered. But she was in there. Getting reacquainted with the water. And sending us a clear message.

After splashing and paddling most of the day, we made our way back toward the highway—and a stop for sweet treats. The Float On cooled us off with delicious ice cream cones—and, for Jodie, a dole whip: soft-serve pineapple vanilla ice cream.

Aster finished off her ice cream. She looked at us, then, in a quiet but steady voice, she said, “Mama? Daddy? I want to learn to swim.”

Directions to North Beach State Park, Bear Lake, Idaho

Walk through Idaho’s largest limestone cave (and laugh at the term “cave bacon”): Minnetonka Cave

After a warm day on Bear Lake’s clear blue water, naturally, it was time to plunge into cool darkness and explore the biggest known limestone cave in Idaho. And as everyone knows, there’s no place like a cave to get some bacon.

Cave bacon, that is.

Minnetonka Cave, Idaho’s largest-known limestone cave, is a wonderland of caverns and formations. After growing unseen and unknown for hundreds of millions of years, Minnetonka Cave entered human knowledge as a chance discovery in the 1800s. No wonder: the original opening was about the size of a trash can lid, and it’s on the side of a mountain.

Today, you can walk inside (through a much bigger, widened cave entrance), and wander through a wonderland of caverns and formations. Underground for nearly two hours, we made our way through huge chambers and caverns, with intriguing names such as Ballroom, Dwarf Kingdom, and Wedding Chapel. (We only got to look down, through a wee keyhole, into the Devil’s Office though.)

We marveled at the formations, the product of minerals, water, and hundreds of millions of years: Stalactites dripped like icicles from the ceiling. Stalagmites reached up from the floor, and sometimes seemed like figures. Cave popcorn. Draperies. And, of course, the cave bacon (technically, and rather beautifully, known as “layered flowstone”), ridgy waves of thin stone weaving along the ceiling and walls.

While some of the steps and paths are uneven and can be slippery—it’s a cave, after all, and moisture is everywhere—Jodie got around really well, thanks in part to her trusty hiking stick. We all just remembered to take it slow.

That’s more our style anyway: We take it slow, so we can take in more as we go.

RSVP for the wedding of the eon

Not yet a wedding day, but behind us, the "Bride" and "Groom" in Minnetonka Cave's Wedding Chapel will someday meet.
Not yet a wedding day, but behind us, the “Bride” and “Groom” in Minnetonka Cave’s Wedding Chapel will someday meet.

In the Dwarf Kingdom—and yes, there are seven formations named after the Seven Dwarves from Snow White—we also got a rare treat. Upon a soft fluttering sound, a small bat flapped along under the ceiling, then came to a bit of ridged rock and roosted.

“We don’t get to see many bats during the day,” said our guide, Tayli. “You were really lucky to have seen that.”

We also wandered through Connor’s questions. Here are a few our trusty, and patient, guide answered:

  • “Why did anyone think those rocks look like dwarves?”
  • “How did anyone let these flimsy metal steps get constructed?” (Connor really didn’t like that you could see through the metal steps.)
  • “How many steps are there in the entire cave?”
  • “Has anyone counted the number of rock formations? What was their exact count?”
  • “Do you like your job?”

Speaking of taking it slow, the tour ends at the Wedding Chapel, where for a few moments you get to stand still and experience the absolute darkness of the cave. The chapel gets its name from a stalactite and stalagmite that are growing toward each other. The “bride” and “groom” will finally meet in, oh, about half a million years or so.

Save the date for the wedding of the eon.

Directions to Minnetonka Cave

Southern Idaho family travel: Final hours before Wyoming

As we packed up to finish our southern Idaho family travel and head to Wyoming, Aster said good-bye to the beautiful bouquet she had picked.
As we packed up to finish our southern Idaho family travel and head to Wyoming, Aster said good-bye to the beautiful bouquet she had picked.

Scrunching our eyes as we emerged back into the surprise daylight, Aster delighted at a lizard. The little light-brown critter kept going up to the threshold of the little room where the tour guides were chatting.

“Do you think it wants to lead tours?” she asked.

A lizard could certainly get into some unexplored areas of the cave. Though it may be hard to follow once it started walking on the walls and the ceiling…

Back at camp, the kids lit oil lamps to try to keep the bugs away, and Connor got braver about striking matches to start our camp fire. As we munched on post-pasta s’mores, we pondered the next stage of the journey: Wyoming. And the fascinatingly named Flaming Gorge.

We’ve gotten to do more in Idaho than we ever have before. Water parks. Mountain adventures. Kayaking in the middle of downtown Boise. Waterfalls, geysers, river canyons, lakes, and caves. Walks, wanders, and wonders.

And to think: This was only the first few days of the trip.

What, indeed, would the next few weeks have in store for us?

We woke the next morning ready to find out, as we made our way from the blue lakes of southeast Idaho, toward the surprise red rocks of southwest Wyoming.

About the author
Learners and Makers
We are the St. Clair Family: Anthony, Jodie, Connor, and Aster. As Learners and Makers, our family of four slows down, connects, and enjoys the world and each other's company. We have been traveling full time since 2022.

Leave a Comment