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Falling for Idaho Falls

Find fun inside and out in this friendly city on Idaho's Snake River.

  • Burger and waffle fries, SnakeBite Restaurant, Idaho Falls, Idaho, image
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    A burger with waffle fries satisfies at SnakeBite Restaurant.
  • Downtown Idaho Falls, Idaho, image
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    Downtown Idaho Falls is lined with brick storefronts and mom-and-pop shops.
  • Green painting at Willard Arts Center, Idaho Falls, Idaho, image
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    The Willard Arts Center houses two galleries, artists' studios, and a theater.
  • Man zip lining at Heise Hot Springs, Idaho Falls, Idaho, image
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    Heise Hot Springs in Idaho Falls has seven zip lines.
  • Waterfalls and Mormon Temple in Idaho Falls, Idaho, image
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    The Idaho Falls Idaho Temple presides over waterfalls that were first built in the early 1900s.

So a potato farmer and a nuclear scientist meet on a hilltop . . . In most places this would be the start of a joke, but in Idaho Falls it’s just another snowy day at Freeman Park, the city’s favorite sledding spot. Eastern Idaho’s largest city draws a diverse crowd, thanks to the area’s combination of rolling farmland and the Idaho National Laboratory. Visitors find a welcoming community with an eagerness to play outside, a vibrant cultural scene, and small-town charm.

In downtown Idaho Falls, mom-and-pop antique shops, restaurants, and boutiques occupy the brick storefronts that line the streets between the Snake River and the railroad tracks. The Willard Arts Center houses two galleries, artists’ studios, and the elegantly restored Colonial Theater, which was built in 1919 for vaudeville shows and, these days, hosts concerts. The Museum of Idaho celebrates the state’s accomplishments—such as the first lightbulb lit by a nuclear reactor at the nearby research lab—and of the nation: One prize artifact is a Revolutionary War flag with 13 stars and 13 stripes.

The city’s falls as they appear today—a 1,500-foot-long cataract paralleling the greenbelt along the shore—were built in the early 1900s and expanded several times, most recently in 1980. In days of long ago, the original cascade of white water on the Snake River was most notable as an obstacle to pioneers heading west.

Facing the falls, Wasabi Japanese Restaurant & Sushi Bar offers great views and serves fresh fish prepared by Sumiko Mitchell and her son, Jerry. Next door, Snow Eagle Brewing & Grill makes its snappy namesake pale ale in the fermentation tanks right in the dining room. Good flavors can be found elsewhere, too. SnakeBite Restaurant wins fans with its house-seasoned Grand Teton burger. You can pick up a cup of locally roasted coffee at the airy Villa Coffeehouse, and Reed’s Dairy sells grilled cheese sandwiches, ice cream, and the thickest chocolate milk around (the secret is potato flakes) right from its creamery.

Destination ski resorts lie within striking distance, but for a quicker fix, head to nearby Kelly Canyon Ski Resort with its 26 family-friendly runs and network of cross-country and snowshoe trails through cedar and pine forest. Legend has it that in the 1800s a robber hid $50,000 in stolen gold dust in Kelly Canyon before fleeing with the law hot on his trail.

After a day on the slopes, heat might sound like something you’d rather bask in than evade. If so, soak in the 104-degree outdoor pool at Heise Hot Springs. The original 1896 log lodge is still used as an office, and there’s even a statue honoring Heise matriarch Elsie Quinn, who bought the resort with her husband, Robert, and ran it until she was in her 90s—just the kind of homespun hero that makes Idaho Falls tick.

Photography by Merrill Humberg/Wikipedia (falls and temple); Melissa Barnes (3); courtesy of Eric Fredericks/Wikipedia (downtown)

This article was first published in November 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.