Posted by: doctornuke | December 27, 2010

Life in Idaho Falls

Idaho Falls 


The Idaho Falls on the Snake River - hydroelectric dam above volcanic rocks

I moved to Idaho Falls on March 20, 2010, the first day of Spring, although the family didn’t join me here until July 21. We moved into the house on July 23. As Winter officially started on Dec. 21, I have been here for all four seasons, although I admit I have not experienced the full brunt of Winter yet.  From what I have heard, I have some very cold weather to look forward to, along with occasional snowfalls.  But I’ve already seen both, so I don’t expect any surprises.  Just like the much milder winters in Knoxville, one doesn’t go outside to do much during the winter anyway.  However, unlike Knoxville (especially recently), the town is not shut down by snowfall.  The city cleans the major thoroughfares very quickly, then starts working on neighborhoods.  Much of the snow removal is done by volunteers, and  (much to my surprise)  potato harvesting machines are also useful in cleaning up snow.  That being said, we have been babysitting a friend’s 4WD truck for the winter (he doesn’t drive it in the winter and it just uses up half of his driveway), and bought a 4WD Jeep Liberty a couple of weeks ago.  Both the Civic and my Z-4 just don’t do well in deep neighborhood snow, nor on the icy parts of main roads.  Putting 400 lb of water softener salt in the trunk of the Z-4 does help though.

Idaho Falls is a small town, with a nominal population of about 50,000.  Our county, Bonneville County, has just over 100,000 residents, and the metropolitan area is about 125,000.  However, Idaho Falls is a regional hub to much of Southeastern Idaho, Southwestern Montana, and Western Wyoming.  So the town offers more than a population of 50,000 would indicate.  Because this is farm and recreation country, the population density is pretty low outside of IF, but people come into town for shopping, eating at a nice restaurant, and medical care.  If you are skiing at Grand Targhee or Jackson Hole and fall and injure yourself, you will likely be flown into Idaho Falls for treatment.  The IF Regional Medical Center has a helicopter that stays very busy.

The Snake River Plain

Yes, this is potato country.  Southern Idaho is characterized by the Snake River Plain, which is rich in volcanic soils that provide the minerals that potatoes need.  However, there is not enough moisture here for any kind of farming – southern Idaho is considered to be high-plains desert, with an annual rainfall of 8-14″ per year, varying across the state.  Thus, all farming is based on irrigation.  Due to volcanic activity and movement (more on this later), the plain coexists with the Snake River Aquifer, which at any given time contains about 200 billion cubic feet of water, flowing from east to west in a flattened U-shaped curve.  As big as the Snake River is, most of the water running through the Snake River Plain moves underground.  About 3 million acres of farmland are irrigated from this aquifer – about 1/3 from wells and 2/3 from canals.  There are canals all over the area – from the air it must look like the surface of Mars.  The canals are fed from the Snake River and from a number of large springs throughout the state (basically, venting points from the aquifer.  About 14% of Idaho is farm land; in addition to potatoes, they grow winter peas, lentils, sugar beets, barley, mint, hops, prunes & plums, onions, wheat, cherries and apples.  The barley and wheat are very popular with brewing companies; Budweiser and Corona have large silos up near Idaho Falls.

The best part of living up here is the outdoor life.  Going east, we are two hours from Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons, and a little over an our from Grand Targhee.  Going north, we are two hours from West Yellowstone, Montana and the western entrance to Yellowstone National Park.  Going

The Materials and Fuels Complex at INL

The Materials and Fuels Complex at INL

west, you drive through the Idaho National Laboratory site, through Arco (the first town fully powered by nuclear power) and go north to Sun Valley, or slightly south to the Craters of the Moon National Monument, the location of three lava fields, with some of the best examples of open rift cracks in the world, including the deepest known on Earth at 800′ as well as tree molds (cavities left by lava-incinerated trees), lava tubes, and a blackened and desolate terrain covering about 1100 square miles. I mentioned earlier the volcanic soil – this part of the country is heavily dotted with evidence of geologically recent volcanic activity. The caldera that underlies and powers the geysers at Yellowstone is moving with the shifting of tectonic plates – over the last 14 million years, it has moved from the southwest corner of Idaho to its current location. Between 5 and 10 million years ago, it was underneath Idaho Falls. And Idaho Falls is still closely tied to Yellowstone – the Snake River is born within Yellowstone National Park and all water in the river, and as far as I know the whole aquifer, comes from Yellowstone.

I was always amazed by the beauty of the Smokey Mountain National Park in east Tennessee, but I was completely overwhelmed by Yellowstone.  You really can’t compare the two – they are completely different – the SMNP is characterized by heavily wooded mountains, waterfalls and rivers, and early area cabins and farms.  YNP, on the other hand, is less heavily wooded, and includes both low-lying desert areas and high mountain woods.  The mountains are much more rugged and stony, and much of the park is closed during the winter due to snow.  It of course features hundreds if not thousands of geysers, as well as a ginormous high-elevation lake, hot springs, rivers and waterfalls, including Canyon Falls, rivaling the Grand Canyon in beauty, and the location of yellow stones that gave the park its name.  But the most remarkable part of the park is the wildlife – the bison (buffalo) are everywhere, and often block the roads, elk, moose, grizzly and black bears, pronghorns, wolves, coyotes, deer, eagles, and bighorn sheep.  All roam the park and are visible from the roads that circumnavigate the park.  Kyle and I are planning a day-long snowmobile excursion of the park sometime in Jan. or Feb. – this gives access to areas off the main park roads, and better access to wildlife that come out in search of water, since drinking water locations are much more limited in the winter.

Register Rock on the Oregon Trail

Old wagon wheel that didn't finish the trip west

There is much of the area we have yet to explore.  Kaitlyn has taken a couple of excursions out to other lava fields and to portions of the Oregon Trail, and has brought back some stunning photographs. (She is quite the amateur photographer.)  We hope to make a trip to Boise soon, and up and over to Moscow, ID in the near future to check out the universities.  Because most of Idaho is rugged mountain terrain, you can’t get to Moscow by any direct route.  You have to go up to Montana, over to Coeur D’Alene then south to get to Moscow – about a 9 hour drive.  So we are going to set aside a weekend for that trip.  We have previously made trips to Missoula ID and Butte, MT to visit the schools there; on the way back we stopped off at the old

Main cell block within the old Montana State Pen.

Montana State Penitentiary in Deer Lodge, Montana, to see the inside of a classic old prison.  This prison was featured in a recent episode of Ghost Lab on Discovery Channel.  The same site also had an extensive car collection – both were worth seeing.

Well, enough about our new home base for now.  I’ll sure I’ll be talking more about this in the future as we get out and explore more.



  1. Can you see the mountain ranges from the city of Idaho Falls?
    We frequent YSNP ( about every other year ) driving from St. Louis.
    We have talked in depth about moving to IF.

    • Yes and no, I guess. You can’t see the mountains for the hills. You can see some mountains – to the south is Taylor Mountain (~7400 ft) which can be seen from anywhere in town, and from most of town you can see Mount Putnum (~8800 ft), which is actually down by Pocatello. Putnam still has a lot of snow on top. To the east there are a number of rows of hills – foothills I guess, that keep you from seeing the Teton Range (and the Snake River Range to the south). As you go north out of town you do start to see the Tetons. However, they are all within close striking range – Jackson Hole is about two hours away to the east, and West Yellowstone and the west entrance to YNP are about two hours to the north.

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