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Sightseeing in southern Idaho

When pioneer leader Brigham Young and his advisers mapped out the State of Deseret — Utah's sprawling proposed predecessor — and applied for statehood 160 years ago, its borders stretched quite naturally into southern Idaho. Forget those straight lines of later mapmakers.

And southern Idaho remains so close to Utah — in distance, culture, topography and history — destinations there remain an attractive travel option, whether for one day or many.

The Utah-Idaho border is only 100 miles from Salt Lake City, due north on I-15. Montpelier, to the northeast on the Oregon Trail at the top of Bear Lake, is 152 miles away via I-15 and U.S. 89. Idaho's pinnacled City of Rocks National Reserve, on the old California Trail, is 194 miles to the northwest, via I-84 and the gateway village of Almo.

With the sluggish economy, and overseas or long-distance cross-country trips beyond the budget of some families and vacationers, going "north of the border" can be a viable option.

Here, in no particular order of recommendation, are a half-dozen (too few, considering the possibilities) Utah-to-Idaho destinations or drives to consider, moving east to west — just as most pioneering emigrants did:

Montpelier/Bear Lake

Though perhaps now most obviously a railroad town, as well as the junction for U.S. Highways 89 and 30, Montpelier (said to have been named by Brigham Young for the community in his native Vermont) is also a convergence point for history and scenic beauty.

The history is embodied by Montpelier's top-notch National Oregon/California Trail Center, a multi-faceted museum that commemorates the fortitude and day-to-day experiences of the thousands of pioneers who trekked through southern Idaho. Buoyed by the idea of "manifest destiny," they headed west from Missouri to the promising lands of the Oregon Country (claimed by both Americans and the British) and Alta California (part of Mexico until after the Mexican-American War).

Exhibits help visitors experience a moment by a campfire, a computer-simulated ride on a covered wagon, and learn about the first Mormon settlers in the Bear Lake Valley, the coming of the railroads — and you can even join a simulated wagon trek.

Nearby is beautiful Bear Lake, that 20-mile-long, 8-mile wide turquoise oval shared by Utah and Idaho. A drive around the lake can be a delightful experience. Both states have parks on the shores. There are plenty of beaches, campgrounds, boat ramps and opportunities for fishermen, bikers and riders of ATVs.

Also in the Bear Lake Valley are Minnetonka Cave, above St. Charles, usually open for tours from Memorial Day to Labor Day; pioneer Paris, with its historic 19th-century LDS tabernacle; and bird-watching along the ponds and marshes of the Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge, just south and southwest of Montpelier.

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Soda Springs

Thirty miles northwest of Montpelier on U.S. 30 — Idaho's Oregon Trail Bear Lake Scenic Byway — is Soda Springs. If you're tired of the same old route to Jackson, Wyo., and/or Yellowstone National Park, State Road 34 can take you north to Blackfoot Reservoir, Craig Lake (more of a large marsh these days, but cranes and other waterfowl are to be found there), and east to Freedom and Thayne, Wyo.

But Soda Springs also is home to an offbeat curiosity: natural, carbonated springs of water, known to both prehistoric American Indians and travelers along the Oregon Trail, as well as what the town likes to call "the largest captive geyser in the world." The carbon-dioxide-powered, cold-water geyser erupted from a drill site right in the middle of Soda Springs and is capped and regulated to erupt, as the town advertises, "every hour on the hour." You'll likely find it worth seeing.

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Lava Hot Springs

On a hot summer day, the Olympic pools and water park, natural springs and Portneuf River of Lava Hot Springs, on U.S. 30 a dozen miles east of I-15, are a refreshing magnet for those in search of an escape.

This is nothing new.

"Long before white men discovered these springs, Sept. 9, 1812, American Indians gathered here to use the free hot water," notes a roadside historic sign just above the town. The site, it says, was once an important American Indian winter campground.

The semi-adventurous can rent a colorful small raft (or "tube") to float down the Portneuf through town, a bumpy, curving ride that includes just enough of a bounce through mild white water to offer a thrill or two.

The population of the small town (once also known as "Dempsey's Bathtub") truly booms in summer. Its Web site lists eight campgrounds and three dozen motels, lodges, bed and breakfasts and rental homes.

On the Web:

Red Rock Pass

At the top of the Cache Valley, northwest of Preston (not to mention Logan), is a low pass traversed every day by scores of vehicles and the occasional railroad train. But 14,500-15,000 years ago, it was the spot that signaled the beginning of the end for the Pleistocene Lake Bonneville. That huge inland Great Basin sea covered more than 20,000 square miles, and the Great Salt Lake is but a shallow remnant. Lake Bonneville would have drowned most of the cities in modern Utah.

A roadside marker tells part of the tale: "This pass was deepened considerably when Lake Bonneville began to flow into the Snake River. For a time, a torrent several times larger than the Amazon was discharged here. Finally, with a hotter, drier climate that slowly emerged about 8,000 years ago, Lake Bonneville gradually disappeared."

It takes quite an imagination to picture what that catastrophic first break and deluge must have been like, as Lake Bonneville waters ripped into and scoured the Snake River Plain and raced on to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean.

Orange-to-red cliffs rise above the pass, giving it its name. The historic sign is beside a small hillock, atop which is another monument, remembering Capt. Jefferson Hunt, a pioneer and member of the Mormon Battalion who, at Brigham Young's behest, led settlement treks throughout old Deseret, from Bakersfield, Calif., to Oxford, Idaho, and many points in between.

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Massacre Rocks State Park

The harsh name somewhat belies the placid nature of this park, campground and boat-launch site on the Snake River west of American Falls on I-86 — though other names for the rocky patch along the Oregon Trail included "Gate of Death" and "Devil's Gate."

The site gets its name from an 1862 American Indian attack, led by Pocatello, a Northwestern Shoshone war chief, upon a couple of small wagon trains. The skirmish and subsequent chase afterward led to the deaths of 10 emigrants and eight American Indians, according to a National Park Service historic trails guide.

The 1860s were sometimes a time of conflict between the emigrants and the native Shoshones and Bannocks of the Snake River Plain, drawn into violence by cultural misunderstandings, vanishing resources, harsh treatment, greed and often misdirected revenge.

But nearby is Register Rock, a small picnic area with at least one now-sheltered boulder upon which camping emigrants carved their names. (More recent copycat inscriptions from the past few decades can be found on a lighter-colored boulder nearby.) Register Rock probably gives us a better idea of what this area was generally like for weary pioneer travelers, for it offers shade and a small tributary creek that flows toward the Snake River — in short, it was a campground oasis along a torturous trail.

Today's year-round, 1,000-acre park offers a small visitor center, hiking trails, volcanic cliffs and boulders, great views of the Snake River, and ramps for those with boats who wish to fish, water ski and play in the water. It also has a 40-unit campground and four sleeping cabins. The campground is most popular on Fridays and weekends, but there is often room to be found on weekdays, according to Alberta Zimmerman in the visitor center.

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City of Rocks National Reserve

To California-bound emigrants of the 1840s to 1860s, this haven of granite spires and monoliths — and the occasional arch — looked much like a city skyline from a distance. Today it is in the outback near the point where the borders of Idaho, Utah and Nevada meet.

"We encamped at the city of the rocks," James F. Wilkens wrote in 1849, "a noted place from the granite rocks rising abruptly out of the ground. They are in a romantic valley clustered together, which gives them the appearance of a city."

"If a mountain destroying Angel had been dispatched here with power to distoy and Scater the elements of the Mountains, He could not hae done more than has been done here," Richard M. May wrote in 1848, using a spelling system all his own.

Other pioneers left their "signatures" in axle grease on a few rock faces along the historic route (Camp Rock, Register Rock, etc.), as they headed their wagons and teams southwest from the Oregon Trail, via the Raft River "Parting of the Ways," over Granite Pass toward Nevada's Humboldt River basin.

Today the reserve is accessible via an improved gravel road (and the City of Rocks Backcountry Byway) west of off-the-beaten-track Almo, Idaho, home to a small visitor center. The reserve offers a campground, and the towering spires — up to 600 feet high — attract rock climbers. More than 700 climbing routes have been mapped here and in adjacent Castle Rock State Park. The pinnacles have names such as Twin Sisters, Napoleon's Castle and, in keeping with the metropolitan imagery, City Hotel.

Idaho Parks and Recreation, which manages the twin sites in cooperation with the National Park Service, notes that City of Rocks was established as a national reserve by Congress relatively recently, in 1988. It encompasses 14,407 acres of federal, state and private lands "containing grand scenery, rich cultural history, and places of relative solitude and silence," as the Idaho Web site nicely phrases it.

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Other options:

Loops: Instead of sticking to I-84 and I-15, or U.S. 91 and 89, consider a pleasant day-trip loop or passage through the canyons just north of the Utah-Idaho border on State Routes 36 and 38. The unhurried rural alternatives can take you through the Curlew National Grassland and the hamlet of Holbrook, north of Snowville, and by Weston Reservoir between Malad and Preston, as well as Emigration Canyon between Preston and Ovid, near Montpelier.

Museums: Museums big and little abound in Idaho, as they do throughout the West, from Daughters of Utah Pioneers relic collections in small towns such as Franklin (proclaimed Idaho's first city) to the substantial Idaho Museum of Natural History in Pocatello and Museum of Idaho in Idaho Falls.

Playgrounds: The Snake River is a sinuous resource for boating, kayaking, fishing and hiking all along its course. With headwaters high in northwestern Wyoming, the river cuts a gorge through much of Idaho and is ideal for ponds and man-made lakes big and small, from the Palisades Reservoir on the east to the vast American Falls Reservoir, Lake Walcott and the placid waters through Heyburn and Burley off I-84.

History: The past is ever-present in Idaho. American Indians and mountain men knew this territory well. Oregon- and California-bound emigrants didn't stick to one route: A good Idaho map will show you a patchwork of trails, "cutoffs" and alternatives.

Fort Hall, a fur-trading post opened in the 1830s, was an important stopover for some emigrants; today it is the hub of a vast American Indian reservation. A replica of the fort now stands in Pocatello's Ross Park. And, of course, the Oregon Trail continued on, to Three Island Crossing, Fort Boise and beyond.

Conflict, too, is highlighted at several locations, soberingly so at the Bear River Massacre National Historic Landmark west of Preston, where troops under Fort Douglas-based Col. Patrick Edward Connor attacked a band of Shoshones, killing somewhere between 200 and perhaps 500 men, women and children — "the worst mass killing of Indians in U.S. history" — as the Park Service historic trails interpretive guide describes the "battle."

Nature: If you'd like to venture deeper into Idaho, the basalt barrens of the state's volcanic center include the colorfully named Craters of the Moon National Monument, west of Blackfoot, as well as the Shoshone Ice Caves.