Adventure September 30, 2022

Swan Song

See show-stopping fall foliage and wildlife in the Swan Valley

What does Idaho offer for an autumn color tour? Idaho is my home state, and I’ve been capturing the autumn season here for decades, so I can offer tried-and-true details on where and when to go to see a spectacular fall kaleidoscope of colors.

The best region for an Idaho autumn tour is the eastern part of the state including the Caribou Mountains, Snake River Mountains and all of the Palisades area. This is where you will discover the most wide-ranging hues—from the brilliant mountain maple reds, aspen yellows and crimson, cottonwood orange and everything in between. In some years, they are all on display at once. I can’t guarantee color like a jar of jellybeans, but it does happen. If it doesn’t, trust me, it’s still worth the trip. Better yet, make at least two trips as the season progresses.

Be prepared to get off the main highways and explore. The routes I describe represent distinct natural environments, and for the most part, they require some dirt and mountain road driving. Colors can vary significantly from year to year. Altitude and weather can make a night-and-day difference.

First, head east on Highway 26 out of Idaho Falls towards Swan Valley. If you’re making the trip in October (or in some years, into early November), don’t get too anxious trying to put distance between you and the city and make the turn north (left) on N 160 E towards Heise Hot Springs Lodge. There is a sign for the Lodge and the turn is three miles off Highway 26 past the exit to Ririe and the Sinclair station. Go north for two miles on N 160 E and make a right at the T intersection towards Mountain River Ranch. At the ranch, veer left, cross the river, then turn right and unless you want some pizza and a game of golf, pass the Lodge in about a mile. After about 1.5 miles, stay right at the intersection towards Kelly Island Campground. Now you’re on your way, touring the world-famous South Fork of the Snake River and the extraordinary cottonwood forests of this bio-diverse ecosystem. The dirt road hugs the north side of the river for over 12 miles. Enjoy the brilliant orange and yellow hues of the trees with red underbrush.

If traveling in mid to late September or into October, it’s better to go farther east on Highway 26. Before reaching Swan Valley, turn right on FR 058 (Snake River Road) just before the river bridge. There’s a sign for Spring Creek Boat Ramp. In about 1.5 miles, you’ll pass Fall Creek Road (NF 077). Just after the bridge that crosses Fall Creek, watch for a small dirt pullout on the left. There are no signs, but this is the viewpoint for Fall Creek Falls. Step through the brush on one of the user trails, but be careful, there is no safety construction here.

Onward, and for the best of the best, go back from Fall Creek to Highway 26 and pass through the “ice cream capitol of Idaho” (Swan Valley) and on through the smaller village of Irwin. In about 3.3 miles beyond Irwin, turn left on Palisades Creek Road. It’s only 2.5 miles on Palisades Creek Road to the campground. Hike the trail from there. Wind is less likely in this deep and narrow canyon, so the leaves can stay put longer, which means a greater potential for a wide range of hues. The intensity here can last well into October, and if your timing is good, the best show will be in the first mile or two.

You’ll have to sit in the car longer while the roads get rougher. Carry on, all the way around Palisades Reservoir and through Alpine, Wyoming. Not long after Alpine (just over three miles), turn right on FR 087 (McCoy Creek Road). Cross the Salt River, and you will soon be back in Idaho. The road stays on the south side of Palisades Reservoir for about seven miles before veering up McCoy Creek Canyon just after McCoy Creek Campground. In about three miles after the campground, watch for FR 058 (Bear Creek Road going up Jensen Creek) on the right. I know it sounds strange, but the road is called Bear Creek. Bear Creek itself is over the pass. Road 058 is the place to be around mid-September. A four-wheel drive vehicle is recommended, but just about any vehicle can do it in dry conditions. Towards the top is where mountain maples and aspens live side by side.

You can continue over the pass on 058 back to the reservoir and all the way back to Fall Creek. It’s a nice loop and, in a good year, some canyons will have a mixture of red maples and yellow aspens.

1. Blind corners on the suggested dirt roads are dangerous for obvious reasons. Drive slowly and leave as much room as possible when you can’t see around one. Be the one who prevented a head-on collision or angry gestures seen through the dust.

2. The weather in this region can get wicked in autumn, particularly in the Bear Creek Pass area. Snows are common as early as late September.

3. Please take a leisurely approach. You will see so much more, including (of course) wildlife. Stop as often as possible, walk through the forests, listen to the leaves rattle in the breezes, watch them drift to the ground, float in the creeks and glow in the light. It’s within this simplicity where learning to see begins.

This article appears in the Fall 2022 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.