Cross-country Ski, Snowshoe & Backcountry Trails of 
Southeast Idaho 


Reproduced from the book Winter Tales and Trails:  Skiing, Snowshoeing and Snowboarding in Idaho, the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park.  Copyright 1998 by Ron Watters.

Area Covered:  Southeast Idaho including Wayan, Soda Springs, Lava Hot Springs, Downey, Malad, Preston, Montpelier and nearby towns.
 

Introduction

Southeast Idaho is an enigma.  It is a barren country, void of trees except ragged patches of forests in drainages and on northern hillsides.  Ever present, always dominating in the winter landscape are lonely miles and miles of wind crusted snow and sage.  Yet there is an allure to this country, an inexplicable elegance which becomes apparent the more you spend time there.  And if that time is spent in the winter, when the landscape seems as bleak as ever, you'll find hidden away within Southeast Idaho's sage covered ranges, some of the most incredible touring and backcountry skiing found anywhere.
 
One of those places is found near Soda Springs.  Cross-country skiers along with the Caribou National Forest have created a system of trails in the Trail Creek area, a short drive to the northeast of Soda Springs.  The parking lot is shared with snowmobilers, but the cross-country trail system is off-limits to machines, except the groomer.  There's a little something for everyone:  groomed beginner trails passing beside beaver ponds, intermediate trails through conifer forests and open slopes scattered about for practicing turns.

Thirty eight miles north of Soda Springs, is the Wayan area near the Wyoming line.  Some idea of the area's propensity for snow is evidenced by the fact that road maps published in the 1970s mark the road beyond Wayan as "closed in the winter."  It's open in winter now, and for traditional style cross-country skiing, the kind of skiing which is done on rolling terrain, it's a splendid area.  Unfortunately, there is only one reliably plowed pulloff that is shared with snowmobilers, but because of the sparse population, snowmobile activity is light.  The plowed pulloff accesses an easy tour which leads skiers on a part of the Oregon Trail, near the grave of Lane, a pioneer who perished on his way to Oregon.

Southeast Idaho's best access to high snow-country is the Idaho 36 highway as it passes through the Emigration-Strawberry Canyons between Montpelier and Preston.  Skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing in this area are some of the best in the entire region.  Snow piles high here.  I've seen almost as much snow in Emigration Canyon as along the Teton Pass road.  The highway department has gone the extra mile for winter recreationalists and plows at least 10 pullouts along this stretch of highway.  Skiers of all abilities, from the beginner to the backcountry devotee, will find something to their liking.  Because of its opportunities for off-trail travel, splendid open hillsides and exceptionally good snow conditions, the area is rapidly becoming popular among northern Utah and Southeast Idaho skiers.

In the spring time when Forest Service roads become passable, backcountry skiing becomes even more interesting.  Two mountains with appealing spring snow fields for snowboarding and skiing descents are Elkhorn and Oxford Peaks which rise above Interstate 15 just north of Malad.  Both can be accessed from the freeway frontage road.  South of Soda Springs, there's Sherman Peak which is reached by driving up Eightmile Canyon road.  The granddaddy of Southeast Idaho mountains is Mead Peak, the highest point, and it is accessed off of the Georgetown Canyon road east of Georgetown.  There's more, of course, beautiful, little tucked away gems among all that . . . yes, all that boring sagebrush countryside.
 
 

The Tales . . .

When I was working on the first version of this book, I  made a couple of trips during the fall to potential skiing sites in Southeast Idaho before the snow fell.  A good friend of mine, Jeff Smith, came along on one of those trips.

Everyone calls him Barefoot.  In fact, to this day, he is known as Barefoot.  He hates shoes and only wears them when he has to.  Barefoot was and is a good mechanic, and was helping me get my '64 Volkswagen Bug ready for the trip.

I was inside on the front seat while Barefoot was outside.  For some reason I had placed my foot against the windshield.  I don't remember why or what I was repairing.  I needed leverage and since there's not a whole lot of room in the front seat of a Bug, the windshield seemed the best place for my foot.  I gave the windshield a push, just a little push, hardly a push at all as I remember it.

All of sudden there was no resistance against my foot and the whole windshield was falling and then crashing against the front hood.  Jeff ambled over in his bare feet, inspected it and shook his head.  It was shattered and not usable.  The day, however, was beautiful, and we took off anyway, driving out of town, without the windshield.

It turned out to be a wonderful trip, cruising the backroads of Southeast Idaho and exploring new places that might make delightful places to ski when winter would come later that year.  But what made it more memorable was the lack of a windshield.  It was like being transported back in time to the Model T days and a whole new simpler time and world.  We drove slowly, could smell the sage and pines and saw things we'd never seen before.  We waved at nearly every car that passed us and everything seemed to be fresh and clear.

The only downside was the bugs, which seemed to be particularly plentiful on that warm fall day.  A couple hours into the trip, an assortment of flies and moths were buzzing around inside the car.  To Jeff's annoyance, a large number of them tried taking refuge in and around his bare feet and every so often he would briskly rub his feet together and stomp them in a sort of vastly accelerated Western two-step.  On the way back, we stopped a couple of times to clean bugs off our sunglasses and spit out those that had collected on our teeth.

I didn't see Barefoot for quite a while, and, it was a longer time after that before he joined me again for another trip.  As I remember it, when he showed up at my house for that next trip, he was wearing goggles and tennis shoes. 
 

Map of the Southeast Idaho Area

(Numbers on map coorespond with the trail number in the text that follows.)

The Trails . . .

WAYAN AREA

The small town of Wayan (actually it's just a couple of houses) in Southeast Idaho is located 38 miles (61 km) north of Soda Springs on Idaho 34.  Just east of Wayan lies a country which, in the winter, is covered by a deep layer of snow.  There is only one reliably plowed pulloff which is the starting point for the Lane's Grave Tour.

1 Lane's Grave Tour
Snowbound roads or off-trail.  Moderately easy.  Dogs OK.  Snowshoeing.

To find the beginning of the tour, start at the Historical Marker in Wayan.  Drive 6.4 miles east on Idaho 34 towards Freedom, Wyoming.  The pulloff is plowed on the right (south) side of the highway.  You have two choices here.  One is to follow the snowbound road which starts from the pulloff and leads south.  The tour follows roads to the Lane's Grave area.  On weekends you may encounter snowmobiles along the roads.  The other choice is to cross the highway and ski across the open hilly country to the north.  There is no particular route to follow.  It's open, rolling country interspersed with aspen groves and plenty of hillsides for practicing telemarks.  This is probably the best direction if you are snowshoeing.
    If you are interested in a tour with some historical significance, the Lane's Grave trip follows the snowbound road leading from the pulloff to the south through an open, sagebrush valley.  At 3 miles (5 km) from Idaho 34, another snowbound road leads to the left (east) past a corral and a few scattered, decaying buildings.  This road sits on what once was once the Oregon Trail.  Unfortunately, no trespassing signs have recently blocked access, but immediately east of the old buildings lies a small fenced-in square area, looking much like a miniature, white painted corral.  Within the fence is the grave of Lane, for whom the Oregon Trail emigrants named Lane's Valley and Lane Creek.
    There was some controversy surrounding who Lane was, but Peter Harsted, in his authoritative work, Constructing the Lander Trail, cleared the matter with this account from Joel Barnett, one of the emigrants accompanying Lane:

Two or three days after we had layed over, we came to another little valley and camped, and at this camp, Mr. Lane passed away.  This cast a great sadness over the camp as he was a fine old man and it was a sad procession that marched up to that grave.  We marked it as best we could by putting up a rather flat stone on which we put his name.  This was the first grave we had made since leaving home.  We named this camp Lane's Valley.  [The headstone read: July 18, 1859 J. W. Lane]
2 Aspen Tour.
Snowbound road and off-trail.  Easy, gradual terrain.  Parking may not be available.  Dogs OK.  Snowshoeing.

One other suggested tour in the Wayan area follows a snowbound road through rolling terrain covered with aspens and scattered pines.  Unfortunately, this does not have regularly plowed access, so it is one that you may have to save until spring when the snowbanks along the highway have melted back sufficiently for parking.  The beginning of this lovely tour is located on the north side of Idaho 34, just slightly less than 4 miles east of Wayan.  The route follows the snowbound road to the north and is suitable for beginners.
 

SODA SPRINGS AREA

3 Trail Canyon
Marked and groomed cross-country ski trails.  All abilities.  Toilets.  Park N' Ski area.  Snowboarding on the way to Trail Canyon.

The trails in this area are designed specifically for cross-country skiing.  The parking lot, toilets and warming hut at the trailhead are shared with snowmobilers, but the ski trails are off-limits to mechanized vehicles.  This is a wonderful area with good snow coverage and a variety of ski terrain.  Beginners will enjoy the short jaunts out to a beaver pond which is the source of Trail Creek.  Intermediate skiers will enjoy the loop tour with open hillsides and ridge lines for practicing turns.  At this writing, there are five different loop trails varying in lengths from a .5 mile to 5 miles (1 to 8 km).  The ski trails are groomed.
    To get to Trail Canyon, start at the intersection of US 30 and Idaho 34 in Soda Springs.  Drive 3 miles to the north on Idaho 34.  Look for Trail Canyon Road, turning off to the right (east).  About 5 miles down Trail Canyon Road, you'll see some nice hillsides close to the road which are ideal for short telemark and snowboard runs.  If you're planning to go to the cross-country ski area, keep driving another 3 more miles until the plowed portion of the road ends at a parking area.  Park and Ski stickers are required here.

4 Bailey Creek
Snowbound road.  Moderately easy.  Snowshoeing. 

The start of this tour is reached by turning at the intersection of US 30 and Idaho 34 in Soda Springs on Bailey Creek Road.  At 4.4 miles from the intersection, the road Y's.  Take the right fork and drive through the Bailey Creek Housing Development to its southern edge where you'll find a school bus turnaround area.  Park back a distance so that you are out of way of any school buses.  The tour follows the snowbound Bailey Creek Road onto Forest Service lands just beyond the plowed portion of the road.  The first part of the trip is suitable for beginners with intermediate difficulty thereafter.
 

LAVA HOT SPRINGS AREA

5 Pebble Creek
Snowbound road.  Flat, easy terrain.  Dogs OK. 

Located 9 miles north of Lava Hot Springs on Old Highway 30.  A sign on the west side of the highway indicates Pebble Creek.  Drive to the point where Pebble Creek Road is no longer plowed.
    The tour follows the snowbound Pebble Creek Road.  It is an excellent basic beginner's tour with flat terrain for many miles.  Note that this is a groomed snowmobile trail, and touring is recommended on weekdays or early in the morning on weekends.

6 Thunder Canyon Cross-country Trails

Cross-country ski trails.  Easy, rolling terrain.

The Lava Hot Springs Nordic Group maintains a system of trails at Lava's golf course, Thunder Canyon.  To reach the golf course, drive west on West Main Street and turn left on South 4th West Street which turns into Dempsey Creek Road.  Follow Dempsey Creek Road for about 2 miles.  Near the Intersection of Dempsey Creek and Merrick Roads, you'll see the Golf Course club house off to the right.  Park off the road.  The ski trails start from the club house.
    The terrain is rolling and suited for families or those who want to catch a workout.  At the current time, the trails are not groomed, but are usually skied in.  Afterwards, treat yourself to a dip in Lava Hot Springs.

7 Smith Canyon
Snowbound road.  Moderately easy.  Dogs OK.

The Smith Canyon area gets considerable snowmobile use on weekends, so you may want to plan this one for a week day.  It is reached by driving out Dempsey Creek Road beyond the Golf Course where the Thunder Canyon Cross-country trails are located (see description above).  From the Dempsey Creek and Merrick Road junction, continue following Dempsey Creek Road for 1.2 miles until reaching Smith Canyon Road, coming in from the right.  More houses are being built in the area, and it is likely that the Smith Canyon Road will be plowed all the way to the divide, 3.6 miles from the Dempsey Creek Road.
    From the divide, you can ski or snowshoe on the snowbound Smith Canyon Road to the southwest.  It is a moderately easy tour, but be careful to pace yourself since the road heads downhill and at some point you'll need to turn around and climb back up.  Ambitious skiers looking for a workout may want take a long descending road tour to Virginia.  This 10-mile tour requires a shuttle vehicle to be left at the Smith Canyon Road, 1.4 miles north of Virginia and the I-15 interchange.
    Smith Canyon Road also provides access to snowbound side roads.  Two major spur roads, leading to the east and west, are found in the vicinity of a small lake before reaching the top of the pass.  Although the snowbound roads are heavily used by snowmobiles, they can be used to reach open, telemarking slopes.
 

DOWNEY AREA

8 Left Fork of Marsh Creek
Snowbound road.  Moderately easy.  Dogs OK.  Snowshoeing.

To locate the beginning of this tour, start at the intersection of the Main and Center streets in the town of Downey.  Drive east on Center until reaching the airport .7 mile from town.  At the airport, the road comes to a "T."  Take a right here.  Follow this road 4.8 miles from the airport until it takes a sharp bend to the right, leading to a group of farm houses called Grant's Ward.  At the bend, a road, Left Fork of Marsh Creek, continues straight.  It may be possible to drive up Left Fork Road for a short distance, depending on the snow conditions.
    The tour follows the snowbound Left Fork Road.  Remaining high above the Marsh Creek drainage for the first couple of miles, the tour passes through wheat fields and open sagebrush country.  Two miles (3 km) from the start, Left Fork Road descends into the Left Fork Canyon and continues weaving back and forth as it works its away up the drainage.  The canyon, with junipers decorating its sides and maples and birch clustered near the stream, makes for delightful and beautiful skiing.  There are a few moderate climbs, but beyond these short grades, beginners and experienced skiers, alike, will enjoy touring in the area.  Plan to take a full day for this tour since it involves skiing 2 miles (3 km) through open country before reaching the canyon.
 
 

MALAD AREA

9 Malad Pass (Mill Canyon)
Snowbound road.  Easy to moderately difficult.  Dogs OK.

Mill Canyon is located on the top of Malad Summit north of Malad just off Interstate 15.  Take the old highway to the top of the pass by exiting off Interstate 15 at either the Downey or Devil Creek Reservoir exits.
    From the top of the pass, turn west, drive across the bridge over the interstate and follow the road until it is no longer plowed.  From the end of the plowed road, ski or snowshoe on the snowbound road to Summit Campground.  Depending on where the county stops plowing the road it should be around .5 mile to the campground.  The tour to the campground and in the general area is suitable for beginners.  Beyond this point, however, the skiing difficulty increases.
    A moderately difficult tour, and a good trip for snowshoers is to make the loop tour from the end of the snowbound road, following the hiking trail to the south into South Canyon.  South Canyon is then descended until rejoining the Mill Creek Road near the Caribou National Forest boundary.  Total length of the tour is approximately 9 miles (14 to 15 km).  This area also provides backcountry skiing and snowboard access to Elkhorn Mountain, the mountain rising above Mill Creek.  Snowmobilers use the area.

10 Deep Creek-Weston Creek Area
Off-trail or snowbound road.  Easy to moderately easy.  Dogs OK.

The Deep Creek-Weston area on Idaho 36 between Malad and Weston is another one of those unexpected snow zones.  The ground in Malad will often be dry, but plenty of snow awaits the skier or snowshoer just a few miles away.  The sportsman's access at Deep Creek Reservoir, 4.4 miles south of the I-15 and Idaho 36 interchange, north of Malad City is a nice place for easy ski touring or snowshoeing on the open country around the reservoir.  Plus, if you have any ice fisherman in the group, they can fish at the reservoir.
    Additionally, for a longer tour, you might try Third Creek.  It's a snowmobile area, and you'll want to catch it during the week.  The developed parking area is located 1.2 miles south of the Sportsman's Access.  Turn and head east on 300 North.  Follow it to the end of the plowed road.  Follow the snowbound road along Third Creek.  For backcountry skiers, it provides access to the long South Ridge of Oxford Peak which has outstanding telemark slopes.

11 Weston Mountain
Snowbound road.  Moderately difficult.  Dogs OK.

Access to Weston Mountain, a moderately difficult touring area, is located in the town of Dayton, a few miles west of Preston.  A road, .3 mile (.5 km) north of the school in Dayton, leads west and is marked with a Forest Service sign indicating Weston Mountain.  Drive until this road is no longer plowed.
    The tour follows the snowbound road which veers off to the left (west), directly towards the mountains.  Often the snow is shallow and the skiing is scratchy on the first part of the trail.  It leads up through a narrow rocky canyon and then breaks out of the canyon onto a ridge.  The snowbound road eventually turns into a trail that crosses the heads of several creeks and eventually passes to the west side of Weston Mountain approximately 8 miles (13 km) from the start.  Snowmobilers use the road.
 

PRESTON AREA

12 Strawberry and Emigration Canyon Area
Snowbound roads or off-trail.  All abilities.  Telemarking slopes.  Snowboarding.  Snowshoeing.  Dogs OK.

Idaho 36 between Mink Creek and Liberty passes through Strawberry and Emigration Canyons.  This is a wonderful stretch of highway through a high snow region with many pulloffs to choose from.  One suggested area for some easy touring is the Emigration Canyon Campground.  Park at the plowed pulloff located on the south side of the highway 6.8 miles east of the LDS Church in Liberty.  The tour follows the snowbound road west into the campground about .3 mile from the highway.  Although it's not very far, the terrain around the campground is gradual and a fun place for families to tour around.  For a moderately difficult tour, climb the ridge to the southeast of the campground and continue to the southeast, connecting with a trail which leads to a divide between Emigration Canyon and Copenhagen Canyon, 2 miles from the highway.  From the divide a descending tour can be made down Pole Canyon, coming out close to the plowed parking at the chain-up area 4.4 miles west of Liberty.  The total distance of the descending tour into Pole Canyon is 5 miles.  If you don't have a shuttle vehicle, you may just enjoy hanging out in the divide and cutting tellys on the nice slopes in the area.
    Snowmobilers tend to concentrate in an area about 10 miles west of Liberty.  At 12 miles from Liberty, a pulloff is plowed on the north side of Idaho 36 near where a power line crosses.  Behind the pulloff are some short hills which are used by snowboarders.  Skiers and snowshoers may also be interested in this area since a trip can be taken up the snowbound road which leads north from the parking area.  The snowbound road is moderately easy and follows the Right Fork of Williams Creek.
 

MONTPELIER AREA

14 Right Hand Fork of Georgetown Canyon
Snowbound road.  Moderately easy.  Snowshoeing.

The Right Hand Fork of Georgetown is reached by driving from the city of Georgetown eastward on Georgetown Canyon Road.  Check your odometer at US 30 in Georgetown.  Stay on the main Georgetown road and drive 3.3 miles from US 30 in Georgetown.  Park here.  At this point the Right Hand Fork leads off to the south.  A landmark which is helpful in locating the Right Fork is a small concrete dam on Georgetown Creek just after the confluence of the Right Fork and Georgetown Creek.
    The tour follows Right Hand Fork Road (initially to the south and then to the east) through an interesting narrow canyon.  In its journey along the creek, the snowbound road makes several crossings back and forth over the creek.  Early in the tour, you'll find some nice open slopes for practicing telemarks.
    A large beaver dam blocks the creek 2.5 miles (4 km) from the parking area.  Just before the beaver dam, a steep, snowbound jeep trail leads up the ridge on the left (north).  From this junction, it is only a .5 mile (.8 km) moderately difficult climb to a small saddle on the ridge.  The climb, however, is steep, and traversing back and forth is necessary.
    From the ridge, you'll have a good view down towards the main Georgetown Canyon and up the Right Hand Fork.  Some nice ridge skiing is available at this point, not to mention the great downhill ski run back into Right Hand Fork.
    Skiers or snowshoers of all abilities should enjoy touring in this area.  For an easygoing trip, the tour along the Right Hand Fork is pleasant and enjoyable.  For moderately difficult skiing and snowshoeing, you can climb and travel along the ridge.  And for the backcountry skier, the Right Hand Fork provides access to Meade Peak, the highest point in Southeast Idaho.  Snowmobiles use is light to nonexistent.

15 Joe's Gap
Snowbound road.  Easy to the gap, moderately difficult thereafter.  Snowshoeing.  Dogs OK.

To get to the beginning of the Joe's Gap tour, start in Montpelier at the Oregon Trail Center (at the Junction of US 89 and US 30).  Drive 2.2 miles to the north on US 30 and turn right (east) just before a truck stop.  Drive back until the road is no longer plowed.
    The tour follows the snowbound Joe's Gap Road first through open fields and sagebrush country and then into a canyon.  Joe's Gap, a narrow cut through a large, sage-covered hill, is difficult to see until you're almost on top of it.  This first section of the tour is suitable for beginners.
    The snowbound road turns into a trail at the gap, and it is a fun trip through narrow, confining walls of the canyon, but the skiing or snowshoeing becomes more difficult.  At this point, the trail turns into a moderately difficult tour.  At the eastern end of the gap, a broad hidden canyon is entered.  Here, the trail climbs moderately through some aspens and a beautiful row of mountain mahogany, forming an archway over the trail.
 
 

Resources . . .

National Forest Lands Throughout the Region
Supervisor's Headquarters of the Caribou National Forest-Address:  Federal Building, Suite 294, Pocatello, Idaho 83201.  Phone: (208) 236-7500.

National Forest Lands in Malad and Weston Mountain Areas
Malad Ranger District-Address:  75 South 140 East, PO Box 142, Malad, Idaho 83252.  Phone: (208) 766-4743.

National Forest Lands in the Joe's Gap, Bailey Creek and Strawberry-Emigration Canyon Areas
Montpelier Ranger District-Address:  431 Clay, Montpelier, Idaho 83254.  Phone: (208) 847-0375.

National Forest Lands in the Trail Canyon and Wayan Area
Soda Springs Ranger District-Address:  421 West 2nd South, Soda Springs, Idaho 83276.  Phone: (208) 547-4356.


More Information on Winter Tales and Trails
 


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