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No amount of Christmas ham or gifts under the tree were going to cure our case of cabin fever. Our annual holiday trip to Idaho Falls happened to coincide with multiple winter storms, and shoveling snow wasn’t fulfilling my quota for adventure. My four-year-old was whiny, and my husband was antsy. We needed out.
A mere hour later, we were up to our thighs in snow and trudging up an empty trail. The formerly whiny kiddo was happily making snow angels and throwing snowballs, and the rest of the family was busy getting exercise. My husband, terrific partner, and father that he is, was hauling a bike trailer outfitted with skis behind his fat-bike. My mom and I were alternating between cross country skiing and cleaning the curiously sticky snow off the bottoms of our skis. Our motley crew was moving at a snail’s pace, breathing hard, but finally, gratefully, out of the house.
Nestled in the unassuming foothills of southeast Idaho, just outside the tiny town of Rigby, Kelly Canyon offers numerous recreational activities for adventure-loving families. In summer, the sage-brush covered landscape is a haven for fishermen, dirt-bikers, and campers. But in the winter, the sagebrush is covered with snow, and the canyon is transformed into a playground for skiing, fat biking, and soaking. The Kelly Canyon area, off Highway 26 between Idaho Falls and Swan Valley, hosts both Kelly Canyon Ski Resort and Heise Hot Springs—two winter wonderlands.
Kelly Canyon Ski Resort
I grew up skiing at Kelly Canyon Ski Resort, although it was always of the lift-assisted variety. My sister and I were bussed to the resort for after-school skiing. Little has changed of the resort in the twenty years since. Kelly Canyon is refreshingly humble in a world of $10-a-pizza-slice-mega-resorts. A simple lodge sits at the base of a rope-tow bunny hill, with another four lifts positioned above. What the resort may lack in glitz, it makes up for with 200 inches of powder a year and short lift lines.
One thing that has changed since I was a kid is the resort’s effort to woo Nordic users. For a nominal fee, we were treated to an uncrowded, little-known, world-class system of Nordic trails. The resort’s 12-miles of groomed trails have become particularly popular among fat-bikers, and much to their credit, Kelly Canyon Resort has capitalized on this, now offering a rental fleet of fat bikes. On a previous trip, my sister and I had rented the very capable Specialized Fat Boy bikes. On this trip, we brought our own gear; the resort welcomes both.
While we were busy climbing uphill, we stopped to chat with another fat-biker headed downhill. He was in high spirits and for good reason. While we had chosen to head cross-country, this guy had taken advantage of gravity. The resort allows fat-bikers to load their bikes on the ski lift and ride purpose-built snow-trails down the mountain.
Of course, you can use the lifts for downhill skiing as well—even after dark. A nighttime visit is a particularly unique experience, with two-thirds of the resort’s terrain lit up by both stars and spotlights. If you choose to go during the day instead, you’ll have full advantage of 51 runs on 688 skiable acres. While this may seem tiny compared to the aforementioned mega-resorts, the hill is perfect for families in need of an outdoor escape.
Heise Hot Springs
After a long day playing in the snow, we were ready for a soak. Heise Hot Springs—which is just down the road from Kelly Canyon Resort—provides hot water for healing sore muscles. This area was originally discovered and homesteaded in 1889 by Richard Clamor Heise, a German immigrant who immediately recognized its commercial appeal. The hot springs quickly grew popular with the farmers that settled the area.
Today Heise Hot Springs is popular with both farmers and tourists. The two winter pools are family-friendly, and kids are drawn to the large, fresh-water, 92-degree “warm” pool that is perfect for splashing and playing. The smaller, hotter pool is intended for soaking (no toys allowed!), and the steady 104-degree water is fed by natural mineral hot springs.
Although it was a chilly 22 degrees outside, and snowing lightly, we were comfortably warm in the water. The pool was nearly empty, and we made use of all the space to ourselves. Under the starlight, the kiddo jumped out of the pool and made a snowball, shrieking as he threw it at us, then hopped back in.
Suitably prune-y, we emerged from the pool for one last activity: pizza-eating! Across the parking lot from the hot pools, a log cabin style pizza parlor offers casual yet atmospheric dining. We snagged a booth and sunk in under a strand of twinkling lights. When it arrived, the pizza was delicious, but we were all so tired and hungry, it hardly mattered what the pizza tasted like. We had had our adventure, we were content, and it was clear—no amount of Christmas ham or gifts under the tree could compare to the memories that we were making.
From Idaho Falls, take Highway 26 east toward Swan Valley. After 18.5 miles, you will see signs for Heise Hot Springs and Kelly Canyon Resort. Turn north off the highway and continue to follow signs. After crossing the bridge over the Snake River, you will turn right on Heise Rd. The hot springs are on the right side of the road another 0.7 miles up the road. To continue on to Kelly Canyon Resort, continue on this same road another 3.5 miles. Parking is easy, and there is a large lot right by the lodge.