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Thousand Springs State Park

Clear cool waters may be the essence of Thousand Springs State Park.   The park is in the heart of a remarkable geologic area where the Snake River aquifer bursts out of its rocky underground confines.

 “The eastern Snake River plain aquifer is like water in any other system; it likes to flow downhill,” explains geologist Travis McLing. “As a result, the water gets recharged in the northeast part of the plain up around Yellowstone Park and in the highlands, flows downhill towards the Snake River; and so water is then released from the aquifer because the Snake River has actually eroded itself down into the aquifer itself.”

This park is comprised of a number of separate areas: a total of nine units featuring volcanic landscapes, historical sites and outstanding water displays. From Malad Gorge and the Kelton Trail along interstate 84, to the Billingsley Creek and Vardis Fisher units near Hagerman, to Ritter Island, Bonnieview, Box Canyon, and Niagara and Crystal Springs along the Snake River –  it really is an impressive collection.

Thousand Springs [Courtesy Charlene Aycock]
Thousand Springs [Courtesy Charlene Aycock]

“Thousand Springs State Park got its name because every one of the parks has springs running through it,” explains park manager Dave Landrum, “either out from under the ground or from the canyon walls.

“The State Parks are there to help preserve those springs, protect them, and to educate the public and make it a place where the public can come and enjoy their own properties.”  

The 2,000 acre park got its start back in 1970, with the purchase of Malad Gorge. This deep and narrow canyon was cut by one of Idaho’s shortest waterways, theMalad River.  It features dramatic, steep cliffs and a sixty foot high waterfall.

Not far downstream from the waterfall, the murky waters of the Malad River begin to clear, cleansed by the huge volume of springs flowing into the river.   About a million acre feet of ground water a year emerge from springs near the canyon floor.

“If you look at the color of the water coming down out of the waterfalls and as you move down through the park,” says Dave Landrum, “you can see how the water gets cleaner and cleaner; and that is the amount of springs that are coming out underground into the river, and so by time it gets from the waterfall to the river, it is crystal clear.”

Niagara Springs [Courtesy Jay Krajic]
Niagara Springs

 After Malad Gorge, the next areas added to the park were Niagara and Crystal Springs.  The impressive springs at Niagara flow at 250 cubic feet per second and were declared a National Natural Landmark in 1980.

“Crystal Springs has that 58 degree water coming down into it and it gets stocked by the Fish and Game, and it’s a real popular area for the locals to fish,” said Landrum.

More recently, several new units were added to the park, including Box Canyon, Billingsley Creek, and Vardis Fisher. 

Fisher, one of Idaho’s most famous authors, spent nearly twenty five years living and writing near this beautiful spring and pond.   The remnants of his home are now part of the park.

“You can just hear the water running from the sides of the cliff down through the pond,” said Landrum, “and he had a view that was unreal. I imagine that really helped with his creativity, having that kind of atmosphere.”

One of Fishers famous novels,  Mountain Man, was the source for the movie “Jeremiah Johnson.”  No doubt Fisher would have appreciated a recent gathering at nearby Billingsley Creek Park.  The 240 acre former ranch near Hagerman made a great rendezvous site for the southern Idaho muzzleloaders association.

 Todd Miller is one of the modern mountain men. “We came here to the state park to have a good open area. The fur trappers congregated in big flat meadows, and this was a good flat area for us for rendezvous. It made it easy access for people to come see us.  This is our first year in here, and we’re hoping to be the first of many.”

Box Canyon Springs [Courtesy David Hosmer]
Box Canyon Springs [Courtesy David Hosmer]

Another big addition to this park was the Earl M. Hardy Box Canyon unit. Box canyon is the nation’s eleventh largest spring. It gushes water at over 2,600 gallons a second.  You can look down on the aqua blue springs from an overlook less than a mile from the trailhead. But you have to hike a bit further through much steeper terrain to reach the bottom of the canyon and the 20 foot waterfall.

 The Nature Conservancy of Idaho played a key role in bringing both Box Canyon and Billingsley Creek parks into the state system.  They also donated the Ritter Island and Bonnieview areas on the Snake River to the state.

“Ritter came into the park units in 2006, and it was given to us by the Nature Conservancy. Along with that was a million dollar endowment fund,” explained Landrum. “We use that endowment fund just off the interest to help support Ritter Island and Bonnieview, since they were all one unit at one time. That’s a real plus with the budget.”

For more than three decades Ritter Island was owned by Minnie Miller. She ran a Guernsey breeding farm and dairy on the island, beginning in 1918.  Nearby Minnie Miller Falls bears her name.

Ritter Island [Courtesy Shari Hart]
Ritter Island [Courtesy Shari Hart]

“The Minnie Miller Springs that is down there is one of only two of the springs that I know of personally along the Thousand Springs Byway that comes straight out of a mountain and flows naturally into the river,” says Landrum. “Everything else goes through a fish hatchery or a power plant.”

 Geologist Travis McLing believes the Thousand Springs complex is world-class. “It represents to my knowledge  one of the very largest spring areas in the entire world. It’s quite humbling to see the volume of water. It’s very difficult to quantify in terms of our finite minds how much water day in and day out, year after year, millennia after millennia has flowed through the system and will continue to flow through the system long after we’re gone.”

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