Idaho Falls, Idaho

Outside magazine, July 1995


Idaho Falls, Idaho

A town where you can have a real job, a real life, and still get to move in with the scenery. Several reasons to split the city and head for the Big Outdoors.
By Mike Steere


Population: 48,900; Bonneville County, 85,000
Gestalt: Obscure spud with glam location

Town and surroundings are woefully flat, aggie, and stuck in the 1950s, but you're not in the Corn Belt. Any closer to the Teton-Yellowstone axis and Idaho Falls would be beautiful--but it would also be touristic. Until very recently, the town was a rigid duoligarchy, split down the middle by the Idaho National Engineering Lab and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Either you were a federal atom-buster or a Mormon with deep local roots--or you didn't fit in. The lab and the church still dominate. Yellow buses constantly ferry workers out to "the site," 50 miles west in the desert. And a deco LDS temple, topped with a gilded statue of the angel Moroni, dominates the riverfront downtown.

But now there's cultural, as well as economic, daylight showing. The nonaligned can make a home here, and West Coast refugees have been catching on. Here and there, out in the countryside, you see acreage with a grandiose house and horse barn, financed with a home sale back in California. The peril seems minimal, though. The lab and the church have kept Idaho Falls in a state of innocence. Even with so many Ph.D.'s, the place feels like a muddy farm town that couldn't care less what tourists and lifestylers think. In the glitzy West of the nineties, such butt-ugly honesty shines like hope.

Out there: Look eastward and behold, over a bulge of foothills, the summit of Wyoming's 13,776-foot Grand Teton, 65 miles away. Locals are every bit as recreational as Montanans and Wyomingites. River runners and fly fishermen have years of entertainment on the upper forks of the Snake River, which flows through town, and on the river's mountain tributaries and headwater lakes. Skiers make an 87-mile pilgrimage to Grand Targhee Resort, the Tetons' temple to deep, steep powder, and Kelly Canyon Resort, about 26 miles from town, has mom-and-pop downhill. When mountains and water get old, hikers go the other way and shred their boots in lava desert. Hell's Half Acre, about 15 miles west of Idaho Falls, is a miniature of Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Paycheck: The mainstay employer, supporting some 40 percent of the population, is the atom-smashing INEL, and agriculture is big, too. But the atom-potato mix has been sweetened with techy support businesses and INEL spinoffs, such as Westinghouse Electric and M-K Ferguson, and agribiz (Basic American Foods, Pillsbury). The Chamber of Commerce brags that Melaleuca Inc., maker of pharmaceuticals and home-care products, which now employs more than 1,000, is Idaho's fastest-growing company.

Home: Given the surrounding potato country and appealing in-town housing and prices, concentrate on the numbered streets just east of downtown. A solid three-bedroom brick built in the 1930s lists for about $80,000.

Neighbors: Literally nuclear families, local-born young couple earnestly birthing, attorney from Minneapolis trading smaller fees for bigger outdoors.

Très Idaho Falls: Feel boho and cutting edge at Lost Arts, a brew pub in what used to be an auto showroom; buy clothes for date night at Sears and J. C. Penney; pour fry sauce (half mayo and half ketchup) on your french fries; angle in farm-country irrigation canals off the Snake River.

Please, no more: Consulting engineers with valve patents. Idaho Falls abounds with the technologically gifted who left positions at INEL but couldn't bear to leave town.

Prices of paradise: Not recommended for the young or mateless. Could be fatal to those who really need to be hip. Near-ceaseless winter winds add to the despair of those who picked wrong.

Kindred spirits: Butte, Montana; Pocatello, Idaho; Grand Junction, Colorado; Las Cruces, New Mexico.

See also: Read Rocky Barker's response in We're So Uncool It's Hip, and find out what readers thought and how Mike Steere responded in our special online forum.

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