Boise Daytrips

Shoshone Ice Cave - All That's Missing Is the Beer

Normally my advice is to drive right past any roadside attraction that features a large dinosaur painted an electric green color. For years I followed this advice when it came to Shoshone Ice Cave. Whenever a drive from Boise to Sun Valley took me the long way via Bliss and Shoshone, I'd see the cluster of buildings set back from Idaho 75, along with a large gaudy sign proclaiming the presence of an ice cave. Not once, however, did I consider stopping. In my mind, the place's somewhat questionable appearance from the road made me imagine the cave was nothing but a hole in the ground where the owners dumped ice cubes periodically for the amusement of tourists pausing on their way to have lunch in Hailey with Ashton and Demi.

But recently, after some preliminary googling indicated that there was a real cave there with actual ice in it, I was intrigued enough to consider a visit. The clincher was when esteemed local weatherperson Steve Liebenthal announced that the next day was going to be in the high 90s and maybe hit 100. I immediately thought, could there be a better place to be tomorrow than an ice cave?

So I went. For those of you who are a little fuzzy on the geography involved, Shoshone Ice Cave is 16 miles north of the town of Shoshone, which is itself about 118 miles from Boise. Given this significant distance, I had high hopes for the place. After all, it was rumored to be 29 degrees mere feet below the surface of the scorching desert. How could that not be awesome?

But first things first. After a long slog over to the place, prepare yourself for all the requisite features of the good ol' American tourist trap. Out front they've got the large green dinosaur, complete with a troglodyte child riding its head. Seriously. In fact, this is just one of many instance where this privately-owned spectacle toes the line between adding a tacky touch of history and insulting the natives.

Yes, that's a caveboy riding a dinosaur

The most obvious of these cases is the very large statue of Washakie the Indian chief, whom the accompanying sign tells us was a "friend to the whites". You can consider it a memorial or a very large cigar store Indian, depending on your persuasion. There are also other smaller Indian statues present, as well as totem poles and other Coast Indian symbols. I'm still wondering about the area's connection to the Coast Indians, but I guess having totem poles in the middle of Idaho is really no more bizarre than having a caveboy riding a dinosaur's head.

After you get past all these novelties, you'll see three main buildings. The far left is a junk antique shop, where I dared not tread. All the crap stuff lying around on tables outside was enough to convince me that never in a million years would there be anything inside that I would want in my house. If you find old glass jars, rocks, and other such things interesting, knock yourself out.

The far right building is a small museum that is guarded by a midget bison. The museum contains animal heads, antlers, rocks, fossils, minerals, arrow heads and other semi-interesting items. It's free to look around inside, and unless rocks get you all hot and bothered, it's worth about a five minute browse.

If you make it past the midget bison you can...

...see all these rocks and such

The central building is a gift shop that serves as the start of the ice cave tour.

In true tourist trap fashion, the shop has all kinds of trinkets, knickknacks, and doodads of dubious quality, most of which were probably made by six-year-olds in a Chinese sweatshop. If you're looking to score a cheap knife with a wolf on the handle (and what red-blooded American isn't?), they've got you covered. They'll also be happy to sell you a souvenir hat, shot glass, toe ring, key ring, t-shirt, figurine, plate, basket, necklace, dream catcher, or set of wind chimes.

You can live the American Dream in here

Even if you can withstand the urge to buy any of the aforementioned stuff, they're still going to get your money. That's because you still have to buy a ticket to go on the tour. All I can say is, get ready for the sticker shock. If you think you might feel a little uneasy paying $8 per adult to take the cave tour, you're not alone. But take heart -- if your kids are between 4 and 12, it's only $5. Even better, kids 3 and under get in free. The guided tour is your only option because they won't let you explore the cave on your own, no matter how skilled a spelunker you might be. Also be aware that you might have to wait awhile for the tour to start, as they have a tendency to wait until a whole passel of folks show up and plop down their money. I had to wait about 25 minutes, which gave me ample time to look at all the kitsch I already mentioned.

They perfect Christmas gift for your redneck relatives

I should also mention that a fleece pullover or other light jacket is a good idea for the tour. After all, if there's ice in the cave that means it's 32° or below, which is cold enough to give even the most cantankerous old grandpa a set of hard nips. If you don't have a jacket handy, there are a couple boxes of cheap sweatshirts in the gift shop, and I'm pretty sure you can borrow one for the tour. Don't pay any attention to the fact that the sweatshirts look as if they were made by the same children who make all of the other stuff in the gift shop, and that they might have been worn many times by people of questionable hygiene.

Yet more natives

The tour starts right out the back door of the gift shop. A trail winds around the rim of an ancient collapsed lava tube before descending into a rocky bowl. Along the way, your tour guide will provide historical information and other tidbits about the area. As you go down a staircase into the rocky bowl, you'll notice the temperature start to drop. By my estimation, the temperature on the rim during our tour was about 90° and the temp at the bottom of the bowl was in the 50s. At the end of the stairs, you'll see a bunch of boulders and a wooden door with a "No Smoking" sign on it. Behind that door is what you paid good money to see.

Remember, no smoking

After flipping on the lights to the cave, your guide leads you through the door and down some stairs until you get to the wooden walkway that was constructed throughout the length of the cave, which is about 1700 feet. Notice the nearby thermometer, which reads 29°. Yep, it's cold.

As the guide leads you through the cave on the wooden walkway, he or she explains how the ice cave came to be, as well as how it was ruined and regained. To sum up, the cave is an old lava tube that was completely sealed on one end and mostly sealed on the other, mostly due to earthquakes. A boy found a small cave opening in the 1880s, supposedly while he was searching for a lost goat. After the boy told his father, they went back to investigate and found the cave was full of ice. In true entrepreneurial spirit, they then began hauling blocks of ice off to sell in Shoshone so the saloons could have ice cold beer in the summer and cherry snow cones year round. In the 1930s, a few overzealous dudes decided to use some explosives here and there to widen the cave entrance so it would be easier to get in and out. However, when they did this, they ruined the very delicate airflow pattern that allowed the cave to collect water and freeze it, all while the cave temperature stayed at a suitably cold temperature year round. The end result was that all the ice was gone by the 1940s and the cave became a dumping ground and a place for high school students to booze it up and participate in unplanned parenthood.

In the early 60s, however, a man named Russell Robinson decided to rehabilitate the cave and get it back to its original state. By closing off the end of the cave that had been blasted open, he was able to play around with the airflow until the magic was recreated and the ice began to reform. The result is what you see today: a cold cave with an ice floor. On top of the ice floor is a layer of water. How much water depends on the season, with spring seeing the most rainwater and groundwater seeping into the cave. These days they actually pump a certain amount of water out each year before it freezes, otherwise the cave would keep filling with ice and be completely full again in about 25 years or so.

The cave itself isn't that long (about three city blocks), and you'll only be in it for about 20 minutes or so. As you walk along, the guide will enlighten the group with various facts about the cave, pointing out interesting features when you go by them. The walkway takes a couple turns and then dead ends at a big pile of boulders. At this point there's a platform where the entire group can stand, and the guide might demonstrate that the ice is indeed solid by stepping off onto it. According to different sources, the ice on the floor of the cave is from 15 to 25 feet deep.

At this point you turn around and retrace your steps, exiting where you came into the cave. You'll then walk back along the other side of the collapsed lava tube until you get to the gift shop, filled with a sense of pride that you have just seen the lowest elevation ice cave in the world that has ice year round. I was going to leave it up to you to decide whether that's worth eight bucks, but that would be taking the easy way out. With that in mind, I can say that it's probably worth the money, considering how rare ice caves are. However, if they had some ice-cold beer down there, it would be worth the price of admission and then some. They should look into that.

Destination: Shoshone Ice Cave
Where: 134 miles east of Boise. Take I-84 East to the Bliss exit, then take US-26 East to Shoshone. Head north on ID-75 for 16 miles and look for the big sign on the left.

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Hours: May-Sept, 8am to 7:15pm
Cost: Cave tour: $8 for adults; $5 for kids 4-12
Hard nipples: Included
Fun fact: During the winter, you could totally play ice hockey in the cave.