In south-central Idaho’s Magic Valley, Burley is a small town with a world of outdoor activities on its doorstep.
First off the Snake River, famous for its waterfalls and forbidding canyons, is unusually gentle in Burley.
The calm waters are perfect for water sports like kayaking and paddleboarding, while Burley hosts an important regatta and an annual triathlon on the river.
The city is also an easy drive from one of Idaho’s favorite ski areas, gorgeous lakes wrapped in forest, the geological wonders of City of Rocks and some of the Snake River’s most dramatic stretches, a short way downstream.
1. City of Rocks National Reserve
Burley is as close as any major settlement to a spectacular geological area, found a couple of miles north of the Utah state line.
The aptly named City of Rocks is a magical landscape of granite spires and monoliths, some rising as high as 600 feet.
The name was coined in 1849 by emigrant James F. Wilkens, who was one of hundreds of thousands of people to pass through the park on the California Trail from the 1840s to 1882.
The oldest of these spellbinding formations are thought to date back more than 2.5 billion years, making them some of the oldest rocks in the United States. Hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers have many miles of trails to explore.
But City of Rocks is world-renowned in the climbing community, with as many as 1,000 traditional and bolt-protected routes shooting up these imposing granite walls.
2. Water Activities
The Snake River at Burley is broad, smooth and slow flowing, so there are few better locations along this mighty watercourse for water activities.
The local go-to for equipment is Idaho Sports, which has been in business for more than three decades.
Head here for half-day and full-day rentals on kayaks (single and tandem) and paddleboards, but also pontoon boats, inboard power boats and gear like water skis, wakeboards and wakesurf boards.
The company is known for its customer service, giving you tips on the best areas and taking time to help you get accustomed to your equipment.
3. Cassia County Historical Museum
There’s more than 200 years of European history in Cassia County, as well as centuries of Native American history before that.
The county historical museum opened on the east side of town in 1972 and documents the area’s past with displays of agricultural tools, Native American artefacts, fossils, period clothing, household objects, copies of local newspapers and much more,
Included in the collections are two antique railcars, one of which is claimed to have held the body of none other than John Wilkes Booth.
Also on the site are three outbuildings loaded with historic horse drawn farming equipment from nearby farms.
4. Storybook Park
On the western side of downtown Burley is a delightful urban park, with an ample grassy space shaded by lofty softwood and deciduous trees.
Storybook Park is just the place if you want to idle with a picnic or a book on a warm day. Being so close to the heart of Burley, you could pick up something from a cafe, bakery or restaurant and bring it here.
The park’s best bit is in the southeastern corner where there’s a super fenced playground with castle towers looking like something out of a fairytale.
This all came about in the early 2000s after a fundraising campaign by local residents, and ideas from Burley’s children were implemented into the design.
5. River’s Edge Golf Course
Burley has a sensational public course right on the riverbank within five minutes of downtown. This 18-hole par 72 was landscaped in 1935 and has bent-grass greens and tall, mature trees lining its fairways.
Even for a public course the green fees at River’s Edge are inexpensive, and a private lesson with the course PGA pro will come to less than $50.
To close off a round the River Grill at the newly upgraded clubhouse has a menu of hot and cold sandwiches and burgers.
Finally, the course has a marina on the Snake River, an ideal embarkation point for boating and fishing, as well as the hub for the annual Idaho Regatta, which we’ll talk about later.
6. Milner Historic Recreation Area
Just down the Snake River from Burley proper you can visit a scenic and historically significant stretch.
Couched in a sagebrush landscape and encompassing basalt cliffs, what is now the Milner Historic Recreation Area was on the Oregon Trail more than 150 years ago.
There are tantalizing traces from that time in the form of deep ruts made by decades of wagons.
You can visit the ruts along an interpretive trail, beginning at a shelter with information boards. Waterfowl and songbirds abound in this environment, while the area is also fishing heaven, with plentiful yellow perch, bass, trout and channel catfish.
7. Pomerelle Mountain Resort
At Burley, the Snake River Plain is walled to the southeast by the vast peaks of the Albion Mountains.
So, at the drop of a hat in winter you can head up to the mountains for some skiing and snowboarding.
Pomerelle has the distinction of being one of the oldest ski areas in the United States, welcoming winter sports enthusiasts since 1940.
With a maximum elevation of 8,762 feet this is a snow sure mountain comprising a lot of forest, and with fresh layers of powder throughout the season.
Pomerelle is a smallish resort but still has 24 perfectly groomed runs, mostly weighted towards beginner and intermediate skiers.
An efficient lift system, with a triple chair, double chair and magic carpet, cuts queue times, while snow sports lessons are available seven days a week all winter long.
8. Lake Walcott State Park
Not far up the Snake River from Burley is an 11,000-acre reservoir impounded at the start of the 20th century to create farmland on the dry Snake River Plain.
Here on the western shore, close to the Minidoka Dam, you’ll find a lovely recreation area in a swath of greenery bordering Idaho’s high desert.
Lake Walcott State Park has a variety of campsites for RVs, tents or cabins, as well as excellent fishing spots, a famous 21-hole disc golf course and a shaded day-use area for picnics.
The lake is encompassed by the Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge and the 80 miles of shoreline are a haven for several species of waterfowl and the American white pelican. So the state park can also be a gateway to a wonderful afternoon of birdwatching.
9. Cauldron Linn
At Cauldron Linn the Snake River roars down a set of falls and into a rocky channel of whitewater just 40 feet across.
In 1811 while traveling from Missouri to what is now Astoria, Oregon, the Wilson Price Hunt party encountered Cauldron Linn as they navigated the Snake River.
This perilous feature forced the pioneers back on land, and a member of the party was lost to the river in this area.
Cauldron Linn isn’t too different now, with no signs of civilization within the craggy canyon walls and no barrier between you and the furious river below.
10. Haunted Mansions of Albion
Southeast of Burley, Albion is a city of little more than 200, but with a history that can be traced back to 1875.
It is one of the few settlements in the Magic Valley region that has been around since the 19th century, and in its early days was the Cassia County seat, a status now held by Burley.
So Albion is the kind of place where you can expect to find a building like the old Albion Normal School, built in 1893 and abandoned in 1969.
These creepy halls and corridors have held the fascination of ghost hunters for decades, and during Halloween season it becomes a giant haunted house with all kinds of imaginative spooky installations.
11. Lake Cleveland
If you’re exploring the Albion Mountains in the summer there’s a place of incredible natural beauty on the winding road past Pomerelle Mountain Resort.
Due to snow drifts, Lake Cleveland, which sits at an elevation of 8,300 feet is only accessible July to October. During this window you can come to camp, go fishing, hike and swim in the lake’s clear waters.
The views are fantastic, with Mount Harrison (9,240 ft) looming to the south, its lower slopes covered in wildflower meadows and pine forest.
You can camp here on a first-come first-served basis, and there are 19 sites across two different campgrounds (west and east).
Pomerelle Mountain Resort, five minutes away, is open in summer for scenic chairlift rides to the top of the mountain for a view that extends 50 miles over the Magic Valley and beyond.
12. King Fine Arts Center
In 1999, thanks to a sizable donation from the local businessman Herman King, Burley High School opened a multidisciplinary arts center that wouldn’t look out of place at a major university.
This multimillion-dollar facility has been updated in the last few years, and, as well as staging school productions, is also a vital community venue.
The main auditorium has a capacity of 1,300 and is the seat for the Magic Philharmonic Orchestra, also hosting runs of beloved Broadway musicals. More intimate shows take place in the center’s Little Theatre, a studio stage.
13. Idaho Regatta
Wild and forbidding in other parts of Idaho, the Snake River in Burley is broad and calm enough for a major boat racing event at the end of June.
The Idaho Regatta is all about motorized action on the water, with races for diverse categories of vessels that can hit speeds of 125 mph.
The event gets underway on the Friday morning with a boat parade, and the heats and finals are all run on the Saturday, while Sunday is set aside for a banquet and awards ceremony.
Throughout the weekend there will be vendors, great food and all kinds of activities for families.
14. Spudman Triathlon
Another advantage to having a big sheet of gentle water in Burley is that you can put on events like the Spudman Triathlon.
A grueling test of endurance attracting hundreds of participants each year, this triathlon entails a 1.5K swim in the river, a 40K bike ride and a 10K run in the beautiful countryside around Burley.
Organized by the Burley Lions Club and taking place at the end of July, the Spudman Triathlon has been going for more than 35 years and like the regatta is based at the boat docks.
15. Twin Falls
Forty miles west, the Snake River, so placid in Burley becomes a raging torrent. At Twin Falls the river canyon sinks as low as 500 feet, and powers over two awe-inspiring waterfalls.
Upriver is Shoshone Falls, billed as the “Niagara of the West” and living up to this description in the spring months when there’s a long curtain of roaring whitewater, 212 feet tall.
A little way east you’ll find Pillar Falls, with multiple channels divided by powerful rhyolite pillars.
Twin Falls is also famed for the Perrine Bridge, offering glorious views of the immensity of the canyon, but also one of the few man-made structures where BASE jumping is allowed without a permit, all year round.
You can hike along the rim of the canyon for several miles and head over to the north bank where crystal clear springs have cut their way through the basalt to reach the Snake River.