In Southeastern Idaho’s Cache Valley, Preston is a rural town with astounding mountain scenery on its doorstep.
On the eastern flank are the Bear River Mountains, and in a few minutes flat you can be fishing at a crystal clear lake or hiking in an alpine meadow.
Franklin, Idaho’s oldest European settlement is on Preston’s outskirts and is a starting point for an historic byway, connecting a long chain of sites relating to the region’s Native American past, pioneer days and the Oregon Trail, which passed by the Cache Valley to the north.
As the Franklin County Seat, Preston hosts some major events at the fairground on the west side of town, and none are bigger than That Famous Preston Night Rodeo, which is celebrated with three days of carnival amusements and parades.
1. Pioneer Historic Byway
Mixing glorious natural scenery with compelling history, this driving route follows the paths taken by the region’s earliest European visitors in the first decades of the 19th century.
Aptly the Pioneer Historic Byway begins in the village of Franklin, Idaho’s earliest permanent European-American settlement, before heading on a rough northeasterly bearing through awe-inspiring terrain.
Begin with a look around the Franklin Historic District, and on your journey you’ll discover the Bear River Massacre Site (more next), the vestiges of Idaho’s earliest grist mill, genuine wheel ruts on the Oregon Trail, a Mormon ghost town and almost constant majestic natural scenery.
The byway passes no fewer than ten reservoirs for camping and fishing interludes, but will take around 2.5 hours to complete without stopping.
2. Bear River Massacre Site
On January 29, 1863 the worst single massacre of Native Americans in the history of the West took place a few miles northwest of what is now downtown Preston.
Pushed from their traditional lands, the Shoshone Indians led by chief Bear Hunter had resorted to conducting raids and attacks on settlers. In response, a detachment of California Volunteers from Fort Douglas (Salt Lake City) was sent north to deal with this threat.
The resulting event was initially remembered as a victory for the United States Army, but is now considered a massacre in which as many as 400 men, women and children were surprised and slaughtered.
There’s a memorial with a picnic area right next to Route 91, but the Shoshone tribe has recently purchased 600 acres of land at the site and plans to establish a cultural interpretive center here.
3. Napoleon Dynamite Filming Locations
The cult 2004 comedy Napoleon Dynamite is a snapshot of growing up in southeast Idaho.
There’s talk of Shoshone arrowheads and catching bass, while Napoleon takes part in an FFA event at the county fair and Grandma Dynamite even goes on an ATV ride in the St. Anthony sand dunes.
But Preston was the main filming location, and spots like Preston High School and numerous stores downtown make repeated appearances.
If you want to retrace the movie’s steps you can locate Napoleon, Trish, Pedro and Summer’s house, and maybe grab some tots and a Napoleon Dynamite t-shirt downtown.
4. Preston Park
Preston’s main urban park is right next door to the Franklin County Fairgrounds, and has a wide array of family facilities.
A favorite when the mercury rises in summer is the splash pad, typically open from the beginning to mid-September.
This is a treasured local amenity for young families, opened in 2016 and with all kinds of sprays and jets.
Also here are two playgrounds for kids, a skate park, ample open space, as well as facilities for baseball, soccer, basketball and tennis. And if you’d like to take a picnic here in summer you’ll find pretty boweries equipped with tables.
5. Franklin Relic Hall
Southeast of Preston, the village of Franklin is the oldest permanent Euro-American settlement in Idaho, having been founded in 1860.
The Franklin Relic Hall in Franklin dates back to 1937 and the purpose-built venue for the museum was designed to evoke the log cabins from the village’s earliest days.
Aside from being updated with the help of contemporary research, the exhibits here have hardly changed since the 1930s and include 19th-century photographs of settlers, farm tools, Native American artifacts and riveting historical objects like a Yellowstone Park Touring Stagecoach.
Check out the Relic Hall’s accompanying buildings like the Franklin Cooperative Mercantile Institute and a replica of the fort that gave birth to the village.
6. Glendale Reservoir
Little more than ten minutes out of Preston, Glendale Reservoir is in a lovely setting, framed by the tall rolling foothills of the Bear River Mountains, and with a green, wooded shoreline.
Glendale Reservoir covers around 240 acres when full and is a prime fishing destination in the Preston area for its plentiful rainbow trout, largemouth bass, bluegill, yellow perch and white crappie (size and bag limits apply).
You’ll find plenty of shore access under the trees, as well as docks and a boat launch. No surprise given its picturesque setting, but the reservoir is also a summer day out for local families, who visit for swimming, boating and all sorts of water activities.
7. Oneida Narrows Reservoir
A place of breathtaking natural beauty, the Oneida Narrows Reservoir is in a narrow and steep valley on the Bear River, about 15 miles northeast of Preston.
This is the ideal place for a weekend away from it all, with 12 developed campsites on the forested shoreline, complete with picnic tables, fire rings, boat ramps and docks.
You can drop a line in the reservoir for yellow perch, smallmouth bass and walleye, or just pass the days soaking up the impressive, rugged scenery.
Downriver, the Oneida Dam is the starting point for rafting and tubing trips down the Bear River. The six-mile run here is thrilling without requiring advanced rafting skills, and is a fine way to escape the summer heat.
8. Oneida Stake Academy
At the northeast corner of Preston Community Park (Benson Park) is a wonderful piece of early Preston history.
This handsome three-story stone building was constructed in the early 1890s by Mormon pioneers as a secondary school and is one of just three surviving buildings (out of 35) from the time of childhood education sponsored by the Mormon Church.
Some of the important alumni at the Oneida Stake Academy were Ezra Taft Benson (1899-1994) and Harold B. Lee (1899-1973) both of whom became presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The building used to be found at Preston High School but in 2004 was moved stone by stone to its present location.
9. Willow Flat Springs Trail
The call of the Bear River Mountains to the east will be difficult to resist. In a matter of minutes you can be hiking in romantic upland scenery, surrounded by wildflower meadows, soaring peaks and giant conifers.
The Willow Flat Campground, at an elevation of 6,300 feet, can be the first step on an unforgettable mountain walk.
There’s a 4.7-mile, there and back trail here, following the course of the Cub River and leading you to the gorgeous Bloomington Lake.
This alpine lake is encircled by walls of sheer rock, giving way to boulder-strewn green slopes that are embroidered with wildflowers in early summer.
10. Preston Golf and Country Club
Despite the exclusive-sounding name, this semi-private 18-hole golf course at the north end of the Cache Valley accepts guests.
The front nine here was laid out in 1960, while the back nine followed in 1999. Both have distinctive characters, with the opening nine holes lined with mature trees and featuring small greens, whereas the back nine is more open, challenging players with its numerous hazards.
One of several draws for Preston Golf and Country Club is the magnificent scenery, with the Bear River Mountains rising to the east.
Green fees are famously reasonable at this course and the levels of service far exceed what you might expect from a small-town course.
11. Bear Lake
A scenic hour-long drive across the Bear River Range will bring you to this enormous, not to mention beautiful, freshwater lake, spanning the Idaho-Utah state line.
Bear Lake has earned the nickname “Caribbean of the Rockies” for its beguiling, clear turquoise waters.
And you can experience these at the fabulous North Beach State Park, where you can laze on the sandy shore spellbound by the scenery or rent kayaks or motorized vessels for an adventure on the water.
In the Bear Range high above Bear Lake you can visit the limestone Minnetonka Cave for a 90-minute guided walk through nine chambers bursting with stalagmites, stalactites and beautiful banded travertine.
12. That Famous Preston Night Rodeo
The premier annual event in Preston takes place in the newly renovated arena at the Franklin County Fairgrounds in late July or early August.
The curious name is an upshot of being the first rodeo to be held after dark, and during these three days there’s plenty going on both in the arena and around Preston.
When it comes to action you’ve got bull riding, bareback riding, saddle broncs, roping, steer wrestling, barrel racing and more.
Throughout the rodeo there’s a lively schedule of side events, like an amateur golf tournament, a sidewalk sale, and the “Rodeo Roundup”, with activities for kids.
Every evening at 6.30 Preston comes alive for the Rodeo Days Parade, and this is followed by a carnival with rides, shows and cotton candy.
13. Franklin County Fair
A few days after the big rodeo the fairgrounds in Preston host the annual county fair. This is usually a six-day event and is steeped in the county’s farming culture, with 4-H and FFA events, and all kinds of livestock displays.
These are accompanied by a world of fun for all the family, including live music, stand-up comedy, motocross, a ninja warrior competition, magic shows, fun contests, horse pulls, another rodeo, a car show and demolition derby.
As you would hope there’s also lots of delicious fair food, from fried dough to tacos.
14. Festival of Lights
Preston ushers in the holiday season in style, with a one-day event at the end of November loaded with activities and entertainment.
On the program at the Festival of Lights is a variety show at Preston High, a visit from Santa Claus on State Street, a fun bed race and a free kids’ movie at the Worm Creek Opera House.
This all culminates with the main event, which is a lighted parade, preceded by entertainment to warm up the crowd and followed by fireworks.
15. National Oregon/California Trail Center
A worthwhile detour when you’re in the Bear Lake area is this interpretive attraction, recreating the experience of cross-country emigrants in the middle of the 19th century.
The Oregon/California Trail entered modern Idaho in the state’s southeastern corner, heading northwest to get onto the flat terrain of the Snake River Valley.
The well-researched and creatively realized exhibit at the National Oregon Trail Center simulates a wagon train and has a host of interactive areas as well as genuine artifacts including chests, dolls, guns, an antique cash register and much more.
Docents dressed in period costume add color, with tales of hardship and adventure. You can also head out into the grounds to discover authentic wheel ruts carved out by wagons more than 170 years ago.