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Balanced Rock - A rhyolite wonder

Balanced Rock perches above the Salmon Falls Creek Canyon on a late afternoon in January.

CASTLEFORD — Many well-known places are often forgotten, and sometimes, we just need a reminder to visit them.

For this new resident in the Magic Valley, encountering Balanced Rock for the first time in the Salmon Falls Creek Canyon was both a stunning and a stilling experience that left me wondering just what the balance is between holding on and letting go.

Not to be confused with Balanced Rock in Arches National Park in Utah, the balanced rocks at Garden of the Gods in Colorado or Mexican Hat in Utah, this evolutionary wonder is one of south-central Idaho’s true pearls.

Driving there is a journey in itself. Just south of Buhl, near Castleford, Balanced Rock State Park is accessed from Highway 30. The 17 miles of wide open land along 3700 North were expansive and freeing on my sojourn.

Wide-open sky tantalizes the eye and the canyon walls narrow as dairy farms dot the horizon. Salmon Falls Creek runs through the belly of the box canyon, and snippets of passing clouds stream through the sky.

Castleford was named for a crossing of the creek, the ford itself used by early pioneers in the mid-19th century. The ford — a shallow place in a stream or river that offers solid footing — was named for the rhyolite obelisks near the stream, such as Balanced Rock.

The marvel itself is a stark surprise, looming just above the road to greet guests. Ghostly and humongous, the 40-ton rock feature perches gracefully on a wind-carved surface, a pedestal of rock measuring 40 feet wide at the top, and just three feet by 17 inches wide at its base.

More than 48 feet high, the rock looms nearly 200 feet above the canyon’s bottom, a good reminder of our tertiary nature as humans.

But it is more than this feature’s girth that begs a visit.

The surface is stunning and smooth. Sculpted with weathered time — 8 million years ago to be exact — from rhyolite lava left behind by numerous volcanic eruptions, the rock proudly stands. Much older than basalt — the standard type of lava rock in the Snake River Plain — rhyolite is an igneous rock with a high content of silica. Usually pink or grey in color, the material has a comparable mineralogical composition to granite.

While this sounds like a sturdy formula, rhyolite is rarely used in construction because the rock itself is heavily fractured. So just how does this rock continue to hold on?

Due to low gas content, rhyolite magma is different than typical lava formation in that it doesn’t explode from the earth’s surface; rather, it oozes. Lava flows can be hundreds of feet thick and can take many years to cool down. What results is highly viscous rock.

Visitors can hike up to the sturdy pillar and behind it through pastures of open land strewn with boulders and cairns to mark the path. Self-supported camping is allowed in the belly of the canyon along Salmon Falls Creek. Picnicking is allowed near the rock. And guests can fish the day away beneath the towering structure in the well-populated trout stream.

Don’t be deterred by the resonant sound of gunshots. It’s just the locals practicing their aim.

Whether you have inhabited the area for many years, or you are a fresh arrival, Balanced Rock is sure to whet your appetite for more outdoor excursions in the Magic Valley.

To get there, drive south on U.S. 30 — Thousand Springs Scenic Byway — from Twin Falls to Buhl. Follow signs to Balanced Rock.

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