DRIGGS | IDAHO
Howdy, ya’ll! After a few weeks of “time off” to move the wall, take care of some biz-ness, and finish getting vaccinated (!!!) we are BACK and *super* stoked to get these wheels rollin’ along again!
This week, we’re heading to one of my favorite mountain ranges in the U.S.- the majestic Tetons. Though their cheeky name comes from a Frenchman (you can look up that meaning on your own, if you’re so inclined,) today we’re exploring a small town named after a prominent American colonial family. Of course, I’m talking about Driggs, Idaho- the small-town gem of Teton Valley.
Though the Valley was “discovered” by John Coulter in 1808 (as a member of the Lewis & Clark expedition), archaeological evidence shows humans first entered the area after Ice Age glaciers receded some 15,000 years ago. In fact, before Coulter stumbled into the Valley it had already been intermittently occupied by the nomadic Eastern Shoshone and Shoshone-Bannock tribes for centuries, at minimum.
Driggs may be one of the smallest towns on our list so far with under 2,000 local residents, however, the area typically hosts more than 4 million tourists annually (thanks a lot COVID.) The Valley hasn’t always been a vacation destination, however. Driggs was initially established to support surrounding potato farms- this part of the valley has fertile ground thanks to the headwaters of the Teton River. As winter sports gained popularity and travel became easier, Driggs became a convenient hub for the tourists seeking adventure in the mountain pass. This brings us to our first notable feature of the town...
This Town in History: World’s First Geotourism Center
Driggs may be a small town, but its impact on the modern history of tourism is anything but insignificant. This cozy Idaho locale is home to the world’s first intentional Geotourism Center. This type of Welcome Center rapidly gained popularity, and was copied across the country quickly- but what exactly is “geotourism” anyway?
National Geographic coined the term, and by their definition, it is “tourism that sustains or enhances the geographical character of a place—its environment, culture, aesthetics, heritage, and the well-being of its residents.” It is considered the “best practice” form of tourism, as it respects and preserves the history, nature, wildlife, and well-being of locals above all else while welcoming visitors with open arms. This thoughtful type of development protects the area’s sense-of-place, for the benefit of residents and tourists alike.
As the world’s first center built with the tenets of geotourism in mind, this design was a concerted effort between National Geographic, the City of Driggs, local subject-specialists, and the design team at Studio Tectonic. The result of their collaboration is a 3,000 sq. ft. free-to-the-public center filled with interactive exhibits, curated local art and historical artifacts, visitor information, and resources to help tourists “live like a local” while in the area.
As someone who aims to be a thoughtful traveler, I was pleasantly surprised to find there’s a term to describe this kind of tourism more specifically. Moreso, I have been to many similar centers in my travels that I now see were obviously influenced by this ideology. How exciting to find that such a major travel-related trend began right here, in this little Teton Valley-town!
Natural Beauty: Grand Teton National Park
Of course, one of the major factors that makes Driggs a prime location for such a center is its placement smack dab in the middle of the Teton Valley, surrounded by one of the most picturesque mountain ranges in the country.
Though humans have been in the valley for at least 11,000 years, the establishment of Grand Teton National Park is relatively recent by comparison. It grew slowly over two entire decades, which was a much more complex development compared to that of nearby Yellowstone National Park. It took an act of Congress (1929), a presidential proclamation by FDR (1943), and a donation of 35,000 acres by John D. Rockefeller (1950) to accumulate the 310,000 acres incorporated in the park today. The park itself crosses the border between Northwestern Wyoming and Southeastern Idaho (where Driggs is located.)
With that kind of acreage, this park certainly doesn’t disappoint! Aside from breathtaking views of the youngest range in the Rockies, Grand Teton National Park also boasts over 200 miles of trails- with routes suitable for casual and experienced hikers alike. If you’re looking for a calmer pastime, in warm months locals and visitors flock to Snake River to float along and enjoy some peace and quiet. You might just spot some wildlife too! Moose, bison, elk, and black-tailed deer are commonly spotted in the park, and there have also been sightings of mountain lions, wolves, and bears (though they are rarer.)
If you’re strapped for time, luckily enough Driggs is the starting point for the Teton Scenic Byway. If you can’t afford the full mountain experience, this is one sure way to at least catch some stunning vistas of the surrounding peaks. Such beautiful vistas may be the main draw for tourism to the area, but they certainly aren’t all it has to offer...
Community Event: DRIGGS SNOWSCAPES
Driggs might be best known for its geotourism and placement near the Tetons, but let’s not forget the unique personality the locals inject into this community. One trademark event for the town is the annual Snowscapes festival, where snow sculpting teams compete head-to-head to create unbelievable work out of an abundant, natural, local resource! As someone who only *just* witnessed snowfall for the first time, I have to say the skill it takes to build these things is downright baffling to me.
Snowscapes has been held in Driggs every January for the past ten years as a way to keep Downtown commerce buzzing after the holiday rush. Luckily, they were even able to host a modified, collaborative version of the event this year! However, typically the event is a competition between 8-10 small local teams to see who is the most masterful snow sculptor of the season. Apparently, the typical annual competition used around 30+ TONS of snow, packed into dense cubes to be sculpted in reverse. Sounds like some good (cold) fun to me! Here’s hoping they can return to the full version of the event in 2022, and that I can make it out there to see just how they do it one of these next few years.
Must-Sips: Grand Teton Distillery
One surefire way to warm up after a snowy day is a nightcap by the fire, and this is another opportunity to support a business right here in Driggs! The Grand Teton Distillery was established in the town in 2011, and it uses mountain snow and Idaho potatoes to distill some of the best vodka around- made entirely from local resources.
In addition to their highly-praised vodka, the distillery also produces an award-winning bourbon and several types of whiskey, always focusing on sustainable practices and regionally sourced ingredients. In non-COVID times, the facility hosts tours and even workshops teaching the distilling process! We’d toast to Grand Teton’s continued success, and the someday-return of these offerings, any day of the week.
As one of the smallest communities featured on our list to date, Driggs, Idaho is a tiny dot on the map compared to the geographic giants that surround it. However, this small town’s vision for respectful tourism, well-loved hometown traditions, and responsible small businesses have certainly made it a destination in its own right. The next time the mountains are calling, it would be foolish not to spend a little time here in the valley before you “must go.”
“I think probably one of the important things that happened to me was growing up in Idaho in the mountains, in the woods, and having a very strong presence of the wilderness around me. That never felt like emptiness. It always felt like presence.” - Author Marilynne Robinson