10 reasons to add Idaho to your travel bucket list
Laid end-to-end across the U.S., Idaho’s 3,100 miles of navigable whitewater would easily stretch from the East Coast to the West. That’s more ridiculously-fun stretches of river to paddle through than anywhere else in the lower 48. The state’s wide range of whitewater—from gentler Class I-II rapids to adrenaline-pumping rollercoaster rides—ensures nearly everyone can experience the thrill of whitewater rafting or kayaking on a guided trip.
Navigate non-stop Class III-IV rapids on a multiday rafting-camping expedition on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Considered a world’s-best whitewater excursion, the Middle Fork twists and turns through its glacier-carved canyon, treating rafters to a wild ride and views of wildlife, waterfalls, and wildflowers. For a remote wilderness rafting and fishing experience, tackle the Main Salmon, or “River of No Return,” the longest free-flowing river in the contiguous U.S. Explore stunning Hells Canyon, North America’s deepest river gorge, on a scenic single- or multiday-run on the Snake River. For a three-hour, splash-and-float trip with the kids, ride the family-friendly rapids on the Main Payette River north of Boise.
Home to more than 2,000 named lakes, Idaho is brimming with opportunities for recreation on, in, and near the water. The state’s largest lake, 43-mile-long Pend Oreille in northern Idaho, is fifth-deepest in the United States, plunging down over 1,110 feet at its lowest point. An amazing diversity of catchable fish species, including landlocked kokanee salmon and trophy-sized Kamloops rainbow trout, draws anglers to Pend Oreille’s crystal-clear waters. Explore massive lake by camping or launching a boat on the south end at Farragut State Park, former site of a World War II-era naval training base.
In the state’s southeastern corner, Bear Lake, nicknamed “Caribbean of the Rockies” for its aquamarine water, combines world-class fishing and a wide array of water sports. Swim, rent stand-up paddleboards, and, when winter conditions are right, ice fish for Bonneville cisco—one of four fish species found nowhere else on the planet—at Bear Lake State Park. Southwestern Idaho’s Payette Lake is a glistening, glacial-carved stunner surrounded by mountain vistas. To soak in the scenery, take a cruise or go hiking in Ponderosa State Park, perched on the 1,000-acre peninsula jutting into the lake.
In a world where truly wild places are hard to find, Idaho is a welcome exception. The state’s 4.7 million acres of designated wilderness includes the largest unbroken wilderness in the lower 48, the 2.3-million-acre Frank Church—River of No Return Wilderness (FCRNRW). Over 1.5 million acres of this wildly scenic backcountry are trail-less, making it possible for seasoned outdoor enthusiasts to truly get away from it all. Guided pack, float, and jet boat trips give all visitors opportunities to experience the wonder of this unspoiled and irreplaceable place. For an easy day hike, try the Marsh Creek Trail.
Bordering the FCRNRW is the rugged Gospel-Hump Wilderness, whose namesake granite summits separate the thickly forested northern section from the sparsely vegetated south. Backpackers equipped to handle rough terrain and dramatic elevation changes are rewarded with astonishing mountain, canyon, and alpine lake views. Arguably, the crown jewel in Idaho’s wilderness collection is Sawtooth National Recreation Area, named for its razor-edged peaks, 40 topping 10,000 feet. With 700 miles of trails and more than 300 high mountain lakes, Sawtooth is a playground for wilderness adventures like mountain biking, boating, hiking, and camping.
Thanks to a wealth of unspoiled natural areas, Idaho is home to all manner of wild things from the tiny Mountain Chickadee to the mighty Grizzly bear. During spring and fall migration season the state also welcomes an impressive array of visiting birds—some numbering in the thousands—such as the tundra swan, snow geese, and sandhill crane. See wildlife in any corner of the state by following a portion of the 250-stop Idaho Birding Trail.
In the southeast, watch for moose and mule deer at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which, each spring, hosts the world’s largest nesting population of greater sandhill cranes. In the northern panhandle, migration season brings some 40,000 birds to Kootenai National Wildlife Refuge, where you’re also likely to spot moose, white-tailed deer, and, in fall and winter, Rocky Mountain Elk. In spring, North America’s greatest concentration of nesting raptors—eagles, falcons, hawks, and owls—gathers in Morely Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area (NCA). Extending across the Snake River canyon and the surrounding bench lands, the NCA is one of the world’s best places to watch soaring, gliding, and diving wild raptors.
Idaho’s historic fire lookouts elevate the typical camping experience to extraordinary new heights. Perched on towers above the trees or atop rocky summits, these mainly one-room cabins formerly housed fire spotters—eagle-eyed Forest Service personnel who scanned the land for smoke plumes, flames, and lightning strikes. Following the advent of satellite and other advanced fire detection technologies, nearly a dozen of the state’s fire lookouts were repurposed as rustic campsites that can be booked online. Some lookouts are drive-up, others hike-in, and all offer uninterrupted views of the sunrise, sunset, and surrounding wilderness.
Surveyors Lookout, named for the 6,000-foot ridge it sits atop, is a 30-foot tower overlooking the magnificent Mallard Larkins Pioneer Area of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. The drive-up lookout sleeps up to four adults and has better-than-barebones amenities, such as mattresses, lights, and a propane cook stove. High-clearance vehicles are recommended to reach many of drive-up towers, including Deer Ridge Lookout in the Lower Kootenai River Area of the Idaho Panhandle National Forests and Lookout Butte in the Nez-Perce Clearwater National Forests. Both lookouts are best described as climb-ups since the base-to-beds trip requires carrying your gear up a steep staircase.
Beginning in the mid-1800s, the lure of gold and opportunities to work as sheepherders drew Basques from their homeland, Euskal Herria (a region between France and Spain), to central Idaho. Today, Idaho still reigns as the nation’s unofficial Basque Country, with the largest population of Basque Americans making their home here. On the historic Basque Block in downtown Boise, visitors can tour the small Basque Museum and Culture Center before trying traditional Basque dishes, such as spicy txorizo (sausage seasoned with piment d’ezpelette, a slightly smoky chili powder), at nearby Leku Ona.
Basque heritage is also celebrated at two only-in-Idaho festivals. Held each October, the Trailing of the Sheep Festival in the mountain towns of Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley, marks the annual migration to winter pastures. Some 1,500 sheep process down Ketchum’s Main Street in a Sunday parade. There’s also Basque music and dancing, a Folklife Fair, and other sheep-centric activities. One of the world’s largest Basque festivals, Jaialdi, is staged in Boise every five years. The six-day, all-things-Basque party features feats of strength, daring acrobatic stunts, and, of course, Basque dishes, songs, and dancing.
Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route
Powerful geologic forces created one of Idaho’s hottest natural wonders: geothermally heated springs. Thanks to colliding tectonic plates, the state has some 130 hot springs suitable for soaking. Fifty of these percolating pools—ranging from riverbank to spa-style—are featured on the Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route. The rugged 517-mile loop through central Idaho mainly follows gravel and dirt Forest Service roads. Late June to late July—after the high-elevation spring snow melt and before wildfire season—is generally prime time to ride. No matter the month, riding with a buddy or two is recommended due to the backcountry conditions and steep, rough downhills.
Experienced bike-packers can complete the entire route, which includes 37,000 feet of climbing, in about 10 days. Mere mortal mountain bikers can tackle a small segment over a weekend and still enjoy the payoffs: spectacular views of the Salmon River and Sawtooth mountains, glimpses of ghost towns, wildlife sightings, relaxing soaks in soothing hot springs. Free pack in, pack out camping is available on national forest land along the route. For a resort-style soak, treat sore feet and muscles to The Springs in Idaho City.
Dazzling celestial wonders are regular sights in the clear, dark night skies above Idaho. A wealth of wild spaces and low light pollution create ideal conditions for viewing constellations, planets, meteors, the Moon, and even our home galaxy—the Milky Way—which nearly 80 percent of North Americans cannot see. Stargazing in the state can be as simple as standing or camping out under the stars and looking skyward, with or without binoculars. Or, you can participate in guided activities, such as full-moon and night hikes, to locate and learn about the amazing objects visible in the night sky.
To stop at multiple, designated dark sky viewing sites, follow Idaho 75 from Ketchum, Idaho’s first International Dark Sky Community, north to Stanley. The 61-mile-route winds through the heart of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, the nation’s first International Dark Sky Reserve. Each spring and fall, the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society hosts a Star Party—complete with astronomer tips and telescopes to use—at Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, an International Dark Sky Park. Rangers also lead full-moon hikes in summer, and when conditions permit, it’s also possible to experience the jaw-dropping awe of seeing the Northern Lights in northern Idaho when conditions are right.
Waves of vibrant wildflowers wash over Idaho meadows, mountain slopes, and high desert landscape from spring to early summer. Catching the color bursts takes planning and a little luck, since nature dictates blooming dates. But, as long as you know when and where to look, you’re more likely to see a bouquet of Idaho’s best blossoms. For wildflower aficionados, the bucket-list bloom of the bunch is Christ’s Indian Paintbrush. The yellow-flowered perennial is found in only one place on the planet: the grassy meadows on the crest and slope of 9,625-foot Mount Harrison in the Sawtooth National Forest.
The flowers of the Idaho trillium plant, called Wake-Robin since it regularly blooms when robins return, launch an evolving color show in early spring. Initially white, the petals turn pink, then rose-hued over time. Look for trillium along streambanks and in wooded areas in the Idaho Panhandle National Forests. Late May to June, camas lilies typically paint the landscape purple at Camas Prairie Centennial Marsh Wildlife Management Area in southwest Idaho. To see clusters of waxy, white syringa blooms, Idaho’s state flower, take a spring hike along the streambanks and through canyons in the Boise National Forest.
Idaho is nature-made for road trips. It’s no wonder then that the state has 31 routes designated as Scenic Byways. In addition to the awe-inspiring views, these routes serve as roadmaps through the human history of Idaho. Many of the drives follow routes taken by indigenous peoples, early settlers, and explorers, such as the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery. The Northwest Passage Scenic Byway, an All American Road, meanders 202 miles across the panhandle region, paralleling the historic path the Corps took through ancestral Nez Perce territory. Among the multiple must-stops is Heart of the Monster, sacred ground for the Nez Perce.
In eastern Idaho’s high country, drive the 132-mile Sacajawea Historic Byway, named for the heroic Shoshone naturalist, translator, and ambassador who accompanied Lewis and Clark. Memorial Day to Labor Day, visit the 71-acre Sacajawea Interpretive, Cultural & Educational Center to learn about Agaidika Shoshone-Bannock people and wander scenic walking trails. The Sacajawea route intersects with the 162-mile Salmon River Scenic Byway, which follows the Salmon River through rugged backcountry. Glimpse the area’s frontier mining past in the sister gold-rush ghost towns of Custer and Bonanza, part of Land of the Yankee Fork State Park.