When it comes to natural beauty in the U.S. West, Wyoming, Utah, and Arizona get top billing because of their famous national parks. But Idaho actually leads the pack in pure open space—more than two-thirds of the state is public land, and almost a tenth of its acreage is federally protected wilderness.
“Idaho has [among] the most public lands of any state in the nation,” notes Jared Hopkinson, longtime Idaho resident and owner of Rocky Mountain River Tours, a local adventure outfitter.
The best way to take in the high mountains, clear rivers, and rolling fields packed into all this space? Hit the open road on some of Idaho’s 30 scenic byways.
One of the best routes starts outside Boise on Highway 21, also known as the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway. Road-trippers pass old mining towns, inviting hot springs (central Idaho is full of them), and windy forest access roads that funnel into remote sections of wilderness. The route runs through the tiny historic town of Stanley, where it turns into the equally gorgeous—though more wooded—Highway 75, also known as the Sawtooth Scenic Byway. Finally, the route veers into Sun Valley, a springtime skiing haven and unlikely celebrity magnet. (Due to harsh winters, the best time to make the drive is May through September.)
In all, it takes about six hours to drive from Boise to Sun Valley, although you’ll want to budget a few days to really savor this scenery. You won’t be going through big cities or hitting blockbuster landmarks. Here are five essential stops along the Ponderosa Pine scenic byway in Idaho:
Back in its heyday, Idaho City, an hour north of Boise, was a thriving trading post for gold miners. Business was so good, in fact, that in the 1860s, the city outsized Portland, Oregon, as the largest in the northwest.
These days, Idaho City, with its creaky boardwalks and beautifully preserved wooden buildings, is one of the best examples of a functioning mining town from the 1800s—even the courthouse, constructed in 1871, is still in use.
It’s a pure treat to walk down Main Street, admiring the rusty mining cars repurposed as planters full of colorful flowers, and stopping at the old-fashioned toy store, Simply Fun, or the outlandish antique shop, BoCo Sluice Box. And don’t miss the handmade waffle cones at the Sarsaparilla Ice Cream Parlor.
Kirkham Hot Springs
Another hour up the highway is Kirkham Hot Springs, a collection of naturally formed, steaming geothermal pools next to the Payette River. Their crowning feature? A piping-hot waterfall, which splashes dramatically over the side of a rock.
Year-round, locals make a point of driving to Kirkham to stand under the cascade of 135-degree mineral water. If it gets too hot, you can always jump into the river to cool down.
Where to stay
If you can, pack a tent. There’s a campsite located next to the parking lot, a few steps from the pools. Unrestricted and free, the springs are open 24/7, so when you’ve finished soaking under the stars late into the night, your sleeping bag will be close by, making for a seamless, blissed-out transition to bed.
Not the camping type? The delightfully rustic Southfork Lodge, just up the road, has private cabins that overlook the river and elk-shaped pancakes at breakfast.
Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness
After a few hours driving west from Kirkham Hot Springs to Stanley (population 63), you’ll see the majestic Sawtooth mountains swing into view, and you might find yourself longing to go deeper into the wilderness.
With Stanley-based Rocky Mountain River Tours, that can mean a few hours of stand-up paddleboarding on the Salmon, aka the River of No Return, a winding route walled in by high canyons that cuts into the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, the largest chunk of roadless wilderness in the lower 48 states. Early pioneers who ventured upriver found that the current was too strong to allow them to sail back—hence the nickname. (Rocky Mountain River Tours also offers multiday, all-inclusive rafting trips deep into the area. “It’s the furthest away from a city or town you can get,” Hopkinson says.)
There’s no electricity, cell service, or internet at the family-owned Galena Lodge, a day lodge with four rentable yurts nestled in the Boulder Mountains off Highway 75. And that’s just how the owners, husband-and-wife team Don Shepler and Erin Zell, like it.
In winter, wood-burning stoves in the yurts keep overnight guests warm, and the rental fee includes snowshoe passes (yes, in this part of the country you need a pass to snowshoe through the woods). In the summer, there are hiking trails galore—including access to the lush prairie landscape and aspen stands of Harriman Trail—so you can plan a different adventure each day.
The lodge also features a sauna and a pair of “loaner dogs” that guests can bring along on hikes. And for a fee, Don and Erin will deliver a home-cooked dinner right to your yurt door.
Ketchum and Sun Valley
Emerging from the rugged mountain passes of Sawtooth National Forest, you’ll find yourself in the surprisingly cosmopolitan town of Ketchum, adjacent to the resort city of Sun Valley, a prized landing spot for skiers. The area’s creature comforts are a nice counterpoint to the wild thrills found road-tripping along Highways 21 and 75.
Main Street, with the boutique Limelight hotel, a Wild West–style saloon, and a brand-new performing arts center, draws comparisons to Aspen’s downtown, but is smaller with a much more laid-back vibe. The town has an unspoiled charm. You won’t find a McDonald’s here: Local laws prohibit chain restaurants, so the dining options are impressive. Head to The Covey for wood-fired cooking, or try the Lebanese spiced chicken at the upscale Town Square Tavern. A delightful weekly farmers’ market sets up in the town square in the warmer months.
After a few days spent driving, you may want to take time to slow down and reflect on your journey. Stroll through the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, a scenic space with winding stone paths, a sculpture garden, and a prayer wheel blessed by the Dalai Lama (only one of two in the whole country). Literature lovers, meanwhile, should head to Ernest Hemingway’s final resting place in the Ketchum Cemetery; the writer spent significant time in this part of the state (he was one of the first guests at Sun Valley Lodge, in Suite 206) and was surely likewise inspired by Idaho’s lonely, wild roads.
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