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The Best Things to Do in Idaho

By Alex Schechter

Jan 15, 2020

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The lake town of Coeur D’Alene is popular for its water recreation, restaurants, and relaxed vibe.

Courtesy of Coeur D’Alene Resort

The lake town of Coeur D’Alene is popular for its water recreation, restaurants, and relaxed vibe.

The state will surprise you with outdoor adventures like biking, white-water rafting, stargazing, skiing, and more.

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With its abundance of natural resources and beautiful scenery, Idaho certainly earns its nickname as the “Gem State.” In recent years, travelers have awakened to its wonders, flocking here for the snowcapped peaks, charming small towns, and laid-back spirit. 

Idaho is full of real wilderness, thanks in part to the fact that it’s the seventh least densely populated state in the United States. To soak up its beauty, go hiking, kayaking, camping, or stargazing. Better yet, simply hop in the car, set off down Highway 21, and see where the road takes you.

Here’s a guide to the best stops along the way.

Hit the lake in Coeur D’Alene

A swanky lake town in northern Idaho, Coeur D’Alene might just trick you into thinking you’ve landed in Geneva or Lake Como. In summer, Idahoans and visitors alike come here for swimming, paddleboarding, fishing, and boating, as well as to relax at the landmark Coeur D’Alene Resort, which boasts two pools and a private beach. When hunger strikes, everyone heads downtown to dine in style at places like Honey Eatery & Social Club, where James Beard Award semifinalist Adam Hegsted serves up modern comfort food. There are also more than a dozen breweries in the area. Despite not being as rustic as other Idaho small towns like Stanley and Shoshone, Coeur D’Alene has a wonderfully removed feel—there’s just a hint of urban bustle amid the low, rolling mountains and wide open spaces.  

Pedal down the Hiawatha Trail

The 15-mile Hiawatha biking trail runs along the old Milwaukee Railroad.

You’ll want to have a few supplies handy when you set off for a bike ride on the Hiawatha Trail. The 15-mile route follows the path of the old Milwaukee Railroad through the Bitterroot Mountains in northern Idaho, complete with pitch-black tunnels (don’t forget a headlamp) and trestle bridges through steep canyons (have your camera ready). Once you’ve got your gear settled, purchase a $12 trail pass at Lookout Pass on the Idaho–Montana border, pick up the trail, and be on your way. The ride is almost entirely downhill, so all you really have to do is enjoy the view. And there are shuttle buses available at the end of the route to take you back to your car.  

Tame the rapids of the Salmon River

Take the family on a white-water rafting adventure on the Salmon River.

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Known as the River of No Return for its fast water and numerous rapids, the Salmon River runs through some of America’s most classic wilderness, passing by pristine forests and through steep granite canyons. Take it all in on a white-water rafting excursion with Sawtooth Adventure Company, a Stanley-based outfitter that organizes family-friendly day trips on the river. The company accommodates all abilities by offering a choice of paddleboats, oar boats, or inflatable kayaks and even provides lunch and a professional photographer. 

Travel back in time in Idaho City

For a glimpse of what life in Idaho might have been like 150 years ago, take Highway 21 to Idaho City. The former mining town was once the largest city between St. Louis and San Francisco and has serious Old West vibes. When walking down the main strip, keep an eye out for the original courthouse, elementary school, blacksmith, and county jail from the town’s heydey in the 1880s. Also stop into Trudy’s Kitchen for the best huckleberry pie you’ve ever tasted, and Simply Fun for souvenirs like retro toys and classic board games. 

Go for a soak in Sawtooth National Forest

Camp in Sawtooth National Forest and take a pre-bed soak in Kirkham Hot Springs.

There are plenty of hot springs to discover in Sawtooth National Forest, but Kirkham has something that others, like Pine Flats and Bonneville, don’t: a steaming waterfall. Located just off Highway 21 along the Payette River, the hot springs are easy to get to and ideal for campers. Once you pull into the parking lot, the adjacent campground is just a stone’s throw from the fiery waterfall. Below that, you’ll find a series of small pools suspended over the rushing river. Make sure to save time for an evening soak under the stars, which you’ll find even more enjoyable knowing you’re just a two-minute hike from your tent. 

Camp out in the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve

Stargaze from your tent in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

If you’re a fan of the Milky Way, get yourself to Ketchum. The town is situated within the 1,416-square-mile Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve and just minutes from the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, where you’ll find myriad campsites—and zero light pollution. Spend your days exploring the shops and restaurants downtown or hiking through the forest, then head back to camp come nightfall to see the stars in all their glory. For something extra special, plan your trip for mid-August to coincide with the annual Perseid meteor shower. 

Experience a skiers’ paradise in Sun Valley

Hit the slopes in powder-filled Sun Valley.

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Despite its popularity, Sun Valley feels worlds away from Aspen or Vail. Instead of fancy shops and exclusive clubs, visitors find snow-covered pine trees and a whole lot of powder, not to mention practically nonexistent lift lines. Book an “Early-Up” private lesson and hit the slopes at Bald Mountain before the lifts open at 9 a.m., then reward yourself for a full morning of skiing with fondue by the fireplace at mountaintop eatery The Roundhouse. For dessert, listen for the afternoon bell at the Warm Springs Lodge (located at the base of the Greyhawk lift), which signals that fresh-baked cookies are ready. 

Explore lava caves at Craters of the Moon National Monument

Craters of the Moon National Monument features an otherwordly landscape, complete with five lava caves.

Idaho is most often associated with mountains and rivers, but it’s also home to vast lava fields. Craters of the Moon National Monument covers a half-million acres of hardened lava, much of it dating back to the last Ice Age. While the most recent eruption occurred 2,000 years ago, another is expected sometime in the next millennium (don’t worry, park rangers insist it’s safe for now). Time your visit to mid-June, when crowds are thin and the wildflowers are in bloom, and explore the area via six different hiking trails (the Broken Top Loop trail is particularly good for flower lovers) or the seven-mile scenic loop drive. Permits are required to enter the five lava caves located along the trails, but they’re free and easily obtained at the visitor center.

Surf on sand in Bruneau Dunes State Park

You can surf down sand dunes in Bruneau Dunes State Park.

Make your way to Bruneau Dunes and you’ll feel like you’re in Namibia instead of southern Idaho. The state park is home to the tallest single-structured sand dune in North America, with a peak that rises 470 feet from the desert floor. Spend the day hiking or horseback riding on the surrounding trails, rent a sandboard from the visitor center and go surfing, or fish for bluegill in the lakes at the foot of the dunes. With one of the longest camping seasons in the Idaho parks system, Bruneau Dunes offers cabins and campsites throughout the year. The park also houses an observatory, where, on Friday and Saturday nights from late March to mid-October, guests can gaze at the night sky through a collection of telescopes. 

Stand in awe of Shoshone Falls

The impressive Shoshone Falls are even taller than Niagara Falls.

In the repertoire of Idaho’s great sites, Shoshone Falls reigns supreme, spanning 900 feet across and surpassing even Niagara Falls in height. Visit during the high season in early spring, when runoff from the surrounding mountains makes the falls even more spectacular than normal, and head to the steel viewing deck right by the crashing water for the ultimate vantage point. Afterward, take to the several great hiking and cycling trails along the Snake River, or if you’re feeling particularly brave, go BASE jumping off the 486-foot-high Perrine Bridge.

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>>Next: Plan your trip with AFAR’s Travel Guide to Idaho

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