Courtesy of Idaho Tourism
Though most often associated with potatoes, Idaho claims some of the most beautiful scenery in the West. Like its neighbors Montana, Wyoming, and Washington, it has a dramatically varied landscape—as you travel across the state, you’ll see lush, rolling valleys one minute and pine-covered mountains …the next. One of the least densely populated states in the country (there is only one area code), Idaho feels blissfully remote. The magic of exploring here lies in all the surprises you’ll find along the way, including ghost towns, hot springs, and even lava fields.
What to know before you go to Idaho
Idaho is a year-round state, with recreational opportunities in every season. Still, summer is when things really pick up, and campgrounds, especially in places like Stanley, can fill up fast. If you’re planning a warm-weather visit, you’d do well to reserve everything far in advance. Alternatively, you could go during the fall shoulder season, when roads are quieter, hiking trails are all but empty, and the Sawtooth Range boasts spectacular foliage.
Most travelers to Idaho will arrive via the state’s largest airport in Boise. From there, it’s a relaxed—and gorgeous—drive on Highway 21 into the wilderness of Sawtooth National Forest and the iconic Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway. For those vacationing in the northern part of the state, however, it’s easier to fly into Spokane International Airport, which sits just 22 miles from the Idaho border. And skiers should know that there are year-round direct flights from major cities like Los Angeles to Friedman Memorial Airport, near Sun Valley, with more options added during ski season.
Idaho doesn’t have any trains, so if you’re traveling to several destinations within the state, you’re going to need a rental car. In winter, be sure to book a vehicle with all-wheel drive. Roads are well maintained, but can be challenging in snow.
Idaho is known for its potatoes, and most restaurants here feature spuds in one way or another. However, thanks to its multiple rivers, the state also specializes in trout, especially around the town of Hagerman on the Snake River. Dairy is an additional point of pride, and some of the best can be found at Ballard Family Dairy & Cheese. The farm is located in Gooding, Idaho, but its products can also be found on menus and in specialty shops across the state.
Idaho honors its rich Native American heritage in places like Hells Canyon, a fascinating depository of ancient petroglyphs left by the Nez Percé tribe, and museums like the Sacajawea Center in Salmon. For a full picture of Idaho’s past, visit the recently renovated Idaho State Museum in Boise and tour exhibits on fur trappers, Native Americans, Oregon Trail pioneers, and more.
A unique festival worth traveling for is the Trailing of the Sheep, which takes place in Ketchum every October. Held to honor Idaho’s century-old tradition of Basque sheep farming (the state boasts the largest Basque community in the United States), the event draws thousands with lively music performances, sheep-shearing demos, and plenty of food and drink.
If you’re visiting for the first time, head straight for Central Idaho, where you can ski at Sun Valley Resort, tour abandoned mining towns near Stanley, and stargaze in the massive Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve. Outdoor enthusiasts willing to explore further won’t want to miss camping and hiking in the Sawtooth and Boise national forests, and, in July and August, kayaking on Redfish or Coeur d’Alene lakes.
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Alex Schechter is a Los Angeles–based writer who loves forests, hot springs, and posole. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Monocle, and LA Yoga, among other publications.