This Stunning Western State Gets Overshadowed by Its Neighbors
Hot springs, rail trails, lunar landscapes, and starry mountains—all under-the-radar.
Yes, the state license plate says “Famous Potatoes.” And sure, you’ll find potato-themed key chains and ornaments throughout Idaho. But you’ll also find Nigerian fufu, Peruvian chicha morada, and a myriad of international food. During my first couple of visits to Idaho, which focused on hiking and rafting along the state’s eastern border, not only did I rarely see potatoes on the menu, I actively avoided french fries and hash browns just to prove a point to nobody in particular.
Because there’s so much more than the starch-related stereotype in this mountainous adventure land. Idaho has the country’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, what’s considered to be the “crown jewel” of cyclist rail trails, and some of the wildest whitewater rapids in the country. The best part is that these experiences often come without the crowds found in other nearby mountain states.
Perhaps it’s the state’s odd shape that belies its deceptively large size, stretching from Nevada deserts all the way to chilly Canada. The east side sees the trickled edges of Yellowstone, while the western part butts up against Pacific Northwest greenery, with tons of mountains in between. In short, the Gem State was made for road trips.
Given this geological breadth, unless you have a few months to spend here—wouldn’t that be glorious?—you may want to choose whatever region calls to you and soak up everything in the area. And fine, try some fried potatoes while you’re at it, because they are quite good.
People are relocating to Boise from all over the country—and from further afield. In fact, this humble Idaho city has one of the largest Basque communities in the country. The Basque Block hosts regular dinners at either the cultural center or the Basque museum, as well as tapas and Spanish wine at the Basque food market. Partly thanks to Boise’s refugee welcoming and immigrant support programs, the city also has a wide selection of international restaurants, serving Ethiopian shiro wat, Cuban picadillo, Iraqi kebabs, and Russian borscht.
If you can’t resist the state’s famous potatoes, sample some spuds with blueberry ketchup and togarashi salt at the Boise Fry Company. Choose your fried tuber, from gold and purple to sweet potatoes or even brussels sprouts (which are fantastic); pick your cut from curly to shoestring; then choose from dozens of dipping sauces, seasoned salts, and spices. Or just check the chalkboard for staff recommendations like the Russet homestyle fries with rosemary, spicy ketchup, and garlic aioli.
Boise leaned into the street art scene really early on. Freak Alley Gallery began with a single drawing in 2002 and grew into what is now said to be the largest open-air mural gallery in the northwest. You could also hit up the Boise Art Museum or peruse stalls at the Capital City Public Market, but for an unexpected excursion, check out the Old Idaho Penitentiary. More than just touring cell blocks from 1872 and gallows of the country’s first female serial killers, today you can also watch documentary films, do warm-weather yoga classes, and visit the penitentiary's farm turned Botanical Garden containing a rare variety of roses.
The mountains that frame the skyline promise quick outdoor escape: hiking and mountain bike trails start only minutes from downtown, while the Boise River runs right through the city center. In the summer, the river overflows every weekend with sunbathers, kayakers, tubers, and rafters. Didn’t bring your own floaty device? Local outfitters rent out kayaks and tubes, as well as lead guided rafting tours.
The town of McCall, about two hours north of Boise, is a popular weekend getaway for renting lakefront cabins, hiking in pine forests, or hopping into hot springs that dot the area. Though the downtown area has lakeside hikes in Ponderosa State Park and a cute boat-filled arena, what most people really come to McCall for is the river and, more specifically, the white water rafting.
Multi-day wilderness rafting adventures await on Salmon River. Unless you’re very experienced and plan to bring all your own gear (including a portable toilet, which is required when rafting in wilderness areas), plan to join a guided rafting trip with a company like Confluences River Expeditions. The guides supply the tents and equipment, and they serve up scrambled eggs and French toast for breakfast and cast iron pizza and flame-grilled steaks for dinner. Depending on your trip, you might float 25 miles in a day or only five. They also offer options for yoga stops along the way and campfire meditation.
Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve
There aren’t a ton of people in Idaho compared to other states, but there’s a bunch of wilderness and limited light pollution, which means one thing for the astronomically-inclined: amazing stargazing in pretty much every corner of this oddly-shaped state. If you’re looking for the darkest of the dark, head to the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve. As the nation’s first international dark sky reserve and the country’s only gold-tier reserve (a designation given only to the absolute darkest skies), this area is one of the best places in the world to witness the milky haze of the galaxy with your bare eyes.
The reserve sits within the Sawtooth National Forest, meaning daytime jaunts are equally remote. You won’t hear cars driving near the trail or radios blasting from an RV park; summiting these jagged peaks on either skis, a horse, or your own two feet is accompanied only by rustling leaves and singing birds.
The 'wild' part of the Wild West still lives in an old mining town called Wallace. Surrounded by the Bitterroot Mountains, which sometimes leads to wildlife roaming onto city streets, the area was made (in)famous by its legacy of prostitutes, bombs, and burnings. As one of the world’s richest mining districts—responsible for two thirds of the silver in circulation today—the wealth imbalance in Wallace prompted bloody mining strikes and even the assassination of an Idaho governor. You can hear about it all on the Sierra Silver Mine tour, led by a retired miner who guides you on a trolley inside a real silver mine.
Wallace is also home to the Route of the Hiawatha, dubbed “The Crown Jewel of Rail to Trail Adventures.” This decommissioned railway journeys across seven trestle bridges, many of which wind through or look down onto expansive forests. The route goes through 10 train tunnels; some, like the 1.6-mile-long St. Paul Pass Tunnel, are pitch black and require a strong bike light to avoid muddy slippage or extra bumpiness. The route may be 15 miles long but, unlike most rail trails around the country, it’s mostly downhill and offers shuttle service to the beginning and from the end, making it accessible to cyclists of all skill levels.
Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve
Surely the most unique landscape in the state, Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is a seemingly endless ocean of solidified lava rock dotted with scattered islands of cinder cones. The otherworldly landscape resembles the moon during warm-weather months and turns into a cross country skiing and snowshoeing paradise come winter. Though you can see quite a bit from the scenic seven-mile loop road, the best way to experience the preserve is on foot. Hike to Inferno Cone and explore cave-like lava tubes that look more like the black volcanic formations in Hawaii than the green forests usually associated with Idaho.
If walkable, resort-style towns bordered by breathtaking lakes and national forests are more your style, head to Coeur d’Alene. About a 40-minute drive east from Spokane, Washington, this city is both a relaxing vacation full of swimming, sunbathing, and lake cruises, as well as an adventure-packed destination offering kayaking, hiking, and zip lining. You could also take a ride on the historic Coeur d’Alene carousel, a 20-horse and two-chariot merry-go-round that went missing for a decade before resurfacing at an auction in Washington and eventually making its way back to Coeur d’Alene.
Though the lake is huge, just about every adventure starts a few blocks from downtown, so you can spend your time enjoying the trip instead of driving and searching for parking everywhere you go. Be sure to hike around Tubbs Hill, a densely-forested peninsula. From its heaps of scenic overlooks, you can peer down onto the city, spot the swimming holes scattered along waterfront trails, or get settled in for sunset.
While Yellowstone is a hop, skip, and a jump away—well, 30 miles, actually—Island Park is a more affordable and less crowded place to set up base camp for exploring the country’s first National Park. Though it’s hard to compete with Yellowstone’s beauty and unique geology, it’s worth exploring Harriman State Park, a quick 10-minute drive south. Harriman sits within a 16,000-acre wildlife refuge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, so birdwatching and horseback riding feel more natural here. Most of the hiking and mountain biking trails are short and sweet. Visitors can also stay overnight in the park’s rustic yurts or at the Ranch Manager’s House.
For longer trails with a more wilderness feel, head to Caribou-Targhee National Forest, where you can set up your tent at a no-frills campsite or plan a day hike where you just might be the only person hiking through pine trees. About 25 minutes south of Island Park, you’ll run into Mesa Falls, a 10-story-high thundering waterfall also within the Caribou-Targhee, that’s sort of like a mini Niagara Falls within a mini Grand Canyon. Some of the falls can only be reached by a short hike along a well-maintained dirt path, while other falls can be accessed via a series of wooden boardwalks and steps.