Over half of Idaho is public land. Its name means “the land of many waters.” From Lake Coeur d’Alene to The Great Rift stunning landscapes are a feast for the eyes. Rocky mountains and sprawling lakes with water clarity made us want to jump in and experience the pure liquid although its freezing temperature kept us mostly on the banks.
Idaho is worthy of a few weeks or even more of exploration. Even if you’re just passing through, take a bit of time, just a few miles out of the way, to catch one of Idaho’s numerous scenic byways. Drive in awe of the state’s pristine and rugged landscapes. There is much to see!
The population of Idaho is 1,860,123 as of 2021 (according to the world population review). That equates to 19 people for every square mile of land. The entire state has only slightly more people than the city of Phoenix that has a population of 1.7M.
Idaho is the 14th largest state with 83,568.95 sq miles. It is bigger than Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island combined.
Interestingly, if it were listed with the 51 European countries it would be the 13th largest.
• Idaho is home to North America’s deepest river gorge.
• With over 72 different types of gems found in Idaho it is often referred to as the gem state.
• Idaho has over 130 hot springs. In fact, Boise has the only state capitol building heated by geothermal water.
• Besides growing a large portion of the USA’s potatoes, they produce many other crops such as lentils, beans, mint, and more.
• In Idaho, I was told that the state has the most miles of river in the USA. Research revealed that Idaho has 107,651 miles of river and is state #10 for the most miles.
• A quick google search claims that Nebraska has the most miles of river. I found it wildly disseminate across the internet that Nebraska has the most miles of river. Yet, Nebraska has only 79,056 miles of river making it state #17.
• Alaska with over 365,000 miles of river has the most miles of river in the USA.
The milage above was sourced from River.gov. Other sites have conflicting statements about the river mileage. My advice is to just go explore them all!
Reasons to add Idaho to your bucket list
1. Scenic Byways
There are at least 32 designated scenic byways in Idaho. We drove through 11 of them, and they were all worth the few extra miles they took us as opposed to just taking the highways.
With each one I found myself trying to envision the catastrophic changes in the earth that were required to form the dramatic landscape. Rivers rushing through steep canyons. Canyons that appeared as giant crevasses of mountains split in two. Vast planes of rolling green crops, forests of pines, steep crags, and so much more.
Here is just a taste of some of the byways to tantalize your thirst for Idaho.
2. Hot springs
Idaho claims to have more soakable hot springs than any other state. With over 130 to choose from it is possible to find that perfect little spot to relax in a private little spa.
Some of the hot springs are just a few meters from pull-offs on scenic byways. The ease of access leaves little excuse for not taking a dip in at least one.
The temperature of the water varies from one hot spring to another. Many are near frigid rivers where one can cool off (freeze!) and then jump back in the spa. We stopped at one that pools directly on the river’s edge. The temperature of the pool can be adjusted by moving just a few rocks to allow river water to enter and cool down the pool.
Our favorite of the few we dipped in was the Wier hot springs, just off the Northwest passage scenic byway (US-12). It was a short hike through a valley and up the hill to the source of the spring. Rocks have been built up to create a deep pool on the side of the hill. The rushing brook in the valley below creates a peaceful background.
3. Hells Canyon National Recreation Area
Hells Canyon is 7,900 feet (2,400 meters) deep making it North America’s deepest river gorge. The Grand Canyon of Arizona is wider than Hells Canyon but is only 6,000 ft (1,830 meters) deep. Accessibility to Hells Canyon is more limited than the Grand Canyon. The rugged Seven Devils Mountains on the east bank of the canyon make traversing the rim a difficult but rewarding effort.
From Heavens Gate to Hells Canyon
The steep cliffs of the Seven Devils mountains peak at 9,393 feet (2,863 meters) above sea level. Snow graces the mountain tops. Even in mid-June when we drove up the road to Heavens Gate Vista, an overlook into Hells Canyon, it was still snow-packed. Three miles from the vista deep snow narrowed the road to a small walking path.
The Snake River that winds through the deep canyon is only 1,480 feet (450 meters) above sea level. We needed jackets and winter hats as we trudged through the snow towards the Heavens Gate Vista. When we traveled back to the base of Hells Canyon the black rocks and intense sunlight made us long to dip even just our fingers into the water for a drop to quench the heat of Hells Canyon.
4. Raging Rivers, Meandering Streams, and Lakes
Idaho rivers are cold and clear. In many rivers, unless the water was white from raging over boulders or falling over cliffs, we could clearly see the river beds deep below the surface of the water. Other streams calmly meandered through marshes.
With so many rivers thundering through rugged canyons Idaho calls to whitewater adventure seekers.
Salmon River is also known as The River of No Return, so named when Lewis and Clark were told that if they successfully navigated down the river there would be no way to traverse back up it. Not only is the current so strong and the rapids wild but the cliffs on either side seem unpenetrable for navigation up the river – without the road of course. Now, a scenic byway follows the river.
There are over 2,000 lakes in Idaho. The featured image at the top of this post is of Little Redfin Lake. It is an alpine lake with stunning water clarity.
Fishing is popular in most rivers. Idaho has 42 game fish species including my two favorite, wild trout and salmon.
Idaho is the place to go chasing waterfalls. From Shoshone Falls, which at its peak in the spring rivals Niagara Falls, to Messa Falls and numerous falls along many of the scenic highways.
6) Lewiston – The Drop
South of Coeur D’Alene on Route 95, we drove through miles of rolling green hills. A vast expanse of crops graced the entire route on the way towards Lewiston.
As we approached Lewiston I sat up and stared ahead. The road disappeared and the rolling green hills ended. The landscape dropped from 2,756 feet (840 meters) down to 740 feet (230 meters).
We hadn’t realized that we were on a high plane. The road ahead looked like it just disappeared. As we approached we saw that the road tucked left and snaked down the escarpment at a 7% grade to the lowest elevation point of Idaho. As we descended from the cool temperate air of the plane of rolling hills the air grew hot and dry. We descended into what felt like a desert.
This escarpment was possibly created by a reverse fault that pushed the land up behind Lewiston. The dramatic change in landscape is best experienced by approaching Lewiston from the North.
The Snake and Columbia rivers meet in Lewiston at the bottom of this escarpment. Lewiston is home to the farthest inland seaport on the west coast and is used for shipping crops overseas.
7) The Smile of Idaho
Much of Idaho is covered with steep mountains dotted with pristine lakes and waterways. The southern end of the state however has a large plane in the shape of a smile that extends from west to east. Most of this plane was formed by a volcanic hot spot that has been gradually moving east. The hotspot now rests under Yellowstone National Park.
The hotspot left behind evidence of volcanic activity across the entire smile, but it is most prominent in Craters of the Moon National park. The hotspot erupted there about 2,000 years ago leaving behind fields of cooled pahoehoe and ‘A‘ā lava, craters, spatter cones, and lava tubes.
The fault lines along this arch are still changing the landscape today. It is a place to explore and feel the power that is so much greater than humankind.
The Snake River follows the smile meandering from Washington state, along the Idaho/Oregon border (through Hells Canyon), and then towards Wyoming. The Great Rift across Idaho stretches in the shape of an upturned arch, as if the state were smiling.
Walk in a fault
On October 23rd, 1983 the largest earthquake to shake Idaho in recorded history was felt. It literally moved mountains and valleys. The quake, 7.3 on the Richter Scale, caused by a fracture 26 miles long and 7 miles deep shook the state. Aftershocks continued for a year, one of them as strong as 6.3.
Mount Borah, Idahos’s highest peak at 12,662 feet, was thrust upward six inches while the lost river valley beside it sank 9 feet. Between the mountain range and the valley, a scarp 21 miles long was created and is still visible. The quake even impacted Old Faithful 150 miles away. The Yellowstone’s consistent geyser noticeably lengthened its time between eruptions after the quake.
I’m continually amazed by the majesty and power. It is as if the rocks cry out in a song that can only be heard by walking in the path left behind by the great force.
8) National Parks
Craters of the Moon National Park
On the east side of the volcanic rift, the smile of Idaho, lies an area of the most recent volcanic activity. Lava fields can be traversed, craters can be gazed down into, cool air from spatter cones can be felt. Ice in the lava tubes guarantees to cool hikers down from the heat above.
Solidified black lava fills 54,000-acres. Large swaths of the hardened sometimes sharp surfaces are nearly destitute of vegetation. Occasionally, small patches of lichen appear clinging tightly to the rock-like splashes of colored paint. Heat radiates from the black surface made only bearable by the 6,000 feet of elevation. Paths through the lava field undulating up and down across its surface offering no shade.
Less than one mile in on the Wilderness Trail, the path dips again and we feel a cool breeze. A tube through which molten lava once flowed gapped open before us. What once flowed through here could melt iron. Now the vacant throat breathes cold air.
We welcomed the scramble down into the cave. Even at the end of June, ice still rests inside the darkness of the lava tube. The small opening kept light and heat from penetrating far into the cave.
I love the stillness of the underground and the dampness that chills the skin. The earth surrounding us blocks out the insanity of the world. It is a calm place. We turned off our flashlights to experience its utter darkness. The only sound was an occasional drip of water.
“My precious,” Trin whispered in a creepy voice. We both laughed, turned our lights on, and hiked back up to the surface.
There are multiple trails to choose from across the park. Some lead along the edge of dormant volcanic craters and others look down into spatter cones that still shelter snow in their depths and provide a bit of natural air conditioning at the top of a long hike.
We took two days to explore the park. The highlights could be captured in one long day if a traveler is short on time, but trails extending out into the wilderness of this 750,000-acre park could easily fill an entire vacation.
9) Fossils, a glimpse into history
The Hagerman Fossil beds have the largest concentration of Hagerman Horse fossils in all of North America. The area also contains fossils of 200 other species of plants and animals.
The Hagerman Horse appears to be a zebra-like horse. Scientists say it may have even sported a few stripes. It is said to be an ancestor of the current horse but the head was more zebra-like. Its rich genetics may be the ancestor of both the zebra and the horse.
Massive boulders strewn throughout the Snake River Valley are said to be left behind by a colossal flood. The Snake River overlook provides a stunning view of the valley. I stood there imagining the path the receding flood would have taken to shape this landscape.
The Oregon Trail, an early immigrant wagon trail, cuts through this valley. Tracks left behind by the large wagon wheels are visible across the valley. To me, they were true adventures. Our travel is mostly done on paved roads with convenient stores for supplies never too far away.
Nature is protected
Idaho is a clean state. Even the pit toilets were clean and mostly odorless. Compared to the public toilets along the west coast, this was a welcome change. I’ve been in some pretty nasty restrooms in our travels. The public toilets in California ranked among the worst. I was ashamed that we would present such filth to guests.
People from Idaho seemed proud of their state both of its beauty and cleanliness. There wasn’t even litter in the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands where people can camp free. Most highways have signs highlighting the families or businesses who take care of each section keeping them litter-free.
Idaho is pristine. In fact, 63% of it has been set aside as public lands and protected.
Idaho is at ease
One of my personal rules of travel is to leave my own cultural preconceptions behind and try to understand each place for what it is. My primary question upon entering another culture or sub-culture is: “How do people here see the world?”
Guns are a big part of the culture in Idaho. It was not uncommon to see someone walk into a store with a holster and sidearm. No one is alarmed or even seems to notice. Here it is no different than a carpenter carrying a hammer on their tool belt.
Part of understanding the view of guns is understanding the environment. Cougars, Grizzlies, and all manner of animals higher on the food chain roam here. Farms are plentiful and the animals on the farm are protected and cared for. Guns are used for hunting and as a means of protecting a crop from varmin. The sound of a discharged weapon is sometimes all that is needed to scare an animal away keeping both the human and the animal safe.
Let’s also be honest here, they are used for fun as well. Just as a car is a tool to get to and from work many people also buy them for the speed and fun of the ride. Guns here are no different. They are a tool, but a bit of target practice can also be fun. Both a car and a gun can be used as deadly weapons, but that is not their primary purpose outside a major metropolis.
Sometimes Idaho can be a bit prickly
Bonus: Backcountry camping
Trin woke to the sound of a loud huff. He turned over and nudged me awake to listen. Our windows were down to allow the cool night breeze through. The wilderness around us was black as ink. The huff sounded like a large animal breathing, but our vision could not penetrate the night.
I was soon asleep again. Whatever was breathing outside the window of our built-out Mazda 5 didn’t seem to be causing an issue. We looked for tracks in the morning. The rocky ground gave us very few clues to what came to visit us in the night. It could have been a cow wandering by, a curious bear, or, and I highly doubt it, a cougar. It could even have been a harmless deer. I’ve had them huff into my face before when sleeping under the stars, they are curious creatures. We will never know.
There are numerous campgrounds in Idaho to choose from. Trin and I like to avoid them. We have no desire to go experience nature by parking side by side with strangers packed into a small area. To us, the backcountry or BLM camping is more peaceful. Our preference is secluded spaces where no one can hear you fart.
An app called iOverlander helps us find legal places to camp and enjoy seclusion. It is similar to WikiCamps in Australia, but not as robust.
Be Aware: Grizzlies roam the northern panhandle of Idaho and the eastern region near Yellowstone National Park. Be sure to hang food properly at night or keep it in a fully closed vehicle.
Idaho was my 50th state to explore. As we crossed the border into Idaho we recorded a zanny border crossing tradition.
Is Idaho on your bucket list?
Enjoy America the Beautiful a land of gorgeous landscapes and diverse cultures. My desire is that we would seek to understand each other and appreciate the nature around us.