Do you have those bands that you love but don’t want to get popular, so that they can be your little secret forever? That’s how I feel about Idaho.
Most people skip over Idaho in favor of more popular places like Utah and Washington. After all, why would someone want to visit Idaho?
Well for starters, Idaho has waterfalls higher than Niagara, railroads-turned bike trails, and some of the most picturesque drives in the nation. If you’re someone who loves the outdoors, Idaho is a dream.
Here are 19 places on the Idaho bucket list, ordered from south to north, starting with Boise:
1. Walk around Boise
If you’re coming from out of the state, Boise is probably going to be your first destination into Idaho. It’s a cool city to explore—there are art murals, delicious and inventive restaurants, and plenty of small businesses along the downtown area. There’s a part of Boise called “The Basque Block“, where you can learn about the area’s deep connection to Europe’s Basque country.
One thing I loved about Boise was that it wasn’t overwhelmingly urban, even though it’s the state capital. You don’t have to leave the city to hit the Boise River’s manmade whitewater waves or see the sunset from Camel’s Back Park.
2. Drink in Idaho’s wine country
Idaho’s nutrient rich soils are prime for winemaking, with more than 50 vineyards present in Idaho’s wine country. There are some spread out in the northern part of Idaho, but most of them are tucked away in the southwest. Travel along paths like the Sunnyslope Wine Trail and throughout the Snake River Valley AVA to sample the local wines.
Even if you’re not a wine drinker, and I’m not, vineyards tend to be in really beautiful places.
3. Sled down the Bruneau Sand Dunes
The tallest freestanding sand dune in North America is in—you guessed it—Idaho. The park is nearly 4,800 acres of land, with sand dunes that can reach up to 470 feet high! For the maximized park experience, opt to bike or sled down the sandy peaks. During the weekends, the park also hosts stargazing events at the Bruneau Dunes State Park Observatory.
4. Visit the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness
You may think that Wi-Fi and internet connections have seeped into all parts of the country, but come to the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness in SW Idaho and think again. The Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness area sits within the Owyhee Canyonlands region which covers the remote corners of SW Idaho and SE Oregon, as well as the north central tip of Nevada. This area is so remote that it’s not even adequately protected by the United States. For the lack of cell service, the views more than make up for it. It’s one of the few places that truly feels like the wild west.
During the summer months, you can take a trip to Silver City, a ghost town at the heart of the wilderness. The city used to be a mining hub, but now the deserted buildings are a time capsule for life a century ago. A lot of land beyond the side roads are private property though, so stick to the main path if you want to pass by.
5. Hike to Idaho’s Balanced Rock
In the Salmon Falls Creek Canyon, you can find Idaho’s Balanced Rock, where one 40 ton rock balances on just a three-foot long slab.. There are some tables set out nearby if you want to have a picnic after visiting this odd land formation.
6. Chase the waterfalls at Shoshone Falls
Because Idaho is a landlocked state, every lake, river, and waterfall is an extraordinary phenomenon in itself. The Shoshone Falls are no exception: they’re over 200 feet tall, which is taller than Niagara Falls!
7. Explore the Craters of the Moon
Idaho is bursting with wildlife at every corner, so the barrenness of the Craters of the Moon is somewhat jarring. Lava activity covered this landscape millions of years ago, and left remains of its lava tubes formations for tourists to explore. Walking through the area feels like you’ve landed on some hidden planet, but in the coolest way possible. I made a video documenting my visit here.
8. Pay a visit to the Idaho Potato Museum
What trip to Idaho is complete without a pilgrimage to the Idaho Potato Museum? Idaho produces nearly a third of US potatoes, so the crop is an important part of Idahoan identity. I’ll admit, it’s no Disney World. But having a picture in front of the huge baked potato statue is quite the unique souvenir. Plus, if you visit from out of state you get free taters!
9. See the Tetons in Driggs
Most people visit nearby Jackson Hole, Wyoming to see the Tetons, but Driggs is the quieter, more peaceful side of the mountain range. When I came during the wintertime, the mix of tranquility and affordability of Driggs set a pretty high standard for mountain experiences. You can view the Tetons along the 70-mile long Teton Scenic Byway, or alternatively from the air at their annual hot air balloon summer event.
10. Hike or Ski the Ketchum and Sun Valley areas
Ketchum and Sun Valley are some of the prettiest places in Idaho. If you’re looking for small town fun, come for the annual Trailing of the Sheep or Wagon Days Festival. The wintertime is a great time to visit too. It’s hard to beat snowcapped mountain views while soaking in the valley’s naturally occurring hot springs.
But don’t just take it from me: even Ernest Hemingway loved the area’s mountain meadows so much that he’s buried here!
11. SUP in Stanley
Stanley’s Redfish Lake is the perfect SUP (stand up paddle board) destination. Paddling through the calm lake, you feel like you have free rein over Sawtooth’s wilderness. Horseback riding is another method of touring the area—after I got over my fear of riding horses, I ended up enjoying the experience! You could honestly spend the whole summer here with the amount of places to explore.
To top it off, the skies here are just as impressive as the land. Stanley is a Dark Sky Reserve, so the area is an excellent viewing point for the Milky Way. Golden hour is equally as impressive here, as the Sawtooth Mountains perfectly frame the setting sun.
12. Unwind in Kirkham Hot Springs
If you’ve read any of my previous posts about Idaho, you’ll know that I’m obsessed with Idaho’s hot springs. The state is full of them! Kirkham Hot Springs is probably Idaho’s most famous place to soak, but Bonneville Hot Springs are worth a visit too. For more hot springs locations, check out a video I posted detailing my quest for the best hot springs in Idaho.
13. Explore McCall
McCall is a small mountain town that attracts water sports enthusiasts from all around because of Payette Lake. During the winter, the nearby Brundage Mountain has over 45 runs for skiing and snowboarding. The McCall Winter Carnival also brings tourists in late January for its snow sculptures and snowshoe golf.
14. Go to Hells Canyon National Recreation Area
Despite the ominous name, Hells Canyon is a must-see for your Idaho bucket list. Its river gorges are the deepest in North America, while its peaks are nearly six hundred feet higher than the Grand Canyon’s. There are multiple entry points into Hells Canyon, with one of the most popular being Lewiston.
15. Take a lakefront walk in Coeur D’Alene
Coeur d’Alene historically served as a center in the timber business, becoming the biggest city in North Idaho. Now, it’s more for the tourist crowd. Most of its big draws have to do with Lake Coeur d’Alene in some form, whether that be parasailing, swimming, or fishing. While on land, you can walk along one of Coeur d’Alene’s forest trails or take a downtown stroll by the lake.
16. Explore Idaho’s small town quirks in the Silver Valley
Nested in the Coeur d’Alene Mountains, Silver Valley is a region that has some small towns that are worth mentioning:
- Kellogg is a well-known wintertime environment because of the nearby Silver Mountain Resort. It operates a 3.1 mile-long gondola up Wardner Peak, which is the longest of its kind on the continent.
- About a 15-minute drive from Kellogg is the quaint town of Wallace. When the government attempted to build I-90 through downtown Wallace, the city got every building in downtown registered on the National Register of Historic Places. As a result, the interstate now bypasses just to the north of town. The town even declared itself the Center of the Universe, with a manhole decoration to prove it.
17. Bike down the Hiawatha Trail
Nearing the Montana border, the Route of the Hiawatha is a 15-mile experience just off of I-90. The trail leads you underground through its tunnels (it used to be an abandoned railway system) while its bridges take you among the treetops. During your scenic ride, you can learn about the trail’s history through its signs along the route. And the best part is: the trail goes downhill!
Thankfully, the trail offers shuttles back up to the starting point, so you won’t need to lug your bike back up.
18. Spend time in Sandpoint
Sandpoint is a city surrounded by natural spaces. Lake Pend Oreille, the largest lake in Idaho, is right on Sandpoint’s shores! This glacial lake is one of the deepest lakes in the US, with its glacial water a refreshing cool down during the summertime. If you come during the late summer, you’ll have a chance to jam out at its annual music festival. During the winter, Idaho’s largest ski resort operates on the nearby Schweitzer Mountain.
19. Drive by or hike the Selkirk Mountains
Located at the tip of Idaho’s panhandle, the Selkirk Mountains stretch from Idaho to Washington and Canada. Long Mountain Lake and Parker Peak are a few of the hiking destinations here; if you choose to trek up the mountains, be sure to bring proper gear as the snow here can last well into the summer.
Less enthusiastic about hiking? Drive through the 280-mile International Selkirk Loop for frequent scenic points as you circle through the mountains. It’s the only multi-national road that’s also been designated as an All-American Road National Scenic Byway.
So there you have it! I hope you enjoyed reading about one of America’s best kept secrets, and take on the bucket list yourself.
Still apprehensive of Idaho’s beauty? Take it from Hemingway, whose words are inscribed on a memorial in Sun Valley:
“Best of all he loved the fall. The leaves yellow on the cottonwoods. Leaves floating on the trout streams and above the hills. The high blue windless skies, now he will be a part of them forever.”
Which of these places do you want to add to your bucket list? Let me know!