9 Top Things to Do in Idaho

Looking for the best things to do in Idaho? From scenic drives to skiing, here are our top picks to experience the stunning beauty of the Gem State.

1. Take a scenic drive

A winding road leads through rolling brown and green hills next to a river under bright blue sky.
Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway. Photo © Tristan Brynildsen/Dreamstime.

Idaho boasts many scenic byways, including the Lowman Loop Scenic Byway and the Lake Coeur d’Alene Scenic Byway.

In the northeast corner of the Treasure Valley in Southwest Idaho, the desert gives way to the pine-forested Boise Mountains. Sweeping views beckon just a short drive from Boise. This curvy 148-mile (238-km) drive, known as the Lowman Loop, connects three nationally designated scenic routes: Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway, Wildlife Canyon Scenic Byway, and Payette River Scenic Byway. You could drive this loop in a day, but it’s worth an overnight or two.

In the Panhandle, head south from Coeur d’Alene to the Lake Coeur d’Alene Scenic Byway. This route wends around the east shore of the lake for 36 miles (58 km). The many bends in the road offer ever-changing views of the spectacular lake. Hidden beaches play peekaboo, and serene marshlands offer abundant birding opportunities, including the largest concentration of ospreys in the western United States.

2. Paddle through wild white water

Colorful rafts sit along the shore of a river cutting through an evergreen forest.
Boundary Creek near the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. Photo © Mkopka/Dreamstime.

In the self-proclaimed Whitewater State, wild rivers run through rugged, spectacular country, with the most remote stretches requiring multiday expeditions. But there are also more placid rivers that offer pleasant day trips for rafters of all skill levels. For the best experience, it’s highly recommended to go with a guide.

On the Main Payette River route (7.3 mi/11.7 km), a moderate, family-friendly stretch of river flows fast along Highway 55 with a tricky trio of Class III rapids, plus several Class IIs and some spicy riffles that keep the thrill level up. Stretches of flat water and a few sandy beaches offer a break to swim and relax.

The Middle Fork of the Salmon River (100 mi/160 km) flows through the remote Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. This river has it all—exciting rapids, stunning scenery, plentiful hot springs, wilderness hikes, superb fishing, and fantastic stargazing.

The Lower Salmon River (112 mi/180 km) flows from north of Riggins right through town on its way to meet the Snake River. While other trips may be more remote, the ease of access here to rugged canyon scenery and exciting whitewater that’s runnable in a day makes this one of the best places to experience Idaho’s famed rapids.

3. Head out on a hike

A field of purple and yellow wildflowers with a lake and craggy grey mountain rising in the background.
Sawtooth Lake. Photo © Stevehymon/Dreamstime.

Idaho has a stunning bounty of hiking trails, from dusty paths through sage and juniper to switchbacking routes that lead to alpine lakes and towering peaks. Just about every region in the state has options, whether you’re a peak-bagger or just looking for a simple wildflower walk.

Wondering where to go? Check out the top 15 hiking trails in Idaho!

4. Soak in hot springs

The edge of a hot springs pool looking out over a mountainous valley.
Goldbug Hot Springs. Photo © Mkopka/Dreamstime.

Kick back and relax at one Idaho’s many hot springs—reportedly the highest number of soakable springs in the country. Ranging from tepid to toasty, there are springs all across the state. Many are natural and undeveloped, though there are some established pools with added amenities like spa treatments.

Along the South Fork of the Payette River is one of the most popular natural springs in southwest Idaho, Kirkham Hot Springs. Steamy water gushes from the rocky hillside to fill natural pools that range from barely big enough for one, to roomy enough for 6-8 people. This popular spot is just 80 miles (129km) from Boise.

Southeast of Pocatello, the Lava Recreation Complex has several pools including a giant 86°F (30°C) swimming pool, plus a handful of hot soaking pools that range 102-112°F (39-44°C). Tucked in a beautiful hollow in the Portneuf Mountains, the setting is tranquil, and the little town surrounding the complex is charming—perfect for a getaway.

5. Get around on two wheels

A bike parked on a charming rust-colored bridge with yellow-green trees in the background.
Boise River Greenbelt. Photo © Christiannafzger/Dreamstime.

Idaho has a plethora of amazing cycling opportunities. Set in a spectacular landscape of forest and sweeping mountain views in the Panhandle, the 15-mile Route of the Hiawatha has been named one of the Rail-to-Trail Conservancy’s “Hall of Fame” trails. Crossing the seven towering trestle bridges is a dizzying thrill, along with passing through nine tunnels.

Southwest Idaho’s Weiser River Trail is a dirt and cobblestone recreation trail that hugs the river along an abandoned railroad grade for 85 miles (135 km), climbing 2,000 feet (610 m) in elevation along the way. The landscape turns from rolling hills to high desert canyons to pine-studded mountains as you travel north on this trail best suited for mountain bikes.

In Boise, the 25-mile (40-km) Boise River Greenbelt connects 850 acres of riparian wetlands and verdant city parks with paved trails along the banks of the river.

6. Ski the slopes

A ski chalet perched at the top of a ski hill with pine trees and rolling snow-covered mountains in the distance.
Sun Valley Resort. Photo © Christiannafzger/Dreamstime.

Find deep powder, thigh-burning vertical drops, and spectacular views at one of Idaho’s fantastic ski resorts.

Sun Valley Resort consists of one big mountain and one small mountain. The big one, Bald Mountain, has 2,500 skiable acres served by 18 fast lifts and luxurious day lodges. The resort’s other hill, Dollar Mountain, is a relatively uncrowded, wide-open beginner hill with three lifts and an uphill transporter.

Near McCall, Brundage Mountain Resort is a first-rate ski and summer resort with some of the best powder in the state. Enjoy 1,920 acres and a 1,921-foot (585-m) vertical drop. At the top of the mountain, you’ll find sweeping views of the Payette Lakes, Salmon River Mountains, and the impressive Seven Devils Range.

High in the Selkirk Mountains, Schweitzer Mountain Resort is one of Idaho’s top ski areas. It offers a vertical drop of 2,400 feet (730 m), two massive bowls, and outstanding base-area lodging and dining. In summer, head up the hill for hiking and lift-served mountain biking.

7. Meet fellow outdoors lovers in small towns

Historic street in Ketchum, Idaho of wood and brick buildings and a large sign reading Pioneer Saloon.
Ketchum, Idaho. Photo © Ulf Nammert/Dreamstime.

Rafters and kayakers flock to Riggins and Salmon, while skiers, hikers, and bikers beeline to Ketchum and Sun Valley, Sandpoint, and McCall.

At the confluence of the Lemhi and Salmon Rivers, the town of Salmon was an essential supply center for nearby mines in the 1860s. Today, it’s the staging center for rafting trips down the Main Salmon River and the end of trips down the coveted Middle Fork of the Salmon. These two stretches are designated Wild and Scenic Rivers and are the crown jewels of white water in Idaho. While you’ll find more river rats here than you can shake a paddle at in summer, the town is relatively low-key.

In Ketchum, endless miles of hiking and biking trails are easily accessible from the center of this town where Old West meets chic mountain culture. It’s the urban hub of the Wood River Valley, and although the town is not large, every block is packed with restaurants, bars, galleries, recreation outfitters, and boutiques. Nearby, the Sun Valley Resort offers world-class skiing and snowboarding.

8. Gaze at the night sky

A galaxy stretches out across a night sky filled with white stars over the silhouettes of mountains.
Dark Sky Reserve near Sun Valley. Photo © Christiannafzger/Dreamstime.

Take in an astounding display of constellations, planets, and meteors within the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, a 906,000-acre swath that stretches across the Sawtooth National Forest.

To best enjoy this place, set your sleeping mat beneath the stunning cosmos for a dazzling view of stars, the Milky Way, and possibly even the Northern Lights in the dark of winter. If you are planning to stargaze, schedule your trip when there is a new moon or when it is half full or less. Meteor showers are also especially memorable times to visit. Redfish Lake, Washington Lake, and Stanley Lake are some great places to stargaze within the reserve.

Check with regional astronomical groups like the Boise Astronomical Society, the Idaho Falls Astronomical Society, and the Magic Valley Astronomical Society and cosmos-monitoring organizations such as EarthSky.org for information on meteor showers, astral events, sky maps, and stargazing parties.

9. Celebrate in Boise

Boise's skyline at night with deep blue mountains in the distance.
Downtown Boise. Photo © Sean Pavone/Dreamstime.

Finally, who could forget Idaho’s capital city? Soak up Boise’s culture and camaraderie at one of many vibrant festivals.

Fans of indie music, visual arts, and live performance should check out the Treefort Music Fest, held in late March. This five-day music festival brings in cutting-edge bands and musicians from around the country. Plus, check out comedy shows, films, yoga, activities for kids, food trucks, and more.

The Idaho Shakespeare Festival is one of Boise’s top cultural gems. From mid-June through September, Will’s works and other dramatic and comedic delights come alive in an outdoor amphitheater along the river. The festival grounds are a wonderful place to picnic before a show, or you can pick up beverages and box meals from Café Shakespeare.

Teresa Bruffey Kaufman

About the Author

Growing up in Seattle, Teresa Bruffey Kaufman regularly visited Idaho to see her grandparents on their farm in Buhl or at their little cabin in Ketchum. As an adult, she would go to Idaho for backpacking and climbing, and after every trip into the Sawtooths or the City of Rocks, she would return to Washington having left pieces of her heart behind in Idaho. She made the decision to relocate there in 2012.
After years in Boise, she and her husband moved to the town of Garden Valley, where they live on a small ranch growing produce for the local farmers market, welcoming guests to stay in a yurt they built, and caring for a parcel of forestland.
A writing and marketing professional for over 20 years, Teresa has spent the last 13 years in the outdoor adventure and small ship adventure cruise arenas. Her goal has always been to help people get the most out of their own adventures by providing valuable, useful, and inspiring information. She is excited to share the very best of her home state, where she never tires of the beautiful views, endless places to explore, or the spectacular night sky.

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